At 81 and in poor health, Ralph White Jr. is not confident he will live to see a dime from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.

But White voiced relief yesterday that a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court had ordered the church to respond to his lawsuit alleging his pastor sexually abused him in the 1940s, when he was a boy, and later took his inheritance.

White, of West Philadelphia, is seeking unspecified damages from the five-county diocese and All Saints parish in Wynnewood, and the return of his modest inheritance.

"I . . . encourage others to speak out and tell the truth of what has happened - and is happening - to them," he said at a small news conference outside Episcopal Church House, the diocesan headquarters, near Independence Mall.

Suffering a heart condition and "fighting depression," White supported himself with a cane while he read a statement.

Last year, the diocese publicly apologized to White for failing "to respond adequately to the injuries and injustices" he endured at the hands of a priest. Yesterday, however, its representatives insisted the church had "no financial responsibility to Mr. White."

Michael Rehill, chancellor or chief legal counsel to the diocese, called the lawsuit "60 years late." He predicted that the court would ultimately reject the lawsuit on the ground that the statute of limitations expired long ago.

But White's lawyer, Robert Wade of Berwyn, said that the proceedings would help determine "who knew what when," and that in matters of equity, such as stolen inheritance, "the courts have a great deal of discretion."

At his news conference, White repeated the story he has circulated for years: Beginning at age 12, he was "repeatedly raped and sodomized" by the Rev. Gibson Bell, a friend of his parents.

He also alleges that when, at 19, he threatened to expose the socially prominent Bell, the priest and White's parents (who he contends knowingly allowed the assaults) had him jailed for "incorrigibility" and then committed to Norristown State Hospital.

There, he said, he was given 70 insulin shock treatments and "threatened with a lobotomy." It took a year for him to win his release. His father, an architect whom he describes as "aloof," died while White was hospitalized.

White further contends that Bell later "manipulated" his widowed mother, whom he describes as "sociopathic" and unloving. Upon her death in 1955, she left her $16,000 estate to the priest with instructions that no one, including her son, attend her funeral. When Bell died in 1979, he left about $7,000 to All Saints parish.

White's lawsuit, filed in February, seeks the return of that $7,000 with interest, along with damages for the psychological devastation caused by his abuse.

In a two-page document that he prepared in 1998 describing his abuse, White wrote that he had been grateful when Bell first took an interest in him. His parents' "almost total rejection" had left him with deep feelings of "unworthiness."

But he soon found he would have to pay a "very great price . . . for this attention. . . . My body was not mine," he wrote. But he recalled believing that Bell's sexual abuse was "punishment coming from God," which he somehow deserved.

The priest so ingratiated himself with White's parents that they gave him a key to their home. "There was no escape," White wrote.

"I lost my sense of worth as a person, my dignity, especially since this treatment came from my Priest/the Church."

White, who never married, said he had difficulty holding jobs or even volunteering for charitable organizations because of his depression and anger.

The suit names the diocese, the parish, former diocesan Bishop Allen Bartlett, and current Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr., who is under suspension.

Last year, a church court ordered Bennison deposed, or removed, after it found he had concealed his brother's sexual abuse of a minor girl at his parish in the 1970s. Bennison is appealing his sentence.

In the White lawsuit, the defendants had asked the court to dismiss the charges on procedural grounds. Last month, however, Judge Sandra Mazer Moss refused to dismiss them and instructed the defense to respond to the charges by June 22.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.