Court finds for Bennison in civil trial

A civil court has decided that Charles E. Bennison Jr., the former bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, did not commit fraud in removing the Rev. David Moyer from the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Moyer had sued for unspecified damages to compensate for “loss of employment and mental suffering,” although he continues to serve as rector of the parish and is licensed through his affiliation with other Anglican provinces.

Moyer v. Bennison attracted international attention, especially in the theologically fractured Anglican Communion, to which the 2 million-member Episcopal Church USA belongs.

If the jury had found for Moyer and if appeals courts sustained the verdict, the case would have opened a traditionally closed door in U.S. law by allowing clergy in religious institutions to sue their superiors over personnel matters.

During the four-day civil trial, Moyer’s attorney, John Lewis, presented documents suggesting Bennison concealed from Moyer his plan to remove him without a church trial. However, the 12-member jury never got to deliberate whether that constituted fraud.

Instead, Judge Joseph Smyth instructed jurors to first determine if the diocese engaged in fraud when it asserted that Moyer “abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church” in 2002.

That question was the “gateway” to all the other questions, Smyth told them, and trumped the question of whether Bennison deceived Moyer about a trial.

If they decided fraud did not “pervade” the diocese’s decision process regarding the abandonment of communion, Smyth said, the case was over.

In less than three hours – including lunch – the jury announced that it had reached a verdict. When it returned, the forewoman told the judge that only two jurors had found fraud on the critical question.

The verdict seemed to shock Moyer, who shook his head slightly and then gazed down at the table.

Read it here.

UPDATE: Philadelphia Inquirer story is here.

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