A New York Episcopal bishop, accused of trumping up false charges against a priest so his "very close" female friend could take her job, cheated during his marriage, his estranged wife claims.

The Rev. Janet Kraft, sister of actor Matthew Broderick, is taking legal action against the former bishop of New York, Richard Grein, accusing him of wrongfully discharging her, denying her benefits and defaming her. She is seeking $6.8 million in damages.

Grein's aide, the Rev. Anne Richards, who was appointed to Kraft's position as the vicar of Manhattan's Grace Episcopal Church the day before Grein retired, was described in court documents as his "very close personal friend."

Grein called two meetings with church clergy late last year where he denied widespread rumors that he was involved in an affair with a woman in the New York diocese.

But his estranged wife, Joan Grein, claims her husband of 40 years cheated on her before he began divorce proceedings.

"I will not hurt my children by talking about his infidelities," she told religious-affairs journalist David Virtue, who published the story on his Episcopalian news Web site.

"He put everything ahead of me. Just about everything else came first - the church, other people, women."

Virtue said yesterday Joan Grein, who moved from New York to Norfolk, Va., after the split, had spoken out to defend her honor after Grein told church officials she had broken off the marriage. She and her lawyer could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Four sources within the church, who declined to be named, said they believed Bishop Grein had been involved in an affair.

But Grein's lawyer, Kevin Goering, denied the bishop had any extramarital affairs or had helped Richards obtain the job.

The controversy erupted within the church last June when Kraft was sacked for alleged "impropriety" in the use of a discretionary fund and a church credit card, according to her lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Aug. 2.

The lawsuit claimed Grein sought to have Kraft removed and replaced with Richards prior to his retirement on June 30 last year.

He also threatened Kraft in a "blatant and inexcusable abuse of his power as bishop of New York," the suit claims.

The sacking outraged three priests and eight members of the congregation who filed an internal church complaint against Grein.

"It was an outrageous thing to do - she was treated totally unfairly," said Steve Bohall, 53, a congregation member at Grace for 21 years.

The Rev. Robert Godley, rector of St. Barnabas Church in Ardsley, N.Y., said: "For the church to have to be involved in such an immoral process of bringing up bogus charges is diabolical."

Kraft now works at Grave Van Vorst Church in Jersey City, after being hired by the bishop of the Newark diocese, John Croneberger.

Grein, Richards and Grace Church's priest in charge, the Rev. David Rider, have moved to have Kraft's suit dismissed, and Judge Kimba Wood is expected to rule soon after Jan. 25.

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