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Church disciplinary hearing due to begin for Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno

Church disciplinary hearing due to begin for Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno
Panel plans three days of testimony in dispute over bishop's effort to sell Newport Beach church

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Episcopal News service
March 28, 2017

Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno faces a rare disciplinary hearing here March 28-30 on accusations that he violated church canons, including engaging in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.

The allegations, initially brought by the members of St. James the Great Episcopal Church, stem from Bruno's 2015 attempt to sell the church in Newport Beach to a condominium developer for $15 million.
Bruno is accused of violating Title IV Canon IV.4.1(g) failing to exercise his ministry in accordance with applicable church canons (specifically Title II Canon II.6.3 requiring prior standing committee consent to any plan for a church or chapel to be "removed, taken down, or otherwise disposed of for worldly or common use"), Title IV Canon IV.4.1(h)(6) ("conduct involving dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation") and Title IV Canon IV.4.1(h)(8) ("conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy"). The applicable subsections of Title IV Canon IV.4.1 begin on page 135 here.

Diocese of Southern Virginia Bishop Herman Hollerith IV is president of the Hearing Panel that will consider the case against Bruno. The panel, appointed by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops from among its members, includes Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely, North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, the Rev. Erik Larsen of Rhode Island and Deborah Stokes of Southern Ohio.

The St. James the Great complainants allege that Bruno violated church canons because he
* failed to get the consent of the diocesan standing committee before entering into a contract to sell the property;
* misrepresented his intention for the property to the members, the clergy and the local community at large;
* misrepresented that St. James the Great was not a sustainable congregation;
* misrepresented that the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, St. James' vicar, had resigned;
* misrepresented to some St. James members that he would lease the property back to them for a number of months and that the diocese would financially aid the church; and
* engaged in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy by "misleading and deceiving" the clergy and people of St. James, as well as the local community, about his plans for the property and for taking possession of the property and locking out the congregation.

Bruno says in his defense brief to the hearing panel that he will establish during the hearing that the issue of the standing committee's approval does not apply because the property never sold. He admits that he did not have the standing committee's approval when he entered into a contract to sell the property but he obtained it two months later before the then-still expected closing.

He says that the alleged misrepresentations were either not made or that he based his statements on what he believed were "true facts." Bruno also says that Voorhees determined the date of St. James' last service and that "prudent business practices" required him to "secure the property" after that date.

Bruno says that five of the allegations must be decided in his favor because "undisputed evidence establishes no canonical violation." He says the sixth allegation concerning alleged misrepresentations to Voorhees presents conflicting evidence for the panel to weigh. However, he calls it a "she said (he told me he wouldn't sell the property), he said (I never said I wouldn't sell the property) dichotomy."

Church Attorney Jerry Coughlan, appointed to represent the Episcopal Church, says in the complainant's brief that Bruno was "seduced" by a $15 million business opportunity and then "tried to cover up the real reasons for the sale."

"In doing so, he gave no real heed to the feelings of the many people who had relied on his positive statements" about St. James' future, Coughlan, a former federal prosecutor, claimed.

Bruno, he said, has ignored Title IV's goal of resolving conflicts by "promoting healing, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life and reconciliation among all involved or affected." In fact, the attorney said. Bruno has acted "in exactly the opposite fashion, by his continued attacks on everyone involved in this case."

Bruno is at least the tenth bishop in Episcopal Church history to have a disciplinary accusation against him reach the level of a formal hearing under the Church's process for handling complaints applicable at the time. Those processes have changed many times during the life of the Church.

A decision will follow at some point after the end of the hearing. The Hearing Panel has a range of actions it can take, ranging from dismissal of the allegations to removing Bruno from his ordained ministry. Bruno or Coughlan would have 40 days to appeal the Hearing Panel's decision to the Court of Review for Bishops.

Bruno turns 72, the Church's mandatory retirement age, in late 2018. His successor, Bishop Coadjutor-Elect John Taylor, is due to be ordained and consecrated on July 8 of this year.

A timeline of the events leading up to the hearing

The Griffith Co. donated the land on what is known as the Balboa Peninsula on which St. James sits to the Episcopal Church in 1945 with a deed restriction requiring that the land be used "for church purposes exclusively." The small congregation that existed at the time of the donation grew to the point where, with help from the diocese, it built a small church on the land in the late 1940s. The congregation outgrew that building and, 50 years later, started building a large complex, which Bruno consecrated in 2001.

Three years later a majority of the congregation's members voted to disaffiliate with the Episcopal Church but vowed to keep the church property. They affiliated with what later became known as the Anglican Church in North America. Bruno sued in California civil court and, after costly litigation, recovered the property in 2013. He re-consecrated the building as St. James the Great in October of that year. He asked the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, whom he appointed as vicar, and the remaining Episcopalians to form a new congregation.

Those congregants say that by the following spring, as many as 100 people attended Sunday worship and the church's mission activities attracted and served many others. The 2015 budget envisioned $500,000 in income, according to documents St. James says it filed with the hearing panel.

Five days after Easter 2015, Bruno signed an agreement with Legacy Residential Partners to sell the property. St. James congregants say he told them of the plan on May 17, 2015.

Griffith Co., the donor of the land, reminded Bruno in a letter in early June of that year about the deed restriction and, that same month, members of the Newport Beach City Council voiced skepticism about the deal.

St. James members formed Save St. James the Great and sued Bruno in local civil court in his capacity as the California "corporation sole" for the diocese on June 23, 2015, based on the deed restriction. The court ruled that the members could not sue because neither they nor their group is listed on the deed. Save St. James is appealing. (The purpose of the "corp sole" is to hold real property and other assets for the use and benefit of the diocese and the church.)

Bruno as "corporation sole" sued the Griffith Co. in Orange County, California Superior Court on June 26, 2015, arguing that a 1984 quitclaim deed eliminated the restriction. Bruno sought not only to end any challenges or claims to the title; he also said the company had slandered the title and sought punitive damages from it. The court ruled in favor of the bishop and the diocese. Griffith Co. appealed, and Third District of the California Court of Appeal agreed on Feb. 24 with the company.

The bishop changed the locks on St. James' buildings on June 29, 2015, according to the members who have not been able to worship in the church since.

The sale fell through in the midst of these disputes and St. James members claim that Bruno has no prospect of selling the property, in part because of Newport Beach community opposition to such a development.

Those members filed a canonical complaint, signed by 117 people, against Bruno on July 6, 2015, initiating a Title IV process that has led to the March 28-30 hearing. The prior steps outlined in Title IV to reconcile the parties failed, and a July 1, 2016, notice announced that Bruno would face a Hearing Panel on the accusations. Last October, the panel refused Bruno's request to dismiss the case and said it would not order him to let St. James members back into the building until it had considered the complaint during the scheduled hearing.

Save St. James has published a timeline of the dispute here that includes many documents.

The Title IV disciplinary process

Bruno's trial is the first of a bishop since the Episcopal Church's extensively revised Title IV disciplinary canons went into effect July 1, 2011. The revision was intended to move clergy disciplinary actions from a legalistic process to a professional-conduct model, such as those used in the medical, legal and social work profession, balanced with a sense of pastoral care and theology, according to those who worked on the revision.

Title IV's introduction (page 131 here) says that "the Church and each Diocese shall support their members in their life in Christ and seek to resolve conflicts by promoting healing, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life and reconciliation among all involved or affected."

In general, concerns about clergy behavior are reported to an intake officer who creates a written report. Following that, the matter could be resolved by pastoral care, conciliation, an agreement with the bishop (or presiding bishop in this case), an investigation, or any combination of these.

If the complaint moves to an investigation, some of the allegations could go to a more formal mediation and, finally if necessary, a hearing panel. The complaint against Bruno has reached the latter stage.
The hearing is taking place at the Courtyard by Marriott in Pasadena.

The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Church hearing to decide case of Newport Beach congregation vs. Episcopal bishop

MARCH 28, 2017

Church proceedings began in Pasadena, Tuesday, March 28, with regard to misconduct charges leveled by a Newport Beach congregation against J. Jon Bruno, the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles.

The disciplinary hearing, similar to a court trial, is being conducted by a panel of five officials of the Episcopal Church, in a meeting room at the Courtyard by Marriott-Old Pasadena.

At issue is the bishop's move to lock the congregation out of the 71-year-old church in July 2015 after he received an offer from a developer who proposed to build 22 luxury townhomes where the 40,000-square-foot church building stands on prime real estate on Via Lido.

That deal fell through, but the congregation remains locked out of the property that also houses the cremated remains of 12 former parishioners. The congregation now gathers at the Newport Beach Civic Center in a community meeting room.

The hearing takes place even as the property remains mired in litigation.

It began Tuesday with opening statements from both sides. Jerry Coughlan, an attorney representing the congregation, told the panel that church members were under the impression that this was a ministry they could grow and worship in together.

He said the church's budgets will show that it was a sustainable congregation at the time and that the bishop had no justification to shut it down other than selling it for financial gain.

Julie Larsen, an attorney for the diocese, said the bishop made decisions based on the information that was available to him and because what was once a 1,500-strong congregation had shrunk to about 150.

"The bishop made every effort to work with the congregation to help plan their future ... and even talked about $1 million that could be used from the sale's proceeds to help them relocate within the same area," she said.

But the congregation on June 22, 2015, chose to file a temporary restraining order to stop the sale, Larsen said.

"Bishop Bruno made a decision prayerfully, he did not misrepresent his intentions with regard to the property to anyone," she said. "These charges should be dismissed."

Several witnesses testified on behalf of the church through the day. Evangeline Andersen, who managed the church's accounting, said they had a little more than $106,000 in the bank around the time the bishop made the decision to shut them down.

She added that the congregation had even made a proposal to reduce the monthly grant they were getting from the diocese from $5,000 to $4,000.

"We went from $0 to $250,000 in pledges, which is awesome," Andersen said.

Warren Wiemer, a member of the Lido Isle Community Association, testified that he conducted a survey in which 89 percent of residents on Lido Isle said they were in favor of the property remaining a church.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, also began to testify Tuesday afternoon. The hearing will continue Wednesday and Thursday.

U-Tube links to trial:

Wednesday Morning, March 29th: https://youtu.be/WoQFkzdV378

Wednesday Afternoon, March 29th: https://youtu.be/AFFHZuAf0RE

Thursday Morning, March 30th: https://youtu.be/zp8fU9eXaPM

Thursday Afternoon, March 30th: https://youtu.be/XgG_yra9Uc0


Episcopal bishop could be suspended, defrocked over plan to sell Newport Beach church site
Bishop J. Jon Bruno did commit to selling St. James the Great Episcopal Church in Newport Beach.

March 30, 2017

Bishop J. Jon Bruno did commit to selling St. James the Great Episcopal Church in Newport Beach.

But it simply never happened.

That is one of Bruno's key defenses as a panel of fellow Episcopal Church officials conducts a disciplinary hearing to determine whether he was deceptive and whether his actions were unbecoming of a clergyman when he tried to sell the church site to a developer, locked congregants out and kept the gates closed even after the sale fell through.

Bruno took the stand Wednesday on the second day of his hearing at a Pasadena hotel. The five-member panel potentially could determine whether he is suspended or defrocked.

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As bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, Bruno leads a sprawling jurisdiction of about 135 churches, 44 schools and 18 other organizations in California that stretch from San Clemente in the south to Santa Maria in the north.

Though the diocese is property-rich, Bruno testified Wednesday, it is cash-poor.

Still, the diocese did not actively market the Newport Beach church after it transitioned back to an Episcopal parish in 2013 following a social-theological schism at the national level that led more conservative Anglicans to break away from the Episcopalians.

Bruno said he rejected a couple of propositions before a broker told him about a $15-million cash offer from Legacy Partners, a developer that sought to build multimillion-dollar town homes on the site.

"I said, 'I have to pray about it and I have to speak with my advisors,'" he said.

He accepted the offer a few days later, and in April 2015, signed a purchase agreement.

He said it was the best use of money for the ministry and that he had acted on information he had at the time, which he said showed that St. James was struggling financially.

When Bruno announced the sale to the church congregation in May 2015, he said $6.3 million would go toward the poor and needy, $1 million would go to the displaced St. James the Great members to make a community "without walls," and the rest would go toward diocese-wide missions.

During cross-examination, congregation lawyer Jerry Coughlan displayed a handwritten note from one of Bruno's advisors titled "NPB -- use of funds." Out of the expected $15 million, the aide wrote "6.3 Anaheim."

In other words, $6.3 million would go toward a real estate purchase the diocese wanted to complete in Anaheim. The commercial property, long partially owned by the diocese as a bequest, could belong to it completely.

Bruno said he was not familiar with the note, though he readily acknowledged that the diocese had long wanted to complete its interest in the Anaheim property. Proceeds from the St. James the Great sale constituted just one possible funding option, he said.

The diocese took out a loan instead.

Dedicating funds to the poor and needy also was a plan if the church property sold, Bruno said.

But Legacy's investment partner in the deal, AIG Global Real Estate, decided not to proceed, and Legacy dropped out.

"The fact of life is, the sale never took place, the money was never received from Legacy, the loan from First Republic Bank was obtained and we are servicing that loan today and we own 100% of the Anaheim property," Bruno said.

Newport Beach City Councilwoman Diane Dixon testified to her early support of keeping the St. James property as a church.

When developers showed her their town house concept, as a council member she was neutral, she said. But she described being taken aback, especially since a nearby Christian Science church had just been demolished for a separate town home development.

Then-Councilman Keith Curry testified that he had been concerned about availability of land for new churches and wanted to preserve what they had. On a personal note, he said the way Bruno dealt with the St. James congregation was "deplorable."

The hearing concluded Thursday.

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