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
Posted Mar 28, 2017

The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno became the sixth bishop of Los Angeles on Feb. 1, 2002. Photo: Diocese of Los Angeles

[Episcopal News Service – Pasadena, California] 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.”

Members of St. James the Great Episcopal Church have not worshiped in the Newport Beach, California, building since mid-summer 2015. Photo: St. James the Great Episcopal Church

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.

Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno consecrated a new St. James the Great Episcopal Church building in 2001. The congregation formed in the 1940s. Photo: St. James the Great Episcopal Church

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.

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.


Comments (13)

  1. Speaking as an attorney who retired after 20 years of practice, I reviewed the trial briefs from both sides. The plaintiff has the better case because it’s supported by evidence in the form of documents and witness testimony. The defense is rather specious and barren, lacking in substance, and totally inappropriate to an ecclesiastical setting as it is totally devoid of any reference to the mission of the church and the integrity and dignity of the people in the church community. I predict + Bruno will be found culpable on one or more charges. An appropriate disposition is to suspend him from ministry through December 31, 2018 with an order to convey title to the Saint James property lest he be permanently deposed from ministry altogether. The Diocese of LA has already elected a coadjutor scheduled to be consecrated July 05, 2017. The result would be he would take over as diocesan earlier than expected.

  2. Susan Russell says:

    I believe the date for the ordination and consecration of our bishop-elect is Saturday, July 8.

    1. Mary Frances Schjonberg says:

      You are correct and we have fixed the date in the story.

  3. Michael Hartney says:

    Title IV.17.3 appoints Bishops, clergy and lay persons to the Disciplinary Board for Bishops. So, the sentence: 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. should say: “The panel, appointed by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops includes Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely, North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, Rhode Island Priest Erik Larsen and Lay Person Deborah Stokes of Southern Ohio.”

  4. The Rev. Dr. Robert H. Crewdson says:

    I have never heard of a bishop not helping the remaining parishioners of a church where many of the congregation left the Episcopal Church. I feel for those parishioners and will pray for their pastor, congregation, and yes, the bishop.

  5. Bob Scruggs says:

    Why would there be any local authority to sell the church property? Why are there any conditions leading to selling church property applying to local authority? Churches in the Episcopal Church are not autonomous, so it seems this unfortunate instance should make it clear that the national level of authority should be involved to validate a sale or even the possibility of a sale. It seems the rules governing this important issue should be elevated to the national level tous de suite! The sad distribution of many church properties of the last few years should have been a clarion call for a change.

    1. I do not believe that The Episcopal Church has the authority to invalidate or prevent the sale of property so long as the canonical process is followed. So, in theory, the diocese does have the canonical right to sell the property if the Standing Committee gave its consent. However, the pastoral ramifications of that were obviously not well thought out and it remains to be seen if the canonical processes were or were not followed. At the least, were I a Standing Committee member, I would have expected to have been asked to consent to a sale BEFORE the property was put on the market. It’s a mess, any way you slice it.

  6. The Rev. Timothy G. Warren says:

    I was a member of the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese for nearly 20 years. The diocese runs like a highly dysfunctional family. The issue with St. James the Great is one of many examples of misuse of power and manipulation of the facts to manipulate the outcome of events. It is time that the diocesan power structures be cleansed of cronyism and transparency and integrity be brought back. I hope this trial will result in the much needed changes so that the diocese can refocus on the true calling of the Church – to serve Christ in all people.

  7. Margaret A Fletcher says:

    Isn’t it amazing that in our ever expanding universe where God has invited us to create ever expanding compassion towards the hungry, the homeless, the products of xenophobia, and anyone in a life diminishing situation we good Episcopalians concentrate firmly on our maintaining and hoarding our material resources. By what shall we be judged?

  8. Craig Kauffman says:

    Bishop Bruno very unfortunately apparently had the legal power to sell the property himself as “Corporation Sole” — there was no committee oversight. The property had “clouded title,” however, because of a title stipulation that the 1940’s-donated property had to be used for religious purposes — that, I believe, was why the prospective purchaser backed out of the deal he proposed to Bishop Bruno.

    Looks like the obvious solution would be to open up the church doors to the congregation meeting at the civic center, and get the church moving again!

  9. Angustia Hamasaki says:

    Yes, we need to move on, that the property is for church use only not for sale, let the holy Lord prevail in every churches, where the love of God dwells, his righteousness, loving kindness and mercy. Let the church be opened for all that willing to grow as Christian. Let God be alone to our lives and to coming generations and the seeds of God’s grace be upon us all, as our Lord Jesus is
    the Good Shepherd of this journey. Amen.

  10. Douglas Swain says:

    I just met Bishop Bruno this passed week of May 5th 2017 at a memorial for our pastor Deborah Dunn, who died just after Easter from complications of a stroke. He spoke very highly of Deborah, and the way he spoke made you sit up and take notice and listen. Until then, I knew nothing of this man until I saw this story. I am deeply shocked and appalled of someone of his position to be involved in such a legal mess.I thought he was a very smart, witty, stand up kind of guy, and I was looking forward to talking with him more when I had time, but after this, I think I will just wait and see.

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