Disciplinary hearing for Los Angeles’ Bruno concludes without decision

Hearing Panel’s conclusion will not come until sometime after Easter

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Mar 31, 2017

Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno spent nearly seven hours March 29 and 30 talking to the Hearing Panel considering the disciplinary action against him. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Pasadena, California] Three days of testimony in the ecclesiastical disciplinary hearing for Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno ended here March 30 without a resolution.

Church Attorney Raymond “Jerry” Coughlan, appointed to represent the Episcopal Church, and Diocese of Los Angeles Chancellor Richard Zevnik did not make oral closing statements. They will submit written briefs for the Hearing Panel to consider before making its decision.

“I have no idea how long our decision will take but there are other canonical processes involved that could mean this could go on for a while,” Diocese of Southern Virginia Bishop Herman Hollerith IV, president of the Hearing Panel, told spectators at the end of the session. “This is not going to be something that is going to happen before Easter.”

The allegations detailed at the hearing stem from Bruno’s behavior during and after his unsuccessful 2015 attempt to sell St. James the Great Episcopal Church in Newport Beach to a condominium developer for $15 million. Members of the church initially filed the disciplinary complaint against him.

Bruno is alleged to have violated Title IV Canon IV.4.1(g) by 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) by engaging in “conduct involving dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation” and Title IV Canon IV.4.1(h)(8) for “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.” The applicable subsections of Title IV Canon IV.4.1 begin on page 135 here.

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.

The Rev. Canon Kelli-Grace Kurtz, convening chair of Los Angeles’ program group on missions, discusses with the Hearing Panel what the diocese requires of those congregations. She said the group classified St. James as a “mission station” and thus it had to comply with certain reporting requirements. The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, St. James’ vicar, had testified that she reported verbally to Bruno and did not think she needed to submit those reports. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Bruno said in his response brief to the Hearing Panel that five of the allegations must be decided in his favor because “undisputed evidence establishes no canonical violation.” He said the sixth allegation concerning alleged misrepresentations to Voorhees presents conflicting evidence for the panel to weigh. However, he called 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.”

The Hearing Panel has a number 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.

March 30 began with Bruno spending nearly two hours answering questions from Coughlan and Zevnik about his March 28 testimony. The questions ranged over a number of topics aimed at understanding the bishop’s actions surrounding his attempt to sell St. James the Great, and his motivations for those actions. High on the list of motivations was providing money to fund the ongoing mission and ministry of the diocese.

Money was an issue, Bruno and other witnesses said because the diocese had spent more than $10 million on the lengthy litigation that eventually returned four properties to the diocese that had been held by disaffiliated Episcopalians. Bruno said the expense was worth it to set a precedent about church property ownership in the diocese and in the state. He went forward with the actions even after then-Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and the presiding bishop’s chancellor, David Booth Beers, advised against it, he said.

Bruno and others discussed evidence showing that the sale of St. James was also one possible way for the diocese to have the money to buy the remaining interest in some commercial properties in Anaheim, California. Donors had bequeathed to the diocese a partial interest in those properties. The properties produce income for the diocese and the diocese also thought it might be able to sell the property near Angel Stadium. One document showed that the properties appraised at $140 million. The diocese has since borrowed the money to acquire a 100 percent interest in the properties.

Some of the other March 30 witnesses said Bruno also wanted to leave the diocese in good financial health when he retires. Bruno turns 72, the Episcopal Church’s mandatory retirement age for clergy, in late 2018. His successor, Bishop Coadjutor-Elect John Taylor, is due to be ordained and consecrated on July 8 of this year.

Diocesan Chief of Staff David Tumilty tells the Hearing Panel about Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno’s concerns over the financial health of the diocese and how those concerns informed his decisions about St. James. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

They said the diocese had been hard-hit not only by the litigation costs but also by the 2008 recession that came as the diocese was spending capital to pay for the litigation, according to diocesan Chief of Staff David Tumilty.

Tumilty said that spending resulted in staff cuts and cuts to programs such as one that provided counseling for priests. He also explained that the California “corporation sole” through which Bruno controlled some but not all of diocesan property and other assets was getting strapped by having frequently to cover operating deficits in what is known as the Mission Share Fund budget.

The need for recovering capital was a theme in the March 30 testimony. For instance, when Coughlan asked the bishop who now was liaison to the Anglican Communion Compass Rose Society, an $110,000 job that he had offered to Voorhees, Bruno said the job was unfilled. “I don’t have the money to have it now because I am paying for two years of litigation,” he said, referring to the Title IV proceedings.

“Whose fault is that?” a few members of the audience asked softly but clearly. Voorhees turned and hushed the audience and later Hollerith reminded spectators of his requirement that they not speak out.

Testimony March 30 also showed that the sale of St. James the Great caused controversy between at least two diocesan leaders. The Rev. Canon Melissa McCarthy, Standing Committee president during 2015 and 2016, told the panel that then-Bishop Suffragan Mary Glasspool called her to inquire about a possible sale of St. James. McCarthy said Glasspool told her that, as standing committee president, McCarthy had a duty to block the sale. She said Glasspool asked her to contact an Episcopal diocesan chancellor in the state whom MCarthy knew and whom Glasspool thought could help develop an argument against the sale.

The Rev. Canon Melissa McCarthy, who chaired the Diocese of Los Angeles’ Standing Committee during 2015 and 2016, tells the Hearing Panel about the committee’s actions surrounding Bruno’s attempted sale of the St. James the Great Episcopal Church property. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Glasspool planned to contact other Episcopal bishops about the sale, McCarthy said. After praying for a day, McCarthy said she contacted Bruno to tell him about the conversation because she found out that the bishop had confidentially disclosed the offer to buy St. James during a meeting of diocesan executive leadership.

“The bishop suffragan had called the president of the standing committee and enlisted her support to undermine what the bishop diocesan was doing,” McCarthy said, explaining her reason for calling Bruno. “And [because she] had broken his confidentiality, I felt like he needed to know.”

The standing committee approved Bruno’s effort to sell St. James during a special June 8, 2015, meeting more than two months after Bruno accepted the offer. The members gave their approval, she said, even though Bruno did not ask for it. Because the title to the property resided in the corporation sole, McCarthy said, Bruno believed he could act without their approval. McCarthy noted that her committee eventually would have to approve deconsecrating the church if the sale went through.

“We want to have some way to clearly show our support,” she said. “Unique circumstances” surrounded that decision because, by June 8, McCarthy said, “there had already been a social-media campaign launched” and other opposition to the sale had formed.

Moreover, McCarthy said, the committee knew the bishop was looking for ways to recoup the litigation costs and he was concerned about the financial shape of the diocese when he retired. Committee members also talked about how “a congregation and a building are two different things” and that the sale of the property was “in line with the plan that the bishop had had for a number of years.”

When Bruno formed the intention to sell St. James and whether and when he disclosed that intention to Voorhees and the members of St. James has been in dispute. Voorhees and others have insisted that they believed Bruno wanted them to revive St. James so that it could continue in the hard-won building.

The Title IV disciplinary process based on professional-conduct model
Although the Episcopal Church Title IV disciplinary canons in 2011 moved clergy disciplinary actions from a legalistic process to a professional-conduct model, many legal terms persist. For instance, Hollerith and the attorneys referred questioning as “cross-examination” and there were “objections” about some questions or whether certain “evidence” was “admissible.”

Clare Zabala-Bangao, Diocese of Los Angeles coordinator for mission congregations, tells the Hearing Panel about her efforts to have St. James’ lay leaders and the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, the vicar, file required monthly financial reports. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

However, the ultimate goal, according Title IV’s introduction (page 131 here), is 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.”

Each day’s session began and ended with prayer led by Hearing Panel member the Rev. Erik Larsen of Rhode Island. The opening prayer concluded with all participants and onlookers saying the Lord’s Prayer aloud in unison. At the end of the March 30 afternoon session, Larsen prayed that God would guide the panel to “discern the truth and find your will for us as we move forward.” Larsen prayed that as that discernment continued and people waited on the outcome that “above all we would not lose the charity that you reveal in your son Jesus.”

Hollerith concluded the session with a blessing and liturgical dismissal.

In addition to Hollerith and Larsen, the members of the Hearing Panel considering the allegations against Bruno include Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely, North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, and Deborah Stokes of Southern Ohio. All are members of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, which appointed them.

The Hearing Panel met at the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel in Pasadena, about 90 minutes northeast of Newport Beach. Save St. James the Great organized buses to travel to and from the hearing each day. Close to 120 people at times sat in the gallery during the daily sessions.

Previous ENS coverage of the hearing is here.

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


Comments (19)

  1. the Rev. Canon Mary Goshert says:

    I was an elected member of Diocesan Council in the Diocese of Los Angeles for all the time that the Diocese was in legal negotiations to regain clear title to the church property that dissidents attempted to take when they left the Episcopal Church. I was also rector (successively) to two healthy congregations in the Diocese. I was in full and enthusiastic agreement with Bishop Bruno for leading those negotiations: he was correct that his fiduciary responsibility mandated that action. The experience of the Diocese with a previous dissident action in which the parish property was ceded to dissidents was no help to the diocese. At no time in all the many meetings of Diocesan Council was it ever said by Bishop Bruno or his staff that the end purpose of this bitter negotiation would be to sell the properties when they were recovered: the end purpose was always described as returning the properties to parish use. When the properties were returned, and All Saints, Long Beach asked to purchase the parish property there, that seemed reasonable: there are four Episcopal churches within about a 5 mile radius, and All Saints had not participated fully in the life of the Diocese for many years. The situation with St. James is diametrically different. St. James was a powerhouse parish in Orange County: it was a charismatic worship center (which I respected even though that worship style is not my preference.) It opened much of its property to community needs. It was a deep tragedy for the Episcopal Church when the rector led the parish out of the Church, after maneuvering for years to mute those who disagreed with him, and who then was assured by Howard Ahmanson,Jr., and others that he could indeed take the property with him and the remnant of the congregation who followed him out. Mr. Ahmanson’s wealth provided a very large proportion of the funds these dissidents used to argue their desires in court. When at last the property was returned to the Diocese, Bishop Bruno re-opened the church in a great celebration of faith and hope. He did NOT ‘deliver a little pep talk’ to the congregation and the diocese: he spoke in ringing prophecy and great energy about how the congregation could and would rise again, he referred to the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees as the priest and pastor whose skills would facilitate that new rise, and he promised diocesan support for that renewal. Those words are available to anyone who wants to see a video and listen to that service of renewal. The congregation — and many in the diocese — took Bishop Bruno at his very word. It has been utterly shocking to hear Bishop Bruno say that he never intended to renew congregations in any of the four properties: that he ever intended to sell the properties. It’s been demoralizing to have Bishop Bruno disclaim the actual words he spoke to St. James. And it’s been a tragedy to see this man whom I’ve known and deeply cared for and respected for forty years descend to clawing on to the shreds of legal details, throwing his faithful cleric Cindy Voorhees under the bus, and acting the bully profiteer. I hope and pray for diocesan reconciliation, and for the national Church to call Bishop Bruno to account and give St. James its opportunity to thrive.

    1. Thomas Vocca says:

      I do not like, nor do I respect Jon Bruno. In my very limited dealings with him I found him duplicitous and startlingly callous and petulant. I will continue to pray for him, but more often than not my words go up but my thoughts remain below.

    2. Val Hillsdon-Hutton says:

      Well said, Mary. St. James should have the opportunity to thrive by rediscovering its identity and moving forward to new challenges in mission and ministry. Bishop Bruno is blocking the path.

  2. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    Having known Mary Goshert and her faithful ministry of many years in this Diocese, I fully respect her candid testimony on this unhappy situation.

    1. Nice to see that you are still in the saddle, Father. Are you retired, or now nearing retirement?

    2. the Rev. Canon Mary Goshert says:

      Fred! Thank you! That note was so very difficult to write. +Jon is not a villain, even if he’s totally wrong in his actions. It would be so easy to see this whole sad contretemps as a clear cut good/evil situation, but that just isn’t so. I appreciate your comments. Are you and Billie still living in Concord” We should get together.

  3. Lloyd Newell says:

    What a bag of worms

  4. Donald Heacock says:

    HeAR Ye Hear Ye. Lay or clerical. Never build an a congregation who’s building is owned by the Diocese. There are free churches that worship with the Episcopal Church. Study St Paul’s Key West, Florida & St.Mary The Virgin in NYC. THERE is no certainly as to what The Episcopal Church will choose to believe & force on you. It is certain they will do this without Anglican Communion concorde

  5. Donald Heacock says:

    HeAR Ye Hear Ye. Lay or clerical. Never build an a congregation who’s building is owned by the Diocese. There are free churches that worship with the Episcopal Church. Study St Paul’s Key West, Florida & St.Mary The Virgin in NYC. THERE is no certainly as to what The Episcopal Church will choose to believe & force on you. It is certain they will do this without Anglican Communion concorde

  6. Will Gatlin says:

    Rev. Canon Mary Goshert- you say Bishop Bruno is hiding behind “shreds of legal details” – and yet the same legal tatters are being used to condemn him. Diminishing his legal defense belies the heart of the matter:

    To his detractors, it doesn’t matter whether the Bishop did everything by the book. I sense the people of St. James would feel equally hurt regardless of whether there are canonical grounds on which to formally discipline the Bishop.

    I appreciate your words and the wounding this closure has caused. I can’t imagine a home of worship could ever be closed painlessly. But I would ask: can we imagine a scenario where it’s in the best of interests of the larger Church to sell an individual place of worship? If the answer is a categorical “no,” well, then, that seems like we enter a separate conversation entirely.

    But if the answer is “yes,” then we must accept that being part of a faith community means people will bump heads about when and where to make that judgment call.

    It’s okay to think the Bishop made the wrong call, it’s okay to feel deep loss, and I think standing up for one’s place of worship is a noble goal. But I’m saddened that the path to that goal means raking someone across the coals for their well-intentioned judgment call.

  7. Lisa Fox says:

    Thank you, Mary Frances. You make the arcane fiduciary detail comprehensible.
    My prayers will be with the Hearing Panel as they deliberate.

  8. Susan Russell says:

    Grateful for this … dare I say it … fair and balanced reporting of this sad story. It’s exactly the link I needed to send to parish leaders to contextualize the events of this week in our Big Fat Diocesan Family as we all pray for resolution and reconciliation on the other side of this season of conflict and challenge.

  9. Jane Riedel says:

    Thank you, Mary Francis, for a superb and balanced report of this complicated issue. As a newcomer to this diocese, I have found it difficult to understand the proceedings over the last couple of years. Your clear reporting has helped a lot!!

  10. The Bruno Affair is a very good reason for me to NOT be an Episcopalian anymore, having left to start an Old Catholic mission in Palm Springs, CA. Episcopalians are WAY TOO MUCH consumed with money and power. The Bruno Affair was about both: + Bruno used the Courts to get his way, to establish his “power” and then tried to sell the property to reclaim what it cost to do that. ALL OF THAT is without any reference to the trust purpose of being church: to proclaim the Kingdom of God, by administering the seven sacraments, and living the Gospel. Being church is not about enhancing power relationships, feeding one’s Type A personality appetites, or making gobs of money. It is about spreading the love of Jesus, period. The bottom line here is simple: give the people of St. James their church and get rid of + Bruno. There is more than enough evidence to nail him. I hope the Hearing Panel has the courage to do that right thing. If I were in their shoes, I would offer + Bruno two alternatives: 1. Deed the church to the parish and accept a suspension through 12/31/18 or 2. Deposition from ministry. It is time to put down the mighty + Bruno from his seat and exalt the humble and meek people of St. James. I ask Our Lady to offer prayers to God for a just outcome.

  11. Rodney A. Reynolds says:

    Notice that few of the comments here even suggest that we are all supposed to be working toward reconciliation and against the judgemental spirits that got the church into the entire mess to begin with. The lack of willingness to seek reconciliation is itself evidence that needs to be taken into consideration by the hearing panel. The fact that a congregation is NOT a building is the opportunity for everyone to reconcile and move forward. If control of the building is the basis of your faith, contributions, and church membership, there are other denominational opportunities for you and then please leave the rest of us in peace.

    Why was the name “Episcopal Church” chosen? The Greek word episcopos means “bishop” or “overseer,” which is used because the Episcopal Church is governed by bishops.

    The mission of the Episcopal Church is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, p. 855).

  12. Eric Bonetti says:

    I am glad to see that the hierarchy is taking this whole matter seriously.

    Far too often, the church simply circles the wagons when there are allegations of misconduct. Or it claims that the “weighty and material” clause is Title IV requires rape, mayhem, and murder before the larger church will get involved. Yes, the canons recite that clergy are held to a higher standard, but the reality is that they far too often are held to a lower standard, or no standard at all.

    Prayers for truth and justice for all.

  13. Karen Burr McKee says:

    While I was still living in the wonderful Diocese of the Rio Grande, which I left because of family illness elsewhere, I had mentally applauded that some congregations were choosing to rent space rather than spend enormous amounts of money on mortgages and maintenance. If a church is indeed a congregation rather than a building, then a rented building can function perfectly well. It is amazing what a feeling of reverence can happen in a corporate “office park” type building with just the addition of a pulpit and the other instruments of the service. Historic buildings pose a different problem and one would hate to see them torn down.

  14. Dr. William A. Flint, MDiv, PhD says:

    Parishes who left without regard to what could happen are as much to blame for the current situation as any faithful Episcopal official. I remember a Methodist Church that tried to pull out of their annual conference over civil rights issues. This Methodist Bishop closed the church and the annual conference sold it to the local county government for a parking lot. Decisions have consequences.

  15. Vernon Sheldon-Witter says:

    Just another dissident Parish seeking to harm Our Bishop and TEC for the fact that when they left the Church,they left the building itself and the Treasury of the Parish in the hands of the Church. But the GAFCON folks and related Parishes still cannot seem to get it into their heads that if you leave the Church,these are the consequences. Throw all the stones you like but it will do you not one whit’s good.,

Comments are closed.