[Episcopal News Service] Attorneys representing the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno are asking an ecclesiastical disciplinary panel to come to opposite conclusions about whether the bishop violated church law in attempting to sell St. James the Great Episcopal Church.
Attorneys for Bruno argued for dismissal of the charges while the Episcopal Church’s attorney asked the members to find the bishop guilty but craft a sentence aimed at reconciliation. Their arguments came in briefs released close to a month after a rare bishop disciplinary hearing.
The misconduct allegations, initially brought by the members of St. James, stem from Bruno’s unsuccessful 2015 attempt to sell the church in Newport Beach to a condominium developer for $15 million in cash.
St. James was one of four properties that the diocese spent close to $10 million in litigation to recover from disaffiliated Episcopalians who broke with the Church over its policies on women’s ordination and the full inclusion of LGBTQI members in the life of the church, including ordained ministry.
Bruno is at least the 10th bishop of the nearly 1,100 bishops 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. His trial was the first of a bishop since the Episcopal Church’s extensively revised Title IV disciplinary canons went into effect July 1, 2011.
The hearing on accusations that he violated church canons, including engaging in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy took place March 28-30 in Pasadena, California. The attorneys did not make oral closing arguments at the end of the testimony, opting instead to file written briefs. Those briefs could not be completed until after a transcript of the testimony was finished.
The Hearing Panel has not acted on the attorneys’ recommendation and it is not known when the members will issue their decision. The panel has a range of actions it can take, from dismissal of the allegations to removing Bruno from his ordained ministry.
Diocese of Los Angeles Chancellor Richard Zevnik and Vice Chancellor Julie Dean Larsen urged the panel in their brief to dismiss the entire case against Bruno. They said in the conclusion to their brief that a “civil lawsuit, political actions and social media campaign” mounted by members of St. James the Great in Newport Beach were “wrongfully, but successfully and strategically, designed to stop the sale of [the] 40,000-square foot church property” on what is known as Lido Island, a prosperous housing development sporting a yacht club.
The Church’s clergy disciplinary canon, the chancellors argue, is “not intended to be used as a weapon to challenge a diocesan bishop’s decisions regarding the administration and stewardship of his or her diocese.”
Along with the brief, Bruno’s chancellors also submitted a proposed order dismissing the charges, as well as a 65-page list of exhibits in the case. The Hearing Panel requested neither of the latter documents.
Episcopal Church Attorney Raymond “Jerry” Coughlan, on the other hand, argued in his brief that Bruno is guilty of “serious misconduct” in violating three sections of the Title IV canons: “failing to exercise his ministry in accordance with applicable church canons,” “conduct involving dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation” and “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. He said the panel must conclude that Bruno’s conduct was “calculated, pervasive and long-running.”
Because of those violations and because “today he shows no sign of recognizing even the possibility of his misconduct,” Coughlan recommended that panel suspend Bruno from ministry for at least a year.
However, because he said such a sentence would only exacerbate the conflict and not lead to reconciliation, Coughlan urged the panel to use its “broad authority” to craft a remedy that “looks forward creatively to heal the division now existing in the Los Angeles diocese.” That remedy would begin with staying any sentence of suspension if Bruno agrees not to appeal the panel’s finding.
Then, Coughlan suggested, a creative remedy could include:
- Restricting Bruno’s ministry from having any role in the future administration of St. James unless asked to do so.
- Requiring that St. James promptly be reopened for Episcopal worship under the auspices of an independent member of the diocese, such as in incoming Bishop Coadjutor John Taylor, with the advice of a committee he chooses.
- Maintaining the Rev. Cindy Evan Voorhees as the paid vicar of the congregation for the rest of 2017 and 2018.
- Finding that Bruno violated the two sections of Title IV concerning dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, but foregoing a ministry suspension and instead admonishing Bruno “to work with the new leader to effect reconciliation of all parties in the diocese, as and if that person requests.” The latter would recognize the bishop’s “many years of service, and the overarching need for everyone to move on to promote healing, forgiveness, justice and reconciliation among all in the community.”
Coughlan also submitted an unsolicited 36-page “statement of proposed facts” that presents his version of a timeline of the events leading up to the hearing.
Following the Hearing Panel’s decision, attorneys for both parties will have 40 days to appeal its decision to the Court of Review for Bishops.
Bruno turns 72, the Church’s mandatory retirement age, in late 2018. Taylor, his successor, is scheduled to be ordained and consecrated on July 8 of this year.
Because none of the previous steps of the Title IV disciplinary process resolved the issue, when the complaints against Bruno got to the point of seating a Hearing Panel, the Episcopal Church replaced St. James as the complainant in the case. Coughlan, representing the Episcopal Church, presented the case to the panel. The St. James members originally filed a complaint against Bruno on July 6, 2015. According to the Title IV process, the Church pays for the costs of the disciplinary process for bishops.
Diocese of Southern Virginia Bishop Herman Hollerith IV is president of the Hearing Panel. The panel, appointed by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops from among its members, also 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 alleged that Bruno violated church canons because he
- failed to get the consent of the diocesan standing committee before entering 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 Voorhees had resigned as vicar;
- misrepresented to some St. James members that he would lease the property back to them for many 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. It continues to worship in a rented room at city hall.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.