[Episcopal News Service] The hearing panel considering disciplinary action against Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno has drafted an order calling for his suspension from ordained ministry for three years because of misconduct.
The five-member panel concluded in a 4-1 decision that “the scope and severity of Bishop Bruno’s misconduct … have unjustly and unnecessarily disturbed the ministry of a mission of the Church.”
The 91-page draft order specifically rejects calls for Bruno to be deposed, or removed, from ordained ministry. It says that during the three-year suspension Bruno could not exercise any authority over “the real or personal property or temporal affairs of the Church.” A three-year suspension would take Bruno beyond his mandatory retirement date in November 2018, when he turns 72.
The draft order, which is not final, also urges the diocese to let the members of St. James the Great return to their Newport Beach, California, building.
Bruno locked out the congregation nearly two years ago after the members objected to his unsuccessful 2015 attempt to sell the St. James property to a condominium developer for $15 million in cash. The congregation has been worshipping in a meeting room at the Newport Beach City Hall. Its canonical status with the diocese is in limbo.
The attempted sale occurred less than 18 months after Bruno reopened St. James in late 2013, after recovering the property via a lawsuit prompted by a split in the congregation. Three other congregations in the diocese also split in disputes about the Episcopal Church’s full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church.
The subsequent effort to sell St. James to a developer prompted congregation members to bring misconduct allegations against Bruno, claiming he violated Episcopal Church law. A hearing on those allegations was held in March.
Bruno continued to try to sell the property even after that hearing. Those efforts, which the bishop tried to conceal, earned him a rebuke from the hearing panel in June. The panel said Bruno had to stop trying to sell the property during the disciplinary process. If he did try, or succeeded, before the panel decided the original case against him, that behavior would be “disruptive, dilatory and otherwise contrary to the integrity of this proceeding,” the panel said at the time. The same is true of his failure to give the panel the information it asked for about the accusations, the notice said. Such behavior violates the portion of canon law that governs the behavior of clerics who face disciplinary actions (Canon IV.13.9(a) page 151 here).
A few days later, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry partially restricted Bruno’s ministry, specifically his ability to sell the church property.
Bruno’s appeal of the panel’s sanctions failed.
Acknowledging its inability to assess whether St. James could have survived had it been able to stay in its building, the hearing panel says in the draft order that “there is ample evidence of its viability and promise to convince the hearing panel that St. James the Great was robbed of a reasonable chance to succeed as a sustainable community of faith.” The congregation, the order says, “is a casualty of Bishop Bruno’s misconduct.”
Calling it “a matter of justice,” the panel recommends that the diocese immediately suspend its efforts to sell the St. James property, that it restore the congregation and vicar to the church building and that it reassign St. James the Great the appropriate mission status.
The draft order says that although Canon IV.14.6 would allow the panel to act to help St. James the Great, it declines to do so. “Title IV disciplinary actions are not designed to address the complexities of the specific diocesan property issues that are before it,” the order says. “The hearing panel believes that bishops do and should have authority over mission property and that standing committee review and approval is a crucial part of the fabric and polity of the Church.”
The draft also says that the panel members believe the Diocese of Los Angeles has work to do to reach the goals of justice, healing, restitution and reconciliation upon which the Title IV disciplinary process is based. “The hearing panel is convinced that the Diocese of Los Angeles, particularly its Standing Committee with the supportive leadership of its newly ordained coadjutor, must consciously choose to take part in a process of self-examination and truth telling around these unfortunate and tragic events,” the order says.
Without that work, the panel says, those goals will not be achieved “from the outside by force of canon.”
The draft order meticulously recounts the testimony and evidence the panel reviewed. It essentially upholds the St. James complainants’ allegations 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. 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.
Diocese of Southern Virginia Bishop Herman Hollerith IV is president of the hearing panel considering 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.
Smith dissented from the draft order. He said none of the parties should have taken their disputes to the secular courts, including the one with the members of the four split congregations. He cited 1 Corinthians 6:1,7-8 admonishing Christians against filing lawsuits. Smith also said that property disputes should not be adjudicated in the Episcopal Church’s disciplinary process.
And he suggested that St. James was too focused on a particular piece of property. “In this season of the Church’s life, many congregations are learning to become communities of faith outside ‘the four walls of the church building,’” he wrote.
The hearing panel did not publically release its draft order. It apparently gave the draft to the complainants and the presiding bishop for comment. Title IV.14.7 (page 153 here) calls for those parties “to be heard on the proposed terms of the order.” Comments to the hearing panel are due by July 26.
Bruno is not allowed to comment on the draft to the hearing panel. The diocese released a statement July 21 saying in part that no one from the diocese would make any public statement on the draft, “continuing their commitment to respect the integrity of the Title IV process, a priority that Bishop Bruno has upheld through the duration of the two-year proceedings.”
Neva Rae Fox, Episcopal Church public affairs officer, said the church would not comment while the Title IV process continues.
Roger Bloom, a communications consultant working for St. James, released the draft late July 21, reportedly after consulting a lawyer who told him Episcopal Church canons did not prevent its release.
Forty days after the final order is issued, the Rt. Rev. Catherine Waynick, president of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, has 20 days to sentence Bruno. He can appeal that sentence and, if he does, the sentence is not imposed while the appeal proceeds. Meanwhile, however, the draft order is clear that Curry’s partial restriction on Bruno remains in force.
Bruno turns 72, the Episcopal Church’s mandatory retirement age, in late 2018. His successor, Bishop Coadjutor John Taylor, was ordained and consecrated July 8 in Los Angeles.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.