[Episcopal News Service] The hearing panel that considered disciplinary action against Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno issued a final order Aug. 2 reaffirming its draft recommendation that he be suspended from ordained ministry for three years because of misconduct.
The hearing panel also strongly recommends to the Diocese of Los Angeles that “as a matter of justice” it immediately suspend its efforts to sell St. James the Great’s property in Newport Beach, California, that it restore the congregation and vicar to the church building, and that it reassign St. James the Great appropriate mission status.
The five-person panel said that it is convinced the Diocese of Los Angeles, particularly its Standing Committee with the supportive leadership of its recently ordained and consecrated bishop coadjutor, must consciously choose to take part in a process of self-examination and truth-telling around these unfortunate and tragic events.
The hearing panel conducted three days of testimony on those allegations in March. Bruno subsequently attempted to sell the property as the panel considered how to rule on the case. That attempt earned Bruno two ministerial restrictions from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
The most recent came just a day before the final order when Curry removed St. James from Bruno’s authority and put the congregation under Los Angeles Bishop Coadjutor John Taylor’s control. The previous restriction was designed to prevent Bruno from trying again to sell the property.
Diocese of Southern Virginia Bishop Herman Hollerith IV is president of the hearing panel that considered 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 original case against Bruno involved his unsuccessful 2015 attempt to sell the church property to a condominium developer for $15 million in cash. That effort prompted the members of St. James to bring misconduct allegations against Bruno, alleging he violated church law.
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 as provided in the order. He can appeal that sentence and, if he does, the sentence is not imposed while the appeal proceeds. Meanwhile, however, the order is clear that Curry’s partial restrictions on Bruno remain in force, the order said.
The hearing panel found Bruno guilty of 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.
Taylor issued a statement saying that “Bishop Bruno’s 40 years of ordained ministry and 15 years as sixth bishop of Los Angeles are not summed up by this order or the events that precipitated it.”
The bishop coadjutor called him “a courageous, visionary leader.”
“Like every successful executive inside and outside the church, he would be the first to acknowledge that there are things he would have done differently,” Taylor said. “I look forward to continuing to learn from him and consult with him about the life of the diocesan community he has served and loves so well.”
Taylor said he and the Standing Committee “will do everything we can to promote a just solution that takes into account the interests of all in our community (including the faithful members of the Newport Beach church) and gives us the opportunity to move forward together. In a dispute such as this one, truth-telling, open communication, and reconciliation can be difficult for everyone involved.”
The St. James congregants said they “deeply thank the hearing panel for its diligent hard work to get to the truth, administer fair justice and foster reconciliation.” They said the “hearing panel’s final recommendation points the way forward for the Diocese of Los Angeles and its leadership.”
“We believe the reconciliation process begins now, and we look forward to a time – in the near future, we hope and believe – when we are back in our holy church and the Diocese of Los Angeles is once again a strong, united and joyful community in Christ, dedicated to spreading God’s word and doing His work on earth,” the St. James statement said.
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 first attempted sale of St. James 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.
Bruno’s effort to sell the property even after the March hearing, 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 was 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, on June 29, Curry placed his initial restriction on Bruno’s ministry.
Curry’s Aug. 1 restriction came about 10 days after a draft of the hearing panel’s order became public in late July.