Hearing panel calls for J. Jon Bruno’s suspension, return of Newport Beach congregation to its building

Los Angeles bishop's final sentence pending, due within 40 to 60 days

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Aug 2, 2017

[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.

Bruno’s July 10 appeal of the panel’s sanctions failed.

Curry’s Aug. 1 restriction came about 10 days after a draft of the hearing panel’s order became public in late July.


Comments (15)

  1. Justice will not truly be done until the congregation is restored to its building, not only as to occupancy, but to title thereof. My church will pray for them at Mass this Sunday.

  2. The Rev. Dr. John Day says:

    I have known Jon since 1994 and while I am not familiar with the evidence and testimony presented in this case, he is someone I love and admire. I remember him as a loving and caring pastor who always had the best interests of the Diocese at heart. The congregations that left the Episcopal Church and tried to take property held in trust for the Bishop as Corporation Sole should shoulder much of the blame for this fractured relationship. Jon will always have my love and support.

    1. Patricia Neal Jensen says:

      So very right and true. We are not, as a treasured friend said, Methodists. This Congregation left our church and made the specious claim that they somehow had a property right in this real estate. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. And I am stunned and amazed at my gay friends who forget the reason this congregation left our church in the first place. I have also attended and been a delegate to several diocesan conventions while this was going on and have witnessed personally the manner in which representative of this group conducted themselves. Jon and Mary will always have m y love and support and that of many, many others.

      1. mike geibel says:

        Patricia and Rev. Day; I think you are mistaken. The breakaway congregation was long gone. This was a new congregation of loyal Episcopalians’ with a new reverend installed by Bishop Bruno after the successful litigation against the breakaway group.

  3. The Rev'd Canon Dr. Samir J. Habiby says:

    This is truly unbelievable. Bishop Bruna is an outstanding Bishop of the Church and greatly appreciated across the Communion.

    During the period of transition between the late Bishops Bloy and Rusack, a great deal of discussion took place as to the viability of the Corporation Sole to give the diocesan Bishop the unique opportunity for mission and service, beyond the budgetrary limitations of the Diocesan Budget. I served on the Diocesan Council through a good portion of Bishop Rusack’s incumbency as Chair of Communication and the Council dtermined that the Corporation Sole invested soley in the Diocesan is to continue as to properties owned by Crporation sole as well as investments and other monetary gifts Utilized by the Dioocesan Bishop for the Good of the Church. A Corporation of the Diocese was established separately to be within the perview of the Diocesan Council. St. James, Newport, having left the Church was brought back to the Episcopal Church by Court Action, and given the circumstances vested in th Corporation Sole. As such the diocesan Bishop has the full right to determine , given the number of Episcopal Churches nearby, as to the viability of a continuing vested Corporation Sole congregation at the Discretion of the Diocesan holding the property within the Corporation Sole. As such, Bishop Bruno had the total responsibilty of determining, and rightly so as Corporation Sole what should be done with property, any monetary gain to accrue to the Corporation Sole for the extra ordinary mission and servcesan Seminarians within the diocese and church, that have included assistance to congregations in urban inner city blighted areas, providing for clergy emergency assistance,, support for diocesan Seminaries, Episcopal Seminaries, and charitable and humanitarian Organizations within the diocese, the province, the Anglican Communion and ecumenical partners. Bishop Bruno has safeguarded this unique and special Legacy as the Diocesan. What the Panel has decided, is surely both unwarranted, this being a Corporation Sole matter in the application of the canons and is excessive. I trust the Presiding Bishop will again review the whole matter of a Corporation Sole, as vested fully, in Los Angeles in the diocesan bishop. A Bishop as dedicated and worthy of his office as Jon Bruno has been in his incumbency should be duly honored for what he has over the years given of himself sacrificially well beyond the call of duty in loyal service to the Diocesan family and the Anglican Communion.

  4. Sarah Sakel Ehret says:

    So sad; may we all celebrates the risen Christ who by Scripture welcomes all of us<

  5. Mary K Freel says:

    I believe this is the only just resolution to a terrible injustice. Restore the congregation to its rightful place!!!

  6. Jon Spangler says:

    I am heartened that this matter has been properly adjudicated and that the panel is urging that “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.”

    None of us can stand before God and claim we are without sin but those who have been entrusted with authority must wield it carefully and lawfully. Now it is time for the divided Diocese of Los Angeles and the fractured community of St. James the Great to begin the hard work of reconciliation and rebuilding: the work of the church needs to continue.

  7. John Conrad says:

    The underlying question of Corporate Christian stewardship remains: What is the appropriate capital investment in a mission worship space? I’m thinking something less than the $15-20 Million value of St. James.

    1. Roger Bloom says:

      For a cost/benefit analysis, on the capital cost side, the land was donated to the Diocese in the ’40s and the new church was built earlier this century at a cost of $5.5 million, all paid by the parishioners and at no cost to the Diocese.
      On the benefit side was a growing and dynamic spiritual community on the cusp of financial independence from the Diocese, housed in a mission worship space (although I still like the word “church”) capable of supporting a wide array of spiritual, educational and community service programs that were ongoing or in planning. This amid a Diocese and a national church experiencing a long membership decline. I’m not sure what the exact value of that is, but my back-of-the-envelope estimate is “priceless.”

  8. Christina Thom says:

    Long ago a friend reminded me that we forget that Jesus Christ cares for everyone.

  9. Dan Eberly says:

    Dr. Habiby – I agree with Bruno’s past success, but I ask you to note the change in his behavior in dealing with 200+ parishioners and the Vicar at St. James the Great. His lack of pastoral care of tossing 200+ of Christ Children to the wind was vindictive! His past success DOES NOT justify his behavior toward the SJTG parishioners. When a Man is good most of his life and does wrong at the end, and is found GUILTY, are we to only remember the good?

  10. Walter Stahr says:

    The current congregation, St. James the Great, is NOT the Anglican congregation that left the Episcopal church in 2004. The current congregation is an Episcopal congregation, an inclusive diverse congregation, including many gay and lesbian members. I would urge folks, before commenting, to learn something about the situation, by reading for example the hearing panel’s decision.

  11. Mary Ellen Barnes says:

    I attended the reconsecration service when St. James the Great was won back from the congregation that couldn’t abide same-gender marriage and female priests. I am a member of a parish that was borne out of St. James the Great, St. Wilfrid’s in Huntington Beach. I interviewed with Rev. Cindy for the position of office administrator months after the reconsecration before the punitive actions of Bishop Bruno, and was given some insight into church finances that was 180 degrees opposed to the financial picture painted by Bishop Bruno during the hearing and repeated to me since by congregants of St. Wilfrid’s who feel Bishop Bruno has been unjustly maligned. My conclusion is that opening the doors once again of Newport Beach’s St. James the Great as an Episcopal Mission Church to its faithful and lawful Episcopal congregation is long overdue. Justice has been done. Maybe the third time will finally, rightfully, be the charm. Bishop Bruno was wrong from the get-go on this issue. At the same time, I believe what our new Bishop John Taylor said, that no person’s life can be condemned on one mistake, and there is much to be lauded and grateful for in Bishop Bruno’s long tenure. As far as I can see, there is no pattern of misconduct here, just a human being’s late-in-life tunnel-visioned goal to fill the diocese treasury before retirement, to end a successful career on a praise-worthy note. That his mistake hurt so many people and the diocese because of the path he chose to pursue his goal is the definition of tunnel vision.

  12. mike geibel says:

    Message from the new Bishop of the LA Diocese:

    ‘Citing binding legal contracts and a need to avoid litigation, Bishop Coadjutor John H. Taylor announced Aug. 14 that diocesan leadership will allow the sale of church property in Newport Beach used by the previous congregation of St. James the Great to proceed.”

    What an ugly spectacle is the Episcopal Church.

    What an affront to the hopes and dreams of the loyal parishioners at St. James the Great–tossed on the trash heap by a vengeful Bishop, and ratified by him that follows. There is no justice in the Episcopal Church–just hypocrisy and duplicity camouflaged in Bishop’s Robes. In his message, the new Bishop prays for peace and reconciliation while he stabs the dispossessed members in the back. The scars are permanent. The real lesson here is: “NEVER sacrifice your time, money or heart for the Episcopal Church.”

    It is telling that the Diocese did not disclose the purchase price. The LA Diocese or the TEC could buy the church back from the developer if they wanted to. But the cash payday for a morally and financially bankrupt diocese is more important than all their baptismal vows or the spiritual needs of the membership. Absolutely disgraceful in every way. Evil triumphs.

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