The Rev. Cindy Voorhees, vicar, addresses the St. James congregation before a Eucharist at Newport Beach City Hall. • Lissa Schairer
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
A bitter standoff between a displaced California congregation and the bishop who evicted them from a $15 million church property last year is culminating in a rare event: the public trial of an accused bishop.
The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, Bishop of Los Angeles, will be only the third Episcopal Church bishop known to have faced an ecclesiastical trial since 2000. His trial is believed to be the first under a public hearing process that took effect in 2011, said Mark Duffy, canonical archivist and director of the Episcopal Church Archives. Bruno received his notice in July. The start date and location will be announced soon.
Bruno stands accused of three canonical violations: conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation; conduct unbecoming a bishop; and attempting to dispose of property without the standing committee’s consent. When asked to comment on the charges, Bob Williams of the Diocese of Los Angeles referred to a July 21 statement.
“Out of respect for the explicit instructions provided to all parties and in accordance with our Church canons, I will continue to meet the strict confidentiality standards of this process,” Bruno said then.
A church-appointed attorney, former federal prosecutor R.J. Coughlan, Jr., will prosecute Bruno much as an attorney general would bring charges against a defendant on behalf of the state. When representing the United States, Coughlan took down corporate fraudsters and other white-collar criminals. In his San Diego legal practice, he investigated misconduct at public agencies and companies.
The church’s Office of Public Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
Church historian Robert Prichard said bishops have faced trials based on national standards since the late 19th century, and the issue at hand today bears echoes of the past.
“Disputes over ownership, purchase of property, is a recurring theme in charges against the bishops,” said Prichard, a professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary and editor of The Journal of Episcopal Canon Law. He noted several cases in which a bishop engaged in a real-estate transaction without first obtaining proper consent in the diocese.
“That’s one of the kinds of things that bishops have over time gotten in trouble for,” Prichard said.
Bruno’s charges trace to a heated conflict with St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach. In a 40-page complaint, St. James congregants allege that Bruno misled the congregation when it launched in 2013. The church was consecrated after a multi-year property fight with a congregation now known as St. James Anglican Church, Newport Mesa. Members of St. James the Great, led by Vicar Cindy Voorhees, believed the fledgling mission church could grow and expand outreach programs, such as software-coding instruction for local kids. But they argue that Bruno deceived them about what lay ahead.
Even in 2013, Bruno intended to sell the property, the complaint asserts, and it says he kept those plans secret. In April 2015, he entered a contract to sell the property to a developer for $15 million. By June 2015, the congregation was required to leave, and Bruno had the locks changed. Efforts to sell the property have been tied up in litigation for the past year.
Meanwhile, St. James has been a congregation with no permanent home. For months, more than 100 gathered for Eucharist weekly in a nearby park before changing weather forced them to find an indoor space. The congregation now rents a venue at City Hall, but the impermanence of the situation is taking a toll.
Church member Walter Stahr said it is not easy on a congregation when everything for worship must be packed in vehicles and unpacked every week, including a sound system that takes 90 minutes to set up. He said congregants are not falling away, but they are like him: they like to worship in a church home with stained glass and pews.
“We’re in something almost as hard as a marathon race, but we don’t know whether we have one mile to go, 10 miles to go, or 100,” Stahr said. “And that may lead you to stop by the side of the road and say, I’m sorry. I’ve done all I can.”
Bruno is still battling in two California civil court cases for the right to sell the St. James facility, which long ago caught the eye of developers as a prime location for luxury condominiums in upscale Newport Beach. In one case, he is the defendant against a St. James group vying to block the sale. In the other case, he’s suing to obtain a clean title from the Griffith Company, which donated the property with a religious restriction more than 40 years ago. Griffith says the land still cannot be sold for non-church use.
In both cases, Bruno won in lower courts. Those decisions are now being appealed. The courts found the congregants’ group, SAVE St. James the Great, had no standing to contest the proposed sale and ruled that Griffith’s religious use restriction is not enforceable. In his July 21 statement, Bruno said both appeals “are designed to delay the sale of the Newport Beach property and cost the Bishop money.”
“These actions have no probability of success,” he said.
Though Bruno has prevailed in secular courts, his pending trial comes with high stakes. He could be defrocked. Most cases involving allegations against a bishop are resolved by a conference panel, in which complainants and the bishop come to an agreement on facts and, if necessary, sanctions. Because the parties in this case could not agree, and because the church finds the charges worth pursuing, the case proceeds to trial.
In accordance with the church’s Title IV canons dealing with disciplinary matters, Bruno will face a panel of familiar faces. The majority will be some of his colleagues from the House of Bishops. Three of the five panelists must be bishops. A fourth must be a priest or deacon, and a fifth must be a layperson.
“Episcopal bishops see one another often,” Stahr said. “Almost certainly all of the bishops on the panel have spent both social and professional time with Bishop Bruno. It’s just unavoidable.”
In a statement, SAVE St. James said it would still like to resolve the issues and return to its former home, which stands unoccupied and unused, without going through the trial. But SAVE St. James the Great is not a party in the church case. To avert a hearing, Bruno would need to strike a deal with Coughlan, perhaps involving others in the church hierarchy.
“A settlement at this stage would have to involve the church attorney and probably Presiding Bishop Michael Curry,” Stahr said. “I’m sure they would consult with the congregation, but it is no longer in our hands.”