The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees testifies during the trial of Bishop Jon Bruno.
Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

By Kirk Petersen

Testimony began Tuesday in a rare ecclesiastical trial that pits a bishop of the Episcopal Church against an active and affluent group of worshipers who believe he sold their spiritual home out from under them.

The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, Bishop of Los Angeles, stands accused of “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy” and of “conduct involving dishonesty, deceit, or misrepresentation.” If found guilty, he could be deposed.

The dispute centers on a valuable church property in Newport Beach, California, that has been mired in litigation and legal proceedings for more than a decade. In 2004, the priest and 1,500 members of what was then St. James Church withdrew from the Episcopal Church. Three other churches in the diocese also withdrew, and joined the Anglican Church in North America.

The departing parishes and the diocese both claimed ownership of the church properties, and the parishes had the keys to the buildings. In 2013, after nine years of litigation, a court ruling found that the diocese owned the buildings. In Newport Beach, this meant a property appraised at more than $7 million no longer had a congregation to support it.

In emotional testimony on the first day of a three-day hearing, the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees and several others described their extensive efforts to foster a new congregation, St. James the Great, in the existing building, which was built in the 1940s and extensively renovated in 2002.

Voorhees, whom Bishop Bruno appointed as vicar of the fledgling church in September 2013, testified that the bishop abruptly informed her in April 2015 that the campus had been sold for $15 million (more than twice the recent appraisal value) to a developer who planned to bulldoze the church and construct luxury condominiums. She said the bishop ordered her not to disclose this information to parishioners until a May 17 meeting of the church, at which he would announce the sale.

Voorhees testified that the announcement had a devastating effect on members of the mission, who had made financial pledges and worked hard to build what they believed would be a worshiping community with a long-term future.

“Some parishioners had lost their church twice now — once when the Anglicans took it and now with the sale,” she testified. She described a highly emotional period in which “people were falling on the ground outside my office, sobbing.”

Like all Episcopal priests, Voorhees took a vow of obedience to her bishop when she was ordained, and she testified that she was torn between her duty of obedience and her commitment to her congregation. She initially told members of St. James that she did not believe she was the right person to lead them after they lost their building. But members asked her to stay on. After taking the better part of a minute to compose herself, Voorhees testified in a strained voice: “I took a vow to take care of the flock. I can’t abandon them right now.”

She testified that Bishop Bruno offered her a position working on an international mission at a salary of $111,000, which was far more than she was making at the church. She accepted the position initially, but then handed her first paycheck back to the bishop and said she would stay with St. James the Great.

The last worship service in the building was scheduled for June 28, 2015, and by that time relations between the bishop and the priest had soured.

“[W]e were apparently a pawn in the bishop’s ‘game of thrones’ all along,” Voorhees wrote in what she described as a “last pastoral letter” to the members of St. James. She said the bishop informed her that he accepted that document as her letter of resignation, but Voorhees said she did not intend it that way.

The day after the final service, diocesan personnel changed the locks, preventing parishioners from retrieving personal items. The sale subsequently fell through, and the building sits empty. St. James the Great continues to worship under Voorhees’s leadership, meeting in a community room owned by the City of Newport Beach. Roger Bloom, a consultant hired by St. James the Great for media relations, said attendance is a regular 100.

Voorhees testified that she was ordained by Bishop Bruno in 2005 after spending more than 25 years designing and building churches and other worship spaces. She worked with more than 250 churches from a variety of denominations in that time, including consulting work for St. James in its 2002 renovation. She also founded and served as president of BuildingAFRICA, a nonprofit agency supporting health care, education, agriculture, and technology in Africa.

Voorhees served in a number of diocesan leadership roles, including as president of the standing committee.

She originally signed on as vicar in a non-stipendiary (unpaid) role. As the congregation began to generate pledge and rental income, the church paid her a modest but growing salary. She was supported by lay leaders with substantial business experience, including a certified public accountant who led the finance committee and a retired nursing-home executive who worked full time as an unpaid warden.

The accountant, Evangeline Andersen, testified that the mission had gone from essentially no revenue in 2013 to pledges from members totaling $256,000 for 2015 — pledges made by parishioners who thought the congregation would endure for many years. When Bishop Bruno announced the sale, she said, the mission had $100,000 in the bank and was current on all of its bills.

She rejected the bishop’s statement that the congregation was unsustainable, saying she believed it had demonstrated “amazing financial growth.” The mission was receiving $48,000 annually in temporary support from the diocese, and was paying back more than $20,000 as a “mission share pledge” to the diocese.

Tuesday’s proceedings were very much like a courtroom trial, with some church twists, such as starting and ending the hearings with prayer. The hearing is taking place in a hotel conference room stuffed well beyond its capacity of 120 people, many of them wearing clerical collars.

Instead of a judge, the hearing is presided over by a disciplinary committee including three bishops, a priest, and a laywoman. The case against the bishop is being presented by Jerry Coughlan, a prominent San Diego attorney who is being paid by the Episcopal Church.

The hearing is set to resume Wednesday morning with continued testimony by Voorhees, after which Bishop Bruno’s representatives will present his defense.

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