By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, Bishop of Los Angeles, reportedly offered $1 million to parishioners of St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach during an ill-fated mediation process to resolve grievances pending before an ecclesiastical court.
The Rev. Cindy Voorhees, vicar of St. James, says Bishop Bruno made the offer while both sides were working with a church-appointed mediator to resolve differences stemming from Bruno’s moves to evict the congregation in June and proceed with a deal to sell the property.
The diocese says Bishop Bruno simply renewed an offer he first made in the spring, and that the offer was not an attempt at settling the dispute.
Conciliation talks broke down in September, with the two sides failing to reach agreement. The congregation, which alleges in its complaint that Bruno is culpable in 147 violations of church law, was not interested in Bruno’s $1 million offer, Voorhees said.
“The church building that we were in cost $6 million to build, and the land alone would be $15 million,” she said.
Voorhees said Bruno wanted the congregation to drop its complaint in exchange for the $1 million.
Bob Williams, the diocese’s canon for community relations, said no such quid pro quo was ever on the table.
Williams confirmed that Bruno had indeed offered a sum during the conciliation process, though he declined to disclose the amount. He emphasized, however, that Bruno had previously made the same offer in the spring, before the congregation filed its complaint, which is known as a presentment in the church judicial process. It was a standing offer of support for the congregation’s continuing mission, Williams said, and was never intended as a settlement.
“It would be absolutely wrong to characterize it that the bishop was offering them money to somehow settle the situation,” Williams said. “That would be absolutely inaccurate.”
Ever since the locks at St. James were changed on June 29, the congregation has been without a building to call home. Voorhees now leads Sunday morning services in a nearby park. Before losing access to the building, St. James averaged around 125 in average Sunday attendance.
The embattled property is held through Corporation Sole, which Bishop Bruno controls. Corporation Sole has an interested buyer that wants to develop luxury housing units on the site, but the pending sale is held up in litigation. Bruno is suing the original donor of the property, the Griffith Co., for a clean title. The Griffith Co. maintains the property was donated as the site of a congregation in perpetuity and cannot be sold at Bruno’s discretion.
Parishioners of St. James hope the pending sale will be cancelled and that they can return to the building, which the diocese retained after a nine-year court battle with four congregations that affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America. Bruno participated in a renewed commissioning of St. James in 2013.
In the recent conciliation efforts, St. James had little leverage, Voorhees said, but nonetheless made an offer that would have let parishioners return to the building at 3209 Via Lido in Newport Beach. She said they suggested a mixed-use development for a portion of the property that is now used as a parking lot. Williams said Bruno never heard any such mixed-use proposal during the conciliation efforts.
In conciliation talks, a mediator shuttled between the parties, meeting with each side three times in a bid to broker an agreement, but never convening everyone in the same room at once.
With no agreement in sight, the conflict now shifts to other settings. A reference panel for the Episcopal Church will decide on next steps for handling the lengthy presentment, which charges Bruno with such infractions as reckless or intentional misrepresentation and conduct unbecoming of a bishop.
When the diocesan convention gathers on Dec. 4 and 5, delegates are likely to have some say on matters pertaining to St. James.
Allies of the congregation are proposing canonical amendments and related resolutions. Proposed amendments would make sure property associated with active institutions, such as schools and congregations, is moved from Corporation Sole to the Corporation of the Diocese, under which Bishop Bruno would not have unilateral authority to sell.
The Rev. James Newman, rector of St. Bede’s Church in Los Angeles, collected signatures for the proposed amendments and resolutions. He said the goal is partly to affirm the rights of local Episcopal groups engaged in active ministries, especially those occupying properties held in Corporation Sole. A second goal is to prevent another situation like the one in Newport Beach.
“What we could do is work within the diocese to make sure that this didn’t happen again and try to put pressure on the bishop to undo what he had done,” Fr. Newman said.
Three resolutions, each signed by more than 15 diocesan clergy, call for: (1) an audit of Corporation Sole; (2) a transfer of active institutional assets out of Corporation Sole; and (3) cancelation of the pending St. James sale. The chancellor of the diocese is considering whether to add the resolutions to the December meeting’s agenda or deem them out of order, Williams said.
For his part, Bruno issued a statement Sept. 30 that says Corporation Sole is already audited annually. In the statement, he also called on St. James to file monthly financial information with the bishop’s office and establish a bishop’s committee. Both measures are required of mission congregations in the Diocese of Los Angeles, according to the statement.
“I call us forward at this time,” Bruno said in the statement, “to move into the next phases of this transition in Newport Beach, where the property sale is moving forward apace with proceeds to be applied to advance strategic wider mission in both South Orange County and the diocese at large. I hope we will have word very soon from the Reference Panel as to its recommendations.”
Image: The former home of St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach sits empty while its members try to stop its sale. • Elizabeth Schairer