Defense Focuses on Priest

Church attorney Raymond “Jerry” Coughlan shows documents to J. Jon Bruno during the bishop’s testimony March 29.
 • Mary Frances Schjonberg/ENS •

Church attorney Raymond “Jerry” Coughlan shows documents to J. Jon Bruno during the bishop’s testimony March 29.
Mary Frances Schjonberg/ENS

By Kirk Petersen

In the second day of Bishop J. Jon Bruno’s trial, the defense concentrated on undermining the testimony of the priest at the center of the dispute. The discussion turned ugly at times, highlighting the rifts between formerly congenial colleagues.

Bruno, Bishop of Los Angeles since 2002, faces charges of misrepresentation and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, and he could be deposed if convicted. In May 2015, the bishop abruptly announced that St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach — which had reopened less than two years earlier after being recovered through litigation — had been sold.

The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, who served as vicar of the church throughout that two-year period, testified Tuesday that the bishop had given no indication that a sale was being considered and told her in 2015 that the property would not be sold. Bruno testified Wednesday that he never made any such promise.

In April 2015, a developer had offered $15 million for the property, which had been appraised at about half that. The developer intended to bulldoze the church and construct luxury condominiums. The sale fell through after parishioners began legal actions and filed disciplinary charges against Bruno, and his counsel told the court she believed the intent of the legal action was to derail the sale.

Julie Larsen, vice chancellor of the Diocese of Los Angeles, opened her cross-examination by reminding Voorhees that the two of them sat next to each other when they served on the board of the Corporation of the Diocese. She said with a smile that she would try to remember to address the witness as “Canon Voorhees” rather than “Cindy.” Voorhees stared back, unsmiling.

Larsen spent the next 90 minutes scrutinizing the canon’s testimony. She got Voorhees to admit that she had not filed the monthly reports required under the diocese’s rules for mission churches. Voorhees said she had never been asked to file the reports. Later in the day, Bruno testified that he had asked his staff multiple times for the monthly reports and other financial information, but had never asked Voorhees directly.

Voorhees was asked about a chance encounter with the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool, who was then bishop suffragan. She said Bishop Glasspool expressed sympathy about the pending sale of the church and said she was in trouble for talking with the standing committee about the sale. The conflict between the two bishops became so serious that they had to negotiate an agreement through a mediator.

Voorhees said she wanted to keep the remainder of the conversation confidential, but she was directed to continue by the Rt. Rev. Herman Hollerith, Bishop of Southern Virginia and chairman of the five-person hearing panel.

Voorhees said Bishop Glasspool had told her that Bishop Bruno “scared the [expletive] out of her, and she needed to get out of here.” Bishop Glasspool subsequently was named Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of New York.

Later, when Voorhees was asked if she had met with Bruno, she drew a gasp from the audience when she said, “I didn’t feel comfortable being alone with him.”

The dispute spilled into the broader community after Bruno sent a letter to the mayor pro tem of Newport Beach saying that the church was being sold because it was financially unsustainable. This led to a town hall meeting crowded with people wearing red “Save St. James” T-shirts. At a subsequent city hall meeting, a councilman said the bishop’s actions had been “deplorable” and “despicable.”

The church has been empty since diocesan staff changed the locks at Bruno’s instruction on June 29, 2015, the day after the final Sunday service. Voorhees continues to serve as a pastor to the congregation. Members worship in a community room owned by the City of Newport Beach.

The Title IV complaints against Bishop Bruno state that he violated the canons of the church by:

  • Failing to obtain permission from the standing committee before signing an agreement to sell the consecrated church
  • Misrepresenting his plans for St. James and the proceeds
  • Claiming that St. James was not sustainable
  • Representing that Voorhees had resigned
  • Claiming that the congregation would be able to continue using the church for a number of months
  • Locking the congregation and community out of St. James

The dispute about whether Voorhees resigned stemmed from a letter she sent to her congregation that she described as her “last pastoral letter.” She told members that she did not feel she was the right person to lead them after the loss of the church building. Church members later asked her to stay on, and she agreed.

In the meantime, Bishop Bruno became aware of the letter and said, “I saw that as a pastor or a shepherd abandoning her sheep.” He wrote to Voorhees that he considered it a letter of resignation, but she denied that was her intent.

Testimony will continue for a third and final day on Thursday.

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