Second Battle for St. James

Photo of Bishop Bruno by Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Reporting and analysis by Kirk Petersen

A public disciplinary hearing for Bishop J. Jon Bruno ended on Thursday after the airing of a lot of dirty laundry, and with little clarity about what happens next, or when.

In more than 20 hours of testimony across three days in a Pasadena hotel conference room, a parade of witnesses wove a tale of high finance, shattered friendships, spiritual joy, and perceptions of pastoral betrayal.

Bruno, Bishop of Los Angeles, is accused of misrepresentation and of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, and he could be deposed if convicted. The allegations initially were made by a priest and parishioners in his diocese, but the case is being prosecuted by the Episcopal Church, as canons require for allegations against bishops.

At the end of the hearing, Bishop Herman Hollerith of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, who chairs the five-member disciplinary panel, said a ruling is unlikely before Easter.

The dispute began with Bruno’s decision to sell a valuable piece of real estate in Newport Beach, the site of what originally was known as St. James Episcopal Church. From about 2004 to 2013, it was known as St. James Anglican Church — one of four churches in the Diocese of Los Angeles that voted to leave the diocese, partially in response to the consecration of an openly gay bishop.

The diocese secured the four properties in 2013 after nine years of litigation and a ruling by the California Supreme Court. The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees was eager to launch a new Episcopal congregation in the Newport Beach facility. Bruno granted his permission, under the condition that she work on a non-stipendiary (unpaid) basis. The fledgling congregation was renamed St. James the Great.

By whatever name, the Newport Beach church is a huge and beautiful facility in a wealthy community. It was home to 1,500 parishioners before the disaffiliation, and the building totals about 40,000 square feet. The church sits on a prominent piece of land overlooking the bridge to Lido Island, which boasts a yacht club and multimillion-dollar homes.

Voorhees and a group of highly motivated lay leaders testified that in less than two years they had built a congregation of about 100 members. They collectively pledged to donate $254,000 for 2015, an amount that would be bolstered by rental income. It was not yet enough to fully fund the operation of a facility of that size, but many long-established congregations would be thrilled with that level of income.

The church now sits empty. The locks were changed in June 2015 after the eviction of Voorhees and her flock in preparation for the property’s sale. A developer offered $15 million for the parcel — nearly twice its appraised value — on April 1, 2015, and Bruno signed an agreement to sell on April 10. Only after committing to the sale did he inform Voorhees. He also made the commitment without consulting the diocese’s standing committee — a lapse that may or may not have been a violation of canons. That is one of the issues the disciplinary board will attempt to resolve.

The developer planned to bulldoze the building — which had been extensively renovated in 2002 — and construct luxury condominiums. But the plan quickly fell through after Voorhees and the congregation launched legal and disciplinary efforts to block the sale.

Voorhees is now the spiritual leader of a flock organized under the name Save St. James the Great, a 501(c)(3) charitable corporation. About 100 worshipers gather each Sunday in the community room of Newport Beach City Hall. They have a sophisticated website and a strong social media presence, and a busload of members traveled 60 miles in each direction every day of the hearing in Pasadena. The organist purchased a portable pipe organ and lugs it to and from City Hall each week, where he leads a choir of a dozen singers.

Bruno, who at age 70 is less than two years from mandatory retirement, faces the possibility of being defrocked after 41 years of ordained ministry. He became bishop of the fourth-largest diocese in the church, but eventually was vilified by local politicians and estranged from many of the priests he leads. His successor, Bishop Coadjutor-Elect John Taylor, is due to be ordained and consecrated on July 8 of this year.

The Episcopal Church is in uncharted waters, incurring great expense because of a canonical obligation to fund both sides of the proceedings in a disciplinary action against its own bishop. Neva Rae Fox, the church’s public affairs officer, was unable to provide any estimate of the hearing’s expenses, but she confirmed that both the prosecution and the defense are funded by the national church.

The cost is clearly quite substantial. Start with a three-day rental of a large conference room in the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel in historic Old Pasadena, as well as a smaller conference room serving as an office for the panel. Add hotel rooms at nearly $300 per night for the five members of the panel, plus a dozen or more lawyers and support personnel for the prosecution, the defense, and Episcopal officials. Fly many of those people to and from the hearing from their far-flung homes (the five panel members include bishops from Virginia, Rhode Island, and North Dakota, plus a priest from Rhode Island and a laywoman from Ohio). All of this is before paying fees for the lawyers who generated more than 200 exhibits packed into sets of four-inch binders.

Testimony at the hearing revealed that the nine-year legal battle to secure ownership of the church properties cost more than $9 million, including about $5 million in legal fees and another $4 million in estimated staff expense and opportunity costs from foregone investment income.

The second battle for control of St. James, at two years and counting, presumably will cost less. The $15 million sale of St. James could probably have covered both conflicts, but the sale fell through, and it seems unlikely that the diocese will ever receive anywhere near that much for the property. The former mayor of Newport Beach, Diane Dixon, testified that the property would need to be rezoned to be used for purposes other than a church. She played a video from a City Council hearing in which one of her colleagues said Bruno’s actions in the two fights for control of St. James had been “deplorable” and “despicable,” and another council member vowed to scrutinize any rezoning proposal closely.

Collateral damage from the three-day hearing includes the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool, formerly one of two Bishops Suffragan of Los Angeles. On March 29, Voorhees testified that Glasspool and Bruno had a serious falling-out about selling St. James, and that Glasspool told her that Bruno “scared the [expletive] out of her, and she needed to get out of here.”

The nature of the conflict became clearer on March 30 during the testimony of the Rev. Melissa McCarthy, who was president of the standing committee during the attempted sale of St. James the Great. McCarthy described a telephone call from Glasspool in which the bishop suffragan swore her to secrecy, then told her she had learned confidentially from Bruno that the church was being sold. Glasspool then said that as head of the standing committee, McCarthy needed to “stop this sale.”

McCarthy said that although Glasspool had asked her to hold the conversation in confidence, she realized after several hours of prayer that she needed to report it to Bruno. In a wavering voice, McCarthy said, “When I realized that the Bishop Suffragan had called the president of the standing committee and enlisted her support to undermine what the bishop diocesan was doing, and had broken his confidentiality, I thought he needed to know.”

Under questioning by Richard Zevnik, who as chancellor of the diocese was representing Bruno, McCarthy said her trepidation over how to proceed was heightened by her five years of fraught history with Glasspool. “There were several different times where I had been reprimanded for doing something I did not know was wrong, and I’m not even sure was wrong now, and [I was] humiliated by her,” McCarthy testified.

In November 2015, Glasspool was called as Assistant Bishop of New York. In announcing her departure from Los Angeles, Bruno wrote: “Please join me in congratulating Bishop Glasspool on this new chapter in her ministry, and in giving thanks for her remarkable ministry with us here in Southern California. We will have an opportunity at Diocesan Convention to express our thanks and best wishes to Bishop Glasspool as she returns to the region in which she was born and formed in the Episcopal Church.”

Voorhees emerges from the hearing as a sympathetic figure, yet not entirely unscathed. Testimony by both Bruno and by Clare Zabala Bangao, the diocesan coordinator of mission congregations, indicated that Voorhees failed to provide the monthly financial reports required of all mission churches.

“I was told not to worry about them, because they knew I had no staff, and that we were in the formation process, getting people into positions where they could do that,” Voorhees testified.

She also said she was keeping Bruno informed of the congregation’s progress in discussions before or after the monthly meetings of the Corporation of the Diocese, one of several governing bodies in an unusually complicated structure.

Bruno testified that he asked Bangao every month for the St. James financial reports, and Bangao said she frequently spoke with Voorhees about the need to file them. Apparently none of these requests were made in writing. The financial reporting is a critical part of the disciplinary case, because Bruno is accused of falsely representing that he agreed to sell St. James the Great in part because the congregation was financially unsustainable. He said he based his opinion on the financial data he had at hand for the young church, which was not much.

Testimony by Voorhees and her lay leaders made it clear that the congregation, although not fully self-sufficient, was making rapid strides in that direction. Evangeline Andersen, an accountant who headed the church’s financial team, testified that at the time the church was closed, it had $100,000 in the bank and was current on all obligations. St. James the Great had hired two part-time office employees and was beginning to pay Voorhees a modest but growing salary, in amounts below the minimum diocesan guidelines for full-time clergy.

The canon’s salary was another source of contention. Bruno is accused of falsely representing that Voorhees was not being paid. All parties agree that she was unpaid at the beginning. Bruno testified that he was unaware that the congregation had begun to pay her until the disciplinary proceedings began. “I should have been informed of that,” he said.

It appears that the decision to change Voorhees’s status from non-stipendiary to partly stipendiary was made unilaterally by Voorhees and her flock, beginning with a one-time payment of $25,000 approved by the church’s finance committee in 2014. While Bangao testified she was aware of a $48,000 annual salary for Voorhees starting in 2015, thousands of pages of exhibits and deposition transcripts provide no written record of anyone at the diocese agreeing to the change in the prior year. In her testimony, Voorhees contradicted Bruno’s testimony that he did not know about the compensation until the disciplinary charges were filed. She said she had told him in person that the congregation had begun to pay her.

Voorhees also did not help herself in the days leading up to the final service in the church on June 28, 2015. Voorhees testified that she was under enormous pressure, overwhelmed by the pastoral care needed by her congregants, who were bereft at the impending loss of the church after they had invested great effort and considerable expense. (For example, because the former members had taken the sound system with them, a member of St. James the Great bought a $15,000 sound system for the church just a few months before the unexpected decision to sell the property.)

Voorhees wrote a series of pastoral letters to her congregation, beginning when the planned sale was announced in May. On June 25, she distributed her fifth such letter [PDF], which posed two problems.

First, the letter sounded very much like a resignation. “It is with great sadness that I write this last pastoral letter,” she wrote. “It is now time for us to scatter into the Holy Spirit’s wind and plant our fertile seeds elsewhere. I have decided that I cannot lead you into a diaspora situation, not only for personal reasons but for professional reasons as well.” Voorhees testified that the congregation responded by imploring her to stay, and she decided to do so.

The second problem was that she wrote, “We were apparently a pawn in the bishop’s ‘game of thrones’ all along.”

She did not send a copy of the letter to the bishop, but somebody did, and those statements prompted Bruno to tell Voorhees via email that he was accepting her resignation. She scrambled to respond that she had not, in fact, resigned, and in a formal sense that may be true. But the letter undercuts one of the specific allegations against Bruno: that he falsely represented that Voorhees had resigned.

Still, while Voorhees’s letter may have been ill-advised, she is not on trial. Only Bruno is.

There are no winners in this story. The best outcome Bruno can hope for is that the church declines to discipline him at the end of his career. The members of Save St. James the Great have a more hopeful vision that the disciplinary panel will return their church building. But the chance of that is uncertain at best, because the panel may lack the authority to order it.

The Rev. Canon Mary Sulerud is the interim rector at a church in Baltimore and an expert in Title IV issues, the portion of church canons under which Bruno is charged. She monitored the entire hearing and was tasked with briefing the media as necessary about canon law.

At the end of the hearing, asked whether the panel might restore the building to the congregation, Sulerud said she “would believe they would be asking themselves what the scope of their ruling could be.” She noted that Title IV deals with disciplinary issues, not with disposition of property.

There have been other disciplinary actions against bishops, but they are rare, and there is no precedent for a case of this complexity. Despite the courtroom trappings of the three-day hearing — cross-examination, redirect, objections sustained and overruled — this is not a legal matter. It is a church governance matter, and to some degree the panel is, necessarily, making up the rules as it goes along.

Before gaveling the proceedings to a close at the end of a third long day, Bishop Hollerith announced that both parties had agreed to submit their closing arguments in writing, rather than prolong the hearing any further. Attorneys on both sides agreed to submit their closing briefs simultaneously, within a week of receiving transcripts of the hearing.

It is likely to take the two court reporters at least a week to produce the voluminous transcripts, even if the church opts to pay for expedited service. Then the panel will have to deliberate and reach a decision on how to proceed.

After the closing prayer, Hollerith was asked whether the closing briefs would be made available to the media, since the hearing had been public. “That’s a good question,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Who makes that decision? “I don’t know that either,” he said with a laugh.

The morning after the hearing, Fox said the transcripts will be released to the media when they are available.

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