The Bishop of Los Angeles has been sanctioned after an apparent attempt, for the second time, to secretly sell a church in his diocese. The move comes while the fallout from his first attempted sale is being considered by a disciplinary panel that has the authority to take away not just his bishop’s miter but his clerical collar as well.
The controversy centers on St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach, which the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno first attempted to sell in April 2015. Bruno signed a $15 million binding sales agreement without consulting either the congregation or the diocese’s Standing Committee. The buyer withdrew from the sale after the congregation launched legal and disciplinary efforts to block it.
After nearly two years of conflict, this March a five-member hearing panel listened to more than 20 hours of testimony in what amounted to a canonical trial of the bishop, who is accused of misrepresentation and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.
The panel, which has not yet issued a verdict, received evidence last week that a second sale attempt had occurred. In a two-page order dated June 17, and captioned “Imposition of Sanctions on the Respondent,” the panel said Bruno is “prohibited from selling or conveying or contracting to sell or convey the St. James Property until further order of the Hearing Panel.”
The order strongly criticizes the bishop and his counsel for failing to either admit or deny that there had been an attempt to sell, despite having been directed to respond to the allegation. “If Respondent has entered into a contract to sell, or sold, the St. James property before the Hearing Panel has decided the case, that conduct is disruptive, dilatory and otherwise contrary to the integrity of this proceeding. The same applies to his failure to supply information concerning the alleged sale.”
The panel consists of three bishops, a priest, and a layperson. The Rt. Rev. Herman Hollerith IV, Bishop of Southern Virginia, serves as the panel’s president.
The panel’s order was first reported by the Orange County Register, which said the complaint had been lodged with the hearing panel by Bill Kroener, a member of St. James. Kroener, who could not immediately be reached for comment, told the Register he was pleased with the hearing panel’s prompt action.
“It represents a positive step forward for the St. James congregants, and it’s the first step for us to get the church back for Episcopal worship,” he said.
The 40,000-square-foot church has stood empty since June 2015, when at Bruno’s direction the diocesan staff had the locks changed. More than 100 members continue to worship each week in a community room at Newport Beach City Hall, led by the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, who testified against Bruno at length in the March hearing.
The church, which was extensively renovated in 2002, sits on prime real estate overlooking the bridge to Lido Island, home to a yacht club and multimillion-dollar homes. The diocese recovered the property from a breakaway Anglican congregation in 2013 after nine years of litigation. It was one of four churches that disaffiliated from the diocese, partly in response to the consecration of an openly gay bishop. At its height, the church was home to about 1,500 parishioners.
With Bruno’s approval, Voorhees began efforts to rebuild a congregation on the property in 2013. Testimony in March indicated that the congregation had been steadily growing and had received pledges from parishioners totaling $254,000 for 2015. One member had paid for a $15,000 sound system for the church a few months before the abrupt announcement that the property was being sold to a developer who planned to bulldoze the building and construct luxury condominiums.
Church members formed a 501(c)(3) charitable organization named Save St. James the Great and maintain an extensive website and robust social media presence. They also have a public relations representative.
The congregation, which is fiercely loyal to Voorhees, has the means and the sophistication to wage an extended battle to reclaim access to the property. Kroener, for example, is an attorney at the prestigious Sullivan & Cromwell law firm, and formerly served as general counsel of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The congregation’s first warden, Bruce Bennett, who testified in March, is the retired CEO of a nursing-home business. Voorhees was a successful business owner for more than 25 years before being ordained, and founded BuildingAFRICA, a nonprofit supporting health care, education, agriculture, and technology in Africa.
While the disciplinary action against Bruno started with a complaint from members of the congregation, the case is now being prosecuted by the Episcopal Church. As required by Title IV of the church’s governing documents in the case of charges against a bishop, the Episcopal Church is paying for both the prosecution and the defense.
Bruno, 70, has announced plans to retire in 2018, and his successor has been elected. The Rev. Canon John H. Taylor will be consecrated a bishop and begin serving as bishop coadjutor on July 8. Bruno has faced serious health challenges during his service as the sixth bishop of Los Angeles, which began in 2002. In 2005, his left foot and ankle were amputated to stop a staph infection, and he underwent extensive chemotherapy in 2012 for leukemia, which he later announced was in remission.
Kirk PetersenSanctions on Respondent 2017-06-17