Attorneys urge Bishop Bruno disciplinary panel to move in opposite directions

Closing briefs call for dismissal or ‘creative way’ to move forward in Los Angeles

The Hearing Panel considering the disciplinary case against Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno consists of, from left, the Rev. Erik Larsen of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely, Diocese of Southern Virginia Bishop Herman Hollerith IV (panel president), panel legal advisor Brad Davenport, Deborah Stokes of Southern Ohio and North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/ Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] Attorneys representing the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno are asking an ecclesiastical disciplinary panel to come to opposite conclusions about whether the bishop violated church law in attempting to sell St. James the Great Episcopal Church.

Attorneys for Bruno argued for dismissal of the charges while the Episcopal Church’s attorney asked the members to find the bishop guilty but craft a sentence aimed at reconciliation. Their arguments came in briefs released close to a month after a rare bishop disciplinary hearing.

The misconduct allegations, initially brought by the members of St. James, stem from Bruno’s unsuccessful 2015 attempt to sell the church in Newport Beach to a condominium developer for $15 million in cash.

St. James was one of four properties that the diocese spent close to $10 million in litigation to recover from disaffiliated Episcopalians who broke with the Church over its policies on women’s ordination and the full inclusion of LGBTQI members in the life of the church, including ordained ministry.

Church Attorney Raymond “Jerry” Coughlan, left, shows Diocese of Los Angeles J. Jon Bruno documents during the bishop’s testimony March 29. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Bruno is at least the 10th bishop of the nearly 1,100 bishops in Episcopal Church history to have a disciplinary accusation against him reach the level of a formal hearing under the Church’s process for handling complaints applicable at the time. His trial was the first of a bishop since the Episcopal Church’s extensively revised Title IV disciplinary canons went into effect July 1, 2011.

The hearing on accusations that he violated church canons, including engaging in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy took place March 28-30 in Pasadena, California. The attorneys did not make oral closing arguments at the end of the testimony, opting instead to file written briefs. Those briefs could not be completed until after a transcript of the testimony was finished.

The Hearing Panel has not acted on the attorneys’ recommendation and it is not known when the members will issue their decision. The panel has a range of actions it can take, from dismissal of the allegations to removing Bruno from his ordained ministry.

Diocese of Los Angeles Chancellor Richard Zevnik and Vice Chancellor Julie Dean Larsen urged the panel in their brief to dismiss the entire case against Bruno. They said in the conclusion to their brief that a “civil lawsuit, political actions and social media campaign” mounted by members of St. James the Great in Newport Beach were “wrongfully, but successfully and strategically, designed to stop the sale of [the] 40,000-square foot church property” on what is known as Lido Island, a prosperous housing development sporting a yacht club.

The Church’s clergy disciplinary canon, the chancellors argue, is “not intended to be used as a weapon to challenge a diocesan bishop’s decisions regarding the administration and stewardship of his or her diocese.”

Along with the brief, Bruno’s chancellors also submitted a proposed order dismissing the charges, as well as a 65-page list of exhibits in the case. The Hearing Panel requested neither of the latter documents.

Episcopal Church Attorney Raymond “Jerry” Coughlan, on the other hand, argued in his brief that Bruno is guilty of “serious misconduct” in violating three sections of the Title IV canons: “failing to exercise his ministry in accordance with applicable church canons,” “conduct involving dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation” and “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. He said the panel must conclude that Bruno’s conduct was “calculated, pervasive and long-running.”

Because of those violations and because “today he shows no sign of recognizing even the possibility of his misconduct,” Coughlan recommended that panel suspend Bruno from ministry for at least a year.

However, because he said such a sentence would only exacerbate the conflict and not lead to reconciliation, Coughlan urged the panel to use its “broad authority” to craft a remedy that “looks forward creatively to heal the division now existing in the Los Angeles diocese.” That remedy would begin with staying any sentence of suspension if Bruno agrees not to appeal the panel’s finding.

Then, Coughlan suggested, a creative remedy could include:

  • Restricting Bruno’s ministry from having any role in the future administration of St. James unless asked to do so.
  • Requiring that St. James promptly be reopened for Episcopal worship under the auspices of an independent member of the diocese, such as in incoming Bishop Coadjutor John Taylor, with the advice of a committee he chooses.
  • Maintaining the Rev. Cindy Evan Voorhees as the paid vicar of the congregation for the rest of 2017 and 2018.
  • Finding that Bruno violated the two sections of Title IV concerning dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, but foregoing a ministry suspension and instead admonishing Bruno “to work with the new leader to effect reconciliation of all parties in the diocese, as and if that person requests.” The latter would recognize the bishop’s “many years of service, and the overarching need for everyone to move on to promote healing, forgiveness, justice and reconciliation among all in the community.”

Coughlan also submitted an unsolicited 36-page “statement of proposed facts” that presents his version of a timeline of the events leading up to the hearing.

Following the Hearing Panel’s decision, attorneys for both parties will have 40 days to appeal its decision to the Court of Review for Bishops.

Bruno turns 72, the Church’s mandatory retirement age, in late 2018. Taylor, his successor, is scheduled to be ordained and consecrated on July 8 of this year.

Because none of the previous steps of the Title IV disciplinary process resolved the issue, when the complaints against Bruno got to the point of seating a Hearing Panel, the Episcopal Church replaced St. James as the complainant in the case. Coughlan, representing the Episcopal Church, presented the case to the panel. The St. James members originally filed a complaint against Bruno on July 6, 2015. According to the Title IV process, the Church pays for the costs of the disciplinary process for bishops.

Diocese of Southern Virginia Bishop Herman Hollerith IV is president of the Hearing Panel. The panel, appointed by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops from among its members, also includes Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely, North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, the Rev. Erik Larsen of Rhode Island and Deborah Stokes of Southern Ohio.

The St. James the Great complainants alleged that Bruno violated church canons because he

  • failed to get the consent of the diocesan standing committee before entering a contract to sell the property;
  • misrepresented his intention for the property to the members, the clergy and the local community at large;
  • misrepresented that St. James the Great was not a sustainable congregation;
  • misrepresented that Voorhees had resigned as vicar;
  • misrepresented to some St. James members that he would lease the property back to them for many months and that the diocese would financially aid the church; and
  • engaged in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy by “misleading and deceiving” the clergy and people of St. James, as well as the local community, about his plans for the property and for taking possession of the property and locking out the congregation. It continues to worship in a rented room at city hall.

Previous ENS coverage of the hearing is here.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

Comments

  1. Nancy Mott says:

    All so sad and unseemly. It would appear that the plan presented by Coughlan would be the best way forward, especially since Bishop Bruno is so close to the mandatory retirement age.

  2. James Koenig says:

    Originally, several parishes left the Diocese because of opposition to the inclusive policies of the church but were returned to the Diocese for purposes of ministry according to the policies of the national church. This was a good thing. They were returned to be engaged in authentic ministry. Since St. James was originally returned to the Diocese of Los Angeles for such ministry, and has since been engaged in ministry that “is” inclusive and in concert with the general policies of the church regarding ordination of women and full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, it is hard to understand why the returned property would be “cashed in” and used as a money maker rather than a place for ministry. There seems to be an abundance of power politics that doesn’t serve ministry. I have witnessed several “power” and/or “property grabs” around the diocese over a number of years that circumvent vestries, crush parishioners, and leave clergy in fear for their jobs, so they don’t “fight back.” This sort of thing does not look particularly good for the church. (The Mafia is a hierarchical structure too– Is it not the servant role that differentiates ours from theirs?) I have seen people crushed by this type of exercise of power and even alienated from the church. Are we as a church not the shepherd of souls? The job of the church is one of shepherding. Certainly the sheep are more important than the art of the deal. This type of thing really does undermine ministry. Perhaps, in a spirit of forgiveness, it is time for a clean slate– a graceful and humble exit, and a continuation of ministry in Newport Beach according to the purpose and desires of those who gave the property in question to the church to begin with. It is unfortunate that the statements above do not clearly indicate that the present St. James Church is a quite different one in policy and practice than the one that left the Diocese in opposition to progressive changes in the church. As far as lies and misrepresentations go– and fake news— don’t we get enough of that in national politics? How can we seek sanctuary– in every sense–and give sanctuary– in every sense–in this kind of atmosphere.

  3. Kilty Maoris says:

    Not too long ago a very famous Bishop stated that so many clergy in the church have forgotten their place and function in the church which was given them at the time of ordination. That role was not as a prince of the church nor one who seeks fervently to go up the ranks of clericalism and become something in place of being a clergyman, a pastor, a shepherd. As members of the human community clergy should not be considered as error-proof individuals but those who have to learn as they go along. From the top down, TEC, clergy need to rediscover what it is to truly shepherd their flocks and not see their position as a stepping stone to the next level. If their hearts are open the Holy Spirit will keep them in the direction they need to go. The rewards will be great but the work is truly difficult. Let us support our clergy and help any way we would be led. We will all be blessed. Obviously, we are in difficult times of change but let us not become more divisive by the constant use of the term,”All Episcopalians”–for there is no such animal! Let us collectively pray for all our clergy who have chosen a truly difficult road to follow and most of all may we all have FAITH!

  4. I don’t understand why this is news. Surely the prosecuting and defense lawyers would always be on opposite sites.

    • Tony Oberdorfer says:

      Very good point!

    • David Allen says:

      I think that it’s news because it informs us of the latest step in the case, that the sides have submitted their closing arguments in writing and what those arguments include.

      I am happy to have the update as I have followed this case closely and reported about it from its inception.

  5. Craig Kauffman says:

    Reopen St. James, like yesterday!!!
    The building is just standing there locked and unused. Bishop Bruno, open the church to the parishioners!!!

  6. Richmond Parker says:

    All too often , the reverend clergy violate their ordination vows by disregarding ” the teachings of the apostles . ” PECUSA had 3.6 million members in 1966 , now we are down to 1.8 million , and still losing people . How many years before there is no PECUSA left ? Richmond Parker

  7. Ouch! Arrg! You are all lost. Is it too PC to ask where Jesus Christ may stand on all of these issues? Not even acknowledged! Or perhaps it is too scary?

  8. Vernon Sheldon-Witter says:

    So many GAFCON and related Parishes just refuse to understand that Canon Law states that the Parish can leave as they like,but the Church Building itself,the Treasury of the Parish and the Retirement Funds of the Priest leading the parish out of TEC belong to the TEC and not the Parish. This is a sham to try and punish a Bishop who has been a leader in the Inclusion movement. St. James has no rights as a non Episcopalian Parish to the Church Building or Treasury itself. If they are taking a stand against inclusion let them do it-but without the Building or money.

    • Judy Whelchel says:

      You are behind the times on this, Mr. Sheldon-Witter. This is not the GAFCON congregation from which the diocese wrested the property back. These are congregants who are full members of TEC under the purview of the Diocese of Los Angeles. As I understand it, Bishop Bruno acted on his understanding of his powers under Corp Sole to personally manage the property. Members of St. James and others believe in part he shouldn’t have acted on the realty offer without the okay of the diocesan standing committee and also that there was deceit in his communications on the matter. The panel needs to decide whether Bishop Bruno acted in such a way as to offend church canons. Personally I believe he thought he was acting in good faith for the diocese as a whole, to retrieve funds that had been lost from other ministries during the GAFCON litigation. But I also believe the situation was handled with a lack of pastoral care for those most affected. I pray for peace and reconciliation on all sides and for Bishop Bruno’s health.

  9. Dr. William A. Flint, MDiv, PhD says:

    If the Church is no longer an active Episcopal Parish (TEC) and the Diocese spent millions to reclaim the rights to the property. I see no reason why it can not be sold to recover funds spent on legal fees and court cost. The Roman Catholic Church closed churches, schools and hospitals to help pay settlements during the clergy abuse cases. Bishop Bruno is a dedicated man and is one of our leading Bishops.

  10. mike geibel says:

    Vernon and Dr. William:
    We should revisit the reported history.

    In 2004, St. James became one of four Episcopal congregations in SoCal who re-aligned themselves with African provinces. St. James, like many churches in SoCal, is owned by the Bishop as a “Corp Sole” and not by the parishioners. Millions were spent in legal fees to confirm that the Bishop had the absolute legal right to oust the prior rebellious congregation from St. James (as well as the other dissenting churches) who had devoted their time and capital to build what were at the time vibrant Anglican communities.

    With the successful litigation behind him, the Bishop assigned Canon Voorhees to the re-established St. James the Great and to rebuild the congregation. She took her assignment to heart and went about developing a strong Episcopal presence in Newport Beach. Bishop Bruno re-dedicated St. James as an Episcopal congregation and affirmed the church will “continue in ministry within the Episcopal Church.”

    The charges were not brought by the former congregation that left, but were brought by Canon Voorhees and the loyal parishioners when a developer offered the Diocese $15 million for the property, and the Bishop exercised his authority to sell the Church.

    You indicate we should not judge the Bishop too harshly. Surely it is not a serious offense to sacrifice a hundred or so of the remaining loyal Episcopalians in an affluent neighborhood when operational costs are increasing and money is needed to subsidize the “social justice” movement for thousands of non-members and refugees as a newly declared Sanctuary Diocese. Political activism is a thirsty beast, and the sanctuary was to be liquidated to raise cash to invest in commercial real estate ventures which would generate a steady cash flow into the future to sustain a Diocese suffering from declining membership and pledge revenues. It may be unfortunate that the loyal parishioners are now refugees within their own Diocese and are holding services in a local park, but as the Bishop reasoned, they can attend other nearby churches.

    Putting my sarcasm aside, the Bishop had the unquestioned, legal right to sell the church and the fiduciary responsibility to do so if the church was not financially self-sustainable and incapable of paying its mission share. People criticize CEO’s (like Trump) for similar “business decisions” which are difficult but gutsy calls when they are faced with financial realities. The difference here is that the Church is not a business but is a religious community.

    The membership and revenue nose-dive of the TEC is not the fault of the Bishop alone but reflects a nationwide decline of progressive churches which have chosen, by reason of their faith, to be the advance guard of a proposed new social order that surely they knew would alienate a large number of parishioners. The St. James tragedy is merely one episode in the foreseeable consequences.

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