Draft order calls for Bruno to be suspended from ministry for three years

Panel also asks Los Angeles to let congregation return to St. James' building

Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno spent nearly seven hours March 29 and 30 talking to the Hearing Panel considering the disciplinary action against him. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] The hearing panel considering disciplinary action against Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno has drafted an order calling for his suspension from ordained ministry for three years because of misconduct.

The five-member panel concluded in a 4-1 decision that “the scope and severity of Bishop Bruno’s misconduct … have unjustly and unnecessarily disturbed the ministry of a mission of the Church.”

The 91-page draft order specifically rejects calls for Bruno to be deposed, or removed, from ordained ministry. It says that during the three-year suspension Bruno could not exercise any authority over “the real or personal property or temporal affairs of the Church.” A three-year suspension would take Bruno beyond his mandatory retirement date in November 2018, when he turns 72.

The draft order, which is not final, also urges the diocese to let the members of St. James the Great return to their Newport Beach, California, building.

Bruno locked out the congregation nearly two years ago after the members objected to his unsuccessful 2015 attempt to sell the St. James property to a condominium developer for $15 million in cash. The congregation has been worshipping in a meeting room at the Newport Beach City Hall. Its canonical status with the diocese is in limbo.

The attempted sale occurred less than 18 months after Bruno reopened St. James in late 2013, after recovering the property via a lawsuit prompted by a split in the congregation. Three other congregations in the diocese also split in disputes about the Episcopal Church’s full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church.

The subsequent effort to sell St. James to a developer prompted congregation members to bring misconduct allegations against Bruno, claiming he violated Episcopal Church law. A hearing on those allegations was held in March.

Bruno continued to try to sell the property even after that hearing. Those efforts, which the bishop tried to conceal, earned him a rebuke from the hearing panel in June. The panel said Bruno had to stop trying to sell the property during the disciplinary process. If he did try, or succeeded, before the panel decided the original case against him, that behavior would be “disruptive, dilatory and otherwise contrary to the integrity of this proceeding,” the panel said at the time. The same is true of his failure to give the panel the information it asked for about the accusations, the notice said. Such behavior violates the portion of canon law that governs the behavior of clerics who face disciplinary actions (Canon IV.13.9(a) page 151 here).

A few days later, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry partially restricted Bruno’s ministry, specifically his ability to sell the church property.

Bruno’s appeal of the panel’s sanctions failed.

Acknowledging its inability to assess whether St. James could have survived had it been able to stay in its building, the hearing panel says in the draft order that “there is ample evidence of its viability and promise to convince the hearing panel that St. James the Great was robbed of a reasonable chance to succeed as a sustainable community of faith.” The congregation, the order says, “is a casualty of Bishop Bruno’s misconduct.”

Calling it “a matter of justice,” the panel recommends that the diocese immediately suspend its efforts to sell the St. James property, that it restore the congregation and vicar to the church building and that it reassign St. James the Great the appropriate mission status.

The draft order says that although Canon IV.14.6 would allow the panel to act to help St. James the Great, it declines to do so. “Title IV disciplinary actions are not designed to address the complexities of the specific diocesan property issues that are before it,” the order says. “The hearing panel believes that bishops do and should have authority over mission property and that standing committee review and approval is a crucial part of the fabric and polity of the Church.”

The draft also says that the panel members believe the Diocese of Los Angeles has work to do to reach the goals of justice, healing, restitution and reconciliation upon which the Title IV disciplinary process is based. “The hearing panel is convinced that the Diocese of Los Angeles, particularly its Standing Committee with the supportive leadership of its newly ordained coadjutor, must consciously choose to take part in a process of self-examination and truth telling around these unfortunate and tragic events,” the order says.

Without that work, the panel says, those goals will not be achieved “from the outside by force of canon.”

The draft order meticulously recounts the testimony and evidence the panel reviewed. It essentially upholds the St. James complainants’ allegations that Bruno violated church canons because he:

  • failed to get the consent of the diocesan standing committee before entering into 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 the Rev. Cindy Evans Voorhees, St. James’ vicar, had resigned;
  • misrepresented to some St. James members that he would lease the property back to them for a number of 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.

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

Smith dissented from the draft order. He said none of the parties should have taken their disputes to the secular courts, including the one with the members of the four split congregations. He cited 1 Corinthians 6:1,7-8 admonishing Christians against filing lawsuits. Smith also said that property disputes should not be adjudicated in the Episcopal Church’s disciplinary process.

And he suggested that St. James was too focused on a particular piece of property. “In this season of the Church’s life, many congregations are learning to become communities of faith outside ‘the four walls of the church building,’” he wrote.

The hearing panel did not publically release its draft order. It apparently gave the draft to the complainants and the presiding bishop for comment. Title IV.14.7 (page 153 here) calls for those parties “to be heard on the proposed terms of the order.” Comments to the hearing panel are due by July 26.

Bruno is not allowed to comment on the draft to the hearing panel. The diocese released a statement July 21 saying in part that no one from the diocese would make any public statement on the draft, “continuing their commitment to respect the integrity of the Title IV process, a priority that Bishop Bruno has upheld through the duration of the two-year proceedings.”

Neva Rae Fox, Episcopal Church public affairs officer, said the church would not comment while the Title IV process continues.

Roger Bloom, a communications consultant working for St. James, released the draft late July 21, reportedly after consulting a lawyer who told him Episcopal Church canons did not prevent its release.

Forty days after the final order is issued, the Rt. Rev. Catherine Waynick, president of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, has 20 days to sentence Bruno. He can appeal that sentence and, if he does, the sentence is not imposed while the appeal proceeds. Meanwhile, however, the draft order is clear that Curry’s partial restriction on Bruno remains in force.

Bruno turns 72, the Episcopal Church’s mandatory retirement age, in late 2018. His successor, Bishop Coadjutor John Taylor, was ordained and consecrated July 8 in Los Angeles.

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

Comments

  1. Elaine Snider says:

    God willing, this draft will become final. It has been shocking to read about the actions that Bp. Bruno has taken à and attempted to justify as reasonable and within his authority.

  2. Erica Hahn says:

    I consider the decision of this panel a tragedy. Bruno’s conduct was to try to save the finances of the Los Angeles Diocese after a financially crippling protracted legal fight to regain St. James and three other churches taken over by breakaway congregations. The Rev Voorhees recently ordained asked for permission to try to establish a new congregation at St. James. St. James is a large building in a very expensive part of Newport, California. In the next couple of years as a mission church she had built a small congregation which was certainly not able to pay for the church’s operations. Whether it could ever be self sustaining is unclear. There are several other Episcopal Churches in the immediate area and the question has to be asked whether Rev. Voorhees would be able to attract members of those congregations to St. James. (which is also unethical)
    As to Bruno’s statement that Voorhees had resigned it was based on her message to her congregation after they were evicted that she would not continue with them anymore.
    In my opinion the order is both unjust to Jon Bruno, and a financial disaster for our Diocese as we now cannot sell the property and will have to continue to support this tiny mission for an indefinite period of time.

    • Peter Easton says:

      ….”After a financially crippling protracted legal fight”….. And who exactly is responsible for that legal fight? This is called the chickens coming home to roost. If the Episcopal Diocese of LA had acted in a different spirit and not been so greedy, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

  3. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    Bishop Bruno does seem to have acted in an extremely high-handed manner. But no more so than many other fellow bishops whose recent decisions as recounted by Episcopal News Service seem to many of us just as violative of sound Episcopal tradition and good practice.

  4. Cate McMahon says:

    Reading Erica Hahn’s commentary just a few minutes ago, I think Bishop Bruno did the best he could in a tough situation.

  5. Will Smith says:

    Seems to me a moot point. Civil authorities found in favor of +Bruno, and he is retiring next year, suspension will do little. Bishop Michael Smith appears to be on the right page. Prayers for all concerned.

  6. Lurline jennings says:

    Hopefully, those who have followed this contest of wills will recall all Bishop Jon has done for this
    the Diocese of Los Angeles. He has been through much and has led us through the riots and all the after affects. Much has been done to realize the motto of this church to become a welcoming church for all people. Sometimes we care too much about what we leave as our legacy. We are sustained knowing that the real judge will resolve all these problems in time and eternity. We can all look back with fondness and our love for what we have been given over these years. We would like to say well done good and faithful servant Bhp. John. Blessings.

    • Dan Eberly says:

      If a man is good all his life and then shoots and kills someone, do we only look at the good he did? Bruno is guilty and should also be audited!

  7. Lloyd Newell says:

    Well better religious thinkers and movers have spoken. And Ii say I would be in agreement with the draft decision and hope it will be implemented ASAP. The sooner the stage is cleared, the faster the heeling can start. Perhaps some changes need to be made in the dioceses council also.

  8. Thank you for this report, Mary Frances. It is a time of sadness all around.

  9. Craig Kauffman says:

    The article failed to mention that Bruno apparently tried to sell the property after the disciplinary council met to a second condo developer. The diocese claimed they couldn’t comment on the apparent second proposed sale because of “confidentiality agreements” with the new developer. Bruno is incorrigible!!! Even now it is not known whether the property escrow has closed with this second developer.

  10. Margaret A Fletcher says:

    Shows so clearly were the Episcopal vision and heart lie. MONEY!

  11. A very BIG reason I am no longer an Episcopalian and sought ordination elsewhere is the inordinate priority the Episcopal Church gives to money and power. The Bruno case is a prime example of this, where, rather than provide maximum effort and resources to help a community of the Kingdom of God succeed in building up that Kingdom, approached the situation solely from a business standpoint. In the Great Commission, God did not call Christians to establish a financially successful church. Rather, we are to go out and spread the Kingdom far and wide. The Diocese of Los Angeles, through the sales of other property that did not involve displacing a congregation, recovered all or nearly all of what it spent on the property recovery litigation (which in an of itself was a mistake – as progressive as I am, and very opposed to that for which ACNA stands, those congregations should have been permitted to go their own way in peace with their buildings). The people of Saint James have poured their hearts, souls, and resources into their community. For Bruno to take their building away from behind their back was an unconscionable abuse of power. The issue the panel decided was not whether Bruno had a right to sell the property, but should have done so. The answer is clearly NO. No bishop, or anyone else in power, should be able to exercise their authority free from review without checks and balances. And the Standing Committee failed, too. They were so mesmerized by Bruno’s charisma that they failed to exercise independent judgment, as well as failing to ascertain the “sensus fidelium” of their Diocese as a whole, and take that into account in their decision making. To allow the personality of a leader, however strong, to take the place of wise and considered decision-making, stands the very doctrine of God on its head: do we allow clergy (or anyone) to be God for us instead of God?

  12. Walter Stahr says:

    I would urge Ms. Hahn and others to read the draft decision of the Hearing Panel. The panel deals, chapter and verse, with the claims that St. James was costing the diocese a lot of money, that Bishop Bruno had to sell the St. James property to pay for legal fees.

  13. Charles Lambert says:

    The members of Grace Episcopal in Michigan left the EC, not because of the LGBTQ. We left because the Bishop told us the bible is a myth, Christ was just a man, a teacher, not the Son of GOD, he did not rise from the dead. These are just stories to teach us some higher truth. The cover story continually used by the EC about LGBTQ is just False News created to cover the real reason the church spit and is disintegrating.

  14. Steve Catanich says:

    Mwhst I don’t understand is how a title policy could be gotten for St James. The land was a restricted gift, to be used only for a church. If the church had gone under, whoever donsted the land would have gotten it back.

    • mike geibel says:

      Steve:
      The court ruled in July that the deed restriction was unenforceable. Lawyers for Bishop Bruno had also filed a bogus slander of title cause of action, and the Court awarded the opponents over $100,000 in attorney fees and costs against the Diocese. For two years, St. James has stood vacant with the Diocese responsible for overhead and maintenance costs while the Bishop shopped for buyers.

      In his appeal briefs filed with the Panel, the Diocese attorneys contended that the Panel had no power or jurisdiction over the Bishop’s discretion to sell the church, and argued that since the Panel had not placed any restrictions on the Bishop’s power to sell the church after the hearing had concluded in March, that the inquiry as to whether he had sold the church after the hearing was without merit and irrelevant.

      When you anoint a Bishop with dictatorial powers, it should be no surprise when he acts like a dictator and does what he alone believes is best for the Diocese. The findings of the Panel aside, in my opinion, Bishop Bruno is the victim of his own ego, the withering membership and financial drain due to litigation that required the Bishop to look for alternative commercial investments to fund the Church’s political and social justice mission work, and likely due to poor advice from the lawyers for the Diocese who have been paid enormous fees. Bad advice aside, the buck stops with Bishop Bruno who called the shots.

      This story is not over yet. The sale may have been consummated, and it is just that the deeds are not yet recorded. If so, and the TEC does not purchase the property back from the developer, or the developer does not exercise an option to rescind the purchase, then the loyal congregants of St. James lose their Church. Bishop Bruno quietly resigns into retirement. The financial drain on the Diocese in litigation costs continues. Members of other parish or mission churches no longer trust the Diocese or its Bishops and decline to contribute capital to church improvements. More disgusted members leave the church with their pledge money. Who wins? Maybe just the lawyers.

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