Trial ordered for Bishop Bruno on misconduct charges

 

Trial ordered for Bishop Bruno on misconduct charges

Author: 

George Conger

The Bishop of Los Angeles will face an ecclesiastical trial for conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. On 1 July 2016 the Conference Panel hearing the complaint brought by members of St James the Great Episcopal Church in Newport Beach recommended the matter be referred to a Hearing Panel for adjudication. The Episcopal Church’s Church Attorney will prosecute the case against the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, and if found guilty he may be sanctioned by the church, up to revocation of holy orders.

Bishop Bruno must file a response within 30 days to charges he lied to the clergy and members of the congregation and abused his authority as bishop when he expelled the congregation from the church in order to sell the property to real estate developers.

The Notice of Hearing prepared by the Church Attorney on behalf of the Episcopal Church alleges Bishop Bruno misrepresented his intentions for the property to the congregation, clergy, and local community; failed to get valid consent from the L.A. Diocese’s Standing Committee for the sale; falsely claimed that St. James the Great’s vicar had resigned; reneged on promises of continued use of the church during the sale and financial support for the congregation to relocate; and abused his authority by locking out the vicar and congregation.

Under Title IV of the church’s disciplinary canons, complaints lodged against a bishop that do not touch upon doctrine pass through four stages. They are first reviewed by an intake officer appointed by the Presiding Bishop. Canon IV.17.2(b) The intake officer may dismiss the complaint as being without merit, seek a pastoral resolution to the dispute, refer the matter to the Presiding Bishop, or pass the complaint onto a Reference Panel to review the case.

The role of the Reference Panel is to seek a pastoral resolution. However, if this is not possible, it may dismiss the complaint, recommend conciliation between the parties, or pass the complaint on to a Conference Panel.

After investigation by the Conference Panel it may dismiss the complaint, issue an Accord or negotiated settlement, or issue an Order. If the Accord or Order is accepted by the defendant bishop, the sentence, if any, is pronounced by the President of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops. Canon IV.17.6

If the defendant bishop rejects the Order or Accord, the matter is passed to Hearing Panel. Acting as a public tribunal the Hearing Panel consists of three bishops, one priest or deacon, and one lay person. The Church Attorney prosecutes the case before the panel on behalf of the national church, while the defendant bishop is represented by counsel.

The Hearing Panel may dismiss the charges, or may find the defendant bishop guilty and recommend an appropriate sentence, to be pronounced by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops. The defendant bishop may appeal the sentence to the Court of Review for Bishops.

In this case, Bishop Bruno declined to comply with the accord or order handed down by the Conference Panel necessitating public trial.

“We welcome the opportunity for a public hearing on this matter, which will allow the entire Los Angeles Diocese and The Episcopal Church to more fully understand Bishop Bruno’s statements about and behavior directed at our congregation and consecrated church site.  We have been locked out of our church building for no discernible Diocesan or Church purpose whatsoever apparently at the whim of a single individual for purpose of retaliation.  We are confident the Hearing Panel will agree that Bishop Bruno has violated the canons,” said Susan Rawlings, one of the members of the St. James the Great congregation involved in the complaint.

“The church’s processes are sometimes frustratingly slow, but we are hopeful they’re at last moving to a good result,” she said.

On 6 July 2015 members of the Orange County congregation, who were locked out of their church on the orders of the bishop, filed a complaint under Title IV alleging “140 canon violations” by their bishop. The complaint stated the dispute began on 13 October 2013 when Bishop Bruno preached at St James the Great following its return to the Diocese of Los Angeles following nine years of litigation with the majority of the congregation, who had broken away to join what is now known as the Anglican Church in North America.

Bishop Bruno told the remnant congregation who had remained loyal to the national church “it was wonderful that the church building had been successfully reobtained from the Anglicans for worship.”

Bishop Bruno is then alleged to have urged the congregation to give money to support St James the Great “on the implied basis that the congregation could continue on its current basis and in its existing church property,” the complaint stated.

However, the complaint stated that while urging the congregation to support the church, Bishop Bruno was secretly attempting to sell the church to cover financial losses.

The congregation and its vicar, the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, said they were surprised to learn on 17 May 2015 from the bishop that as “Corp Sole [he] had entered into an agreement to sell the building to a real estate developer.”

The complaint further stated that when he broke the news to the parish, Bishop Bruno knowingly made several false statements. He stated “he had the option to leaseback the church for the benefit and use of the congregation because he had told his team to negotiate it.” No such option ever existed, the complaint alleged.

The complaint further alleged the bishop told the congregation the diocese “would provide financial support to the congregation for the leaseback through October.” Bruce and Merilee Bennett, members of the congregation asked the bishop to confirm this promise of financial support through a written declaration.

The bishop declined to do so in writing, but gave his oral assurances. “[H]e did not see why he should have to do so in writing since his word was trustworthy,” the bishop told the Bennetts, according to the complaint.

The bishop is further alleged to have told the congregation he had obtained an appraisal from “an Episcopalian that he knew” valuing the property at $7 million. The complaint alleged such a valuation was not reasonable as it was derived the $7 million valuation from its property tax assessment. It further stated “after much inquiry by signatories to developers and knowledgeable real estate professionals, no firm or individual has estimated such a low value, with minimum estimates starting at $24 million.”

While the complaint did not suggest the bishop received a kickback for selling the property at half its market value, it alleged the bishop needed an infusion of cash to finance two property transactions. It also raised questions of fiduciary misconduct by giving insiders the opportunity to sell the property rather than advertise it or offer it at market value. When asked to account for the proceeds of the sale, Bishop Bruno allegedly told members of the congregation “I don’t have a fiduciary responsibility to you!”

The bishop’s alleged promise of June 17, 2015 allowing the congregation to “continue if it wished”, was broken within two weeks.  After the Sunday June 29 service, the clergy and congregation were locked out of the church building. He further claimed Canon Voorhees had resigned as vicar. This was a false statement the complaint alleged.

Bishop Bruno is alleged to have misled, intimidated or violated the canonical boundaries of authority between his office and the diocesan standing committee by withholding information from the standing committee and by refusing to allow them to hear “any communications from the congregation with respect to the proposed sale of the church property and to redirect all such communications to the Bishop.”

No date for the Hearing has yet been set.

Categories: