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Episcopal bishop faces suspension over efforts to sell Newport Beach church

An Episcopal Church disciplinary panel has recommended a three-year suspension for the bishop who locked worshippers out of St. James the Great church in Newport Beach after a failed sale attempt two years ago.

The panel also recommended that the shuttered church be restored to its displaced members.

The tentative ruling, which came down late Friday afternoon, determined that the Right Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, was guilty of all allegations brought against him by the congregation during a hearing the panel conducted in March: that he attempted to sell consecrated property without consent of diocesan leadership, that he made several misrepresentations along the way and that he acted in a manner unbecoming of a clergyman.

The Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, St. James the Great’s vicar, who has continued to minister to its members, could not be reached for comment Friday evening.

Los Angeles Diocese spokesman Bob Williams said in an email Friday that the diocese is withholding comment, “continuing their commitment to respect the integrity of the [disciplinary] process, a priority that Bishop Bruno has upheld through the duration of the two-year proceedings.”

In summer 2015, Bruno changed the locks on the church at 3209 Via Lido after committing to sell the site for $15 million to Legacy Partners, a developer that wanted to raze the church to build luxury townhomes. The congregation filed an ecclesiastical complaint not long after its eviction.

The sale fizzled after Legacy’s investment partner dropped out, but Bruno did not reopen the building. Members now worship in a community room at Newport Beach City Hall.

In their decision Friday, panelists said that there was “no good reason” to lock the church and that doing so “created disorder and prejudiced the reputation of the Episcopal Church.”

“Although the building is an asset, Bishop Bruno is not the CEO of a commercial, for-profit company,” the ruling reads. “The ‘asset’ is a consecrated church that should be used for the glory of God and worship by a congregation rather than sold to build condos and left idle and useless after the sale fell through, almost two years ago.”

Though the panel said there was no “good” reason to mothball the church, it suggested that Bruno did have motivation: “to punish Canon Voorhees and the St. James congregation for what he views as their defiance of him.”

The same panel warned Bruno in June not to sell the property until it reached a decision in the misconduct case. Another disciplinary board rejected Bruno’s appeal of the admonishment, and the top bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, issued a similar sale-blocking order late last month.

The series of stern rebukes came after the original hearing panel, acting on a tip from a congregation member about a possible second sale attempt, issued its restriction not knowing whether Bruno had entered a new sale contract. However, an attorney for Bruno eventually confirmed that the bishop contracted with Newport Beach-based developer Burnham-Ward Properties in May. The price and plans for the property were not disclosed, and it’s unclear whether escrow closed as planned early this month.

Friday’s draft ruling will be finalized after Curry and the congregation submit comments next week.

Congregation member Bill Kroener said he will compile his fellow complainants’ feedback by Wednesday’s deadline. He declined further comment.

Panelists concluded their 91-page decision by saying that diocese leadership must “consciously choose to take part in a process of self-examination and truth-telling around these unfortunate and tragic events” so healing and justice can be achieved.

And they suggested what church members have wanted most:

“The hearing panel strongly recommends to the Diocese of Los Angeles that as a matter of justice, it immediately suspend its efforts to sell the St. James property, that it restore the congregation and vicar [Voorhees] to the church building and that it reassign St. James the Great appropriate mission status.”

Davis writes for the Daily Pilot.

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