National Episcopal leader bars L.A. bishop from selling Newport church

The top bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States has barred the bishop of the Los Angeles diocese from completing a planned sale of the St. James the Great Episcopal Church property in Newport Beach.

The sale, which was to close Monday, came to light this month as Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles already was under scrutiny by an ecclesiastical panel considering whether he committed misconduct in a separate attempt to sell the site in 2015.

The Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, issued an order Wednesday banning Bruno from closing the latest sale until the misconduct matter is resolved.

“I am deeply concerned that his act of entering into a new contract for sale of the same property, while his approach to the earlier sale is still under review, has the potential to undermine the integrity of the church’s disciplinary process,” Curry wrote. “The secrecy with which the recent sales contract was undertaken adds to the potential for undermining the integrity of the church’s disciplinary process.”

Curry restricted Bruno from closing the current sale or otherwise selling, contracting to sell or helping to sell the property.

An attorney representing Bruno referred questions to the diocese. A diocese spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The ecclesiastical panel has not issued a ruling following a three-day hearing in March that focused on Bruno’s attempt two years ago to sell the St. James property to a luxury townhouse developer. After a congregation member tipped the panel to the current sale attempt, it warned Bruno on June 17 not to sell the church before the panel had reached its decision.

An attorney for Bruno confirmed to the panel last week that Bruno entered a sale contract with Newport Beach-based developer Burnham Ward Properties in May. The price and plans for the property were not disclosed.

Bruno changed the locks on the church in summer 2015 after committing to selling the site for $15 million to Legacy Partners, a developer that wanted to raze the church to build townhomes.

Not long after its eviction, the congregation filed an ecclesiastical complaint, alleging that Bruno acted deceptively and unbecoming of a clergyman when he tried to sell the property and that he didn’t have permission of the diocesan government to do so.

The sale fizzled after the developer’s investment partner dropped out, but the church remains locked. Members now worship in a community room at Newport Beach City Hall.

Attorney Jerry Coughlan, who is representing the congregation in the misconduct proceedings, has called for Bruno to be defrocked and said that a forensic audit should be conducted of the bishop’s books. Coughlan previously requested that the church be restored to the congregation.

“His conduct demonstrates contempt for the [disciplinary] process, this panel and the Episcopal Church,” Coughlan wrote in an amendment to his post-hearing brief.

Davis writes for Times Community News.

hillary.davis@latimes.com

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