Misconduct hearing begins for bishop in St. James church dispute

Before she was a priest, the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees literally created churches. Now she has poured herself into saving one.

Voorhees is a commercial artist by trade, specializing in church design. St. James the Great Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, modernized about 15 years ago, was one of her clients. For the longtime Orange County resident, it was her neighbor. Eventually it became her spiritual home.

When the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles announced it was selling the church campus at 3209 Via Lido to developers who wanted to build multimillion-dollar townhomes there, Voorhees and her flock were astonished and wounded.

But the congregation fought back. Close to two years after Bishop J. Jon Bruno locked the church doors, he spent Tuesday in a Pasadena hotel conference room turned ecclesiastical court, facing a disciplinary hearing similar to a trial. He is accused of being deceptive and improper.

UPDATE: Bishop defends his uncompleted plan to sell St. James church site >>

The hearing, conducted by a five-member panel of Episcopal Church officials, could lead to suspension or defrocking.

On the first day of the three-day proceeding, Jerry Coughlan, the attorney for the congregation, laid out the allegations against Bruno:

• Failing to get permission from the diocesan governing body to sell the church property.

• Misrepresenting his plans for the church and the proceeds from its sale, and further misrepresentation by aying Voorhees had resigned when she had not, saying the flock could worship there until October 2015 when they were locked out in June, and claiming the church was financially unsustainable.

• Acting in a manner unbecoming a member of the clergy, not just through the alleged misrepresentations but also for locking out the faithful and keeping them out even after the sale fell apart.

Voorhees said her parishioners were in disbelief when they learned of the sale. She said she nearly buckled under the pressure of providing them comfort. "People were falling on the ground outside my office sobbing," she said.

Some of these people had lost the church before. The campus returned to the Episcopalians in 2013 following the conclusion of a nine-year legal battle with the theologically conservative Anglican faction that split off after a decision to bless same-sex unions in Canada and the ascension of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

After secular courts returned church properties to the Episcopalians, St. James the Great congregants eagerly renovated their building, developed new income streams and began anticipating a joyful future for their church.

"They joined relying on the notion that this was something they could build on and love and be together and worship," Coughlan said.

Julie Dean Larsen, representing Bruno, said the bishop promised to his superiors that he wouldn't sell to breakaway Anglicans. But he didn't promise anyone that he wouldn't sell at all, Larsen said.

"What happened is that Rev. Voorhees and the congregation implied from his support of the congregation itself, and the start-up of the congregation and helping the congregation, that that meant they were entitled to use and stay at a very large campus," Larsen said.

Bruno has said the church was struggling financially. But parishioner and accountant Evangeline Andersen led the finance team and said the church was well on its way to financial independence. In 2014, she said, parishioners pledged $150,000 of the $300,000 operating budget. The next year, they pledged $250,000

"I don't agree that that's unsustainable,"Andersen said. "That's amazing financial growth. Imagine what we could have done."

Voorhees drew up a plan to lease the church parking lot to the builders of the Lido House Hotel. She declined a salary to start, and the church-owned priest housing. The church instead rented that out for $4,000 a month, and it was occupied when Bruno announced the sale, Andersen said. Church leaders also rented the commercial kitchen to a chef who refurbished it to use for a catering business.

Voorhees said Bruno initially seemed excited about the rebirth of St. James, and she was too.

"I actually felt that out of the fire there could be a real phoenix," she said.

Volunteer Bruce Bennett said everybody's mood was hopeful and generous after the Anglican schism. A volunteer returned the rose garden to vibrancy, watering the bushes by hand. A Sunday school teacher and an organist offered their skills, also unpaid, Bennett said.

When Bruno revealed his sale plan to a packed parish hall in May 2015, he told the congregation he had resisted an offer for $7.5 million, then one for $10 million, Bennett said. But he couldn't ignore it when it got to $15 million, "and there were plenty of places for us to go to scatter into the wind," Bennett said.

"There was indignation," Bennett said. "There was anger, there were tears, there was frustration."

"Shock," another parishioner said softly. "Shock."

The hearing is scheduled to continue Wednesday and Thursday.

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