Bishop awaits ruling after hearing into his conduct in attempted sale of St. James church site

Whether or not Episcopal Church leadership in Los Angeles sought a buyer for the St. James the Great church property in Newport Beach was a matter of dispute for lawyers arguing whether a bishop acted properly when he tried to sell the land to a developer.

Thursday was the third and final day of a disciplinary hearing where Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles faced allegations that he was deceptive and unbecoming of a clergyman when he tried to sell the church site at 3209 Via Lido, locked congregants out and then kept the gates closed even after  the sale fell apart.

The Rev. Canon David Tumilty, Bruno's chief of staff and executive officer for operations, reiterated Bruno's testimony from Wednesday that the diocese did not actively market the St. James property even though it had received offers.

Tumilty described a meeting in February 2015 in which Bruno and John Cushman, a broker involved in a separate real estate transaction with the diocese, asked Bruno about his plans for the St. James site, meaning whether the diocese would sell it. Bruno said he had received some offers but rejected them because they weren't good enough given the church's nearly $8-million appraised value.

A few weeks later, Cushman brought officials a $15-million cash offer from Legacy Partners, a developer that wanted to build luxury townhomes on the site.

"We did not request him [Cushman] to do anything," Tumilty said. "We did not sign a brokerage agreement with him. The bishop did not ask him to go find us offers."

Bruno signed an agreement in April 2015 to sell the property to Legacy, informed the congregation in May and locked the church doors in June.

Legacy dropped out of the deal when investment partner AIG Global Real Estate decided not to proceed. But St. James parishioners, stunned by the process and the church closure, fought back with an ecclesiastical complaint that led to this week's hearing, similar to a trial, in a Pasadena hotel conference room.

The hearing, conducted by a five-member panel of Episcopal Church officials from around the country, could lead to suspension or defrocking for Bruno.

With the hearing concluded, the panel will deliberate. The Right Rev. Herman Hollerith, the panel chairman and bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia, said he doesn't expect a decision before Easter, April 16. 

The congregation alleges Bruno was not forthcoming about his sale plans and that he didn't have permission from the diocese's governing body to sell the property. Parishioners claim he was untruthful about several issues, from his plans for the expected sale proceeds to the financial health of the church. They say his conduct, from his alleged misrepresentations to locking up the church, was unbecoming a member of the clergy.

Bruno countered that he didn't need permission, and at any rate, the property didn't sell. He said he acted with information he had at the time about St. James' financial situation and that he did not intentionally obscure the truth.

Bruno and other advisors testified that they diagnosed the church's fiscal health based on a budget filing from mid-2014 that Bruno said showed the church was struggling.

But a parishioner — an accountant who led the church's volunteer finance team — testified Tuesday that St. James was rapidly approaching financial independence through pledges and that it probably no longer needed the $48,000 subsidy it was getting from the diocese.

Congregation lawyer Jerry Coughlan showed Tumilty a letter from a church in La Crescenta asking the diocese for $153,000 in assistance in 2016 and noting a $16,000 deficit that it planned to remedy through fundraising.

That church has not been sold.

"So of the two churches ... you decided that St. James was the one that was unsustainable and this one was sustainable?" Coughlan asked.

"I did not say that this [the La Crescenta church] was sustainable," Tumilty replied.

 

hillary.davis@latimes.com

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