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Bishop faces hearing for attempted St. James Church sale

Allegations of misconduct against the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles stemming from his attempt to sell the St. James the Great Episcopal Church property in Newport Beach are expected to be considered during a disciplinary hearing in March.

On Oct. 26, a five-member national Episcopal Church panel in Chicago made up of a priest, three bishops and a layperson denied Bishop J. Jon Bruno's motion to dismiss the allegations by the St. James congregation, which include entering a sale agreement without proper authorization, making false statements to the St. James congregation and Newport Beach city officials regarding his intentions for the property and locking out the congregation from the church at 3209 Via Lido.

The Episcopal Church panel will conduct the March hearing.

Robert Williams, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, said he is not authorized to comment since "both civil litigation and canonical proceedings continue in these matters."

Tensions between Bruno and the St. James congregation began in May 2015 when Bruno announced during a Sunday service that the church was being sold for about $15 million to developer Legacy Partners, which planned to build luxury townhomes on the site. Less than a month later, parishioners held their final service in the church, and days after that, Bruno had the locks changed and wouldn't allow the congregation back inside, churchgoers said.

In response, St. James parishioners filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the sale. However, Orange County Superior Court Judge David McEachen ruled in 2015 that the church did not have a legal right to file a claim seeking to stop the sale since the parishioners group is not listed on the deed. The congregation is appealing the decision.

The sale of the property was terminated about a month later, but parishioners have said Bruno remains unwilling to allow them to use the church. Churchgoers have held Sunday services at a local park, an art museum and the Newport Beach Civic Center.

"It's better than where we've been, but it's not the church," parishioner Walter Stahr said of the Civic Center. "There are no pews, prayer books or stained-glass windows. There's a reason people build churches."

The panel last week also denied a motion to allow the congregation back in the church building, saying it should wait to consider that until the disciplinary issues against Bruno have been resolved.

Stahr said it's difficult for the parishioners, especially those with long ties to the church, to pass by the property and not be able to walk inside.

"I feel for the people on Lido," he said. "They see the church every day, and I know it's emotional. I get emotional every time I go by the locked church."

The church remains tangled in a legal battle between Bruno and Griffith Co., which owned the property before it was transferred to the Episcopal Diocese in 1945.

Shortly after Bruno announced his plan to sell the church, the Griffith Co. sent him a letter asserting that the company had never released the deed restriction requiring that the property be used exclusively for church purposes. In response, Bruno sued Griffith for clear title and for interfering with the sale.

In May this year, Orange County Superior Court Judge David Chaffee ruled in favor of Bruno and the diocese. Griffith Co. has filed an appeal.

Still, Stahr said the congregation remains optimistic that it will one day be able to return to the church.

Last week's hearing was "not quite everything we wanted," he said. "But there are definitely some things to celebrate."

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN

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