Panel's final ruling maintains 3-year suspension for bishop who tried to sell Newport church

An Episcopal Church hearing panel Wednesday reaffirmed its recommendation of a three-year suspension for the bishop who locked worshippers out of St. James the Great church in Newport Beach in a failed sale attempt two years ago.

The panel’s final ruling against J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, was essentially unchanged from its tentative decision July 21, in which it also recommended reopening the church and halting Bruno’s renewed efforts to sell the property.

Wednesday’s judgment came a day after the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the highest-ranking bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, transferred pastoral and property oversight from Bruno to Bishop John Taylor, who has been named Bruno’s successor upon Bruno’s planned retirement at the end of the year.

The panel’s decision is the result of a three-day hearing in March in which Bruno answered to allegations of misconduct related to his 2015 attempt to sell St. James to would-be townhouse developer Legacy Partners. The transaction fell through after Legacy’s investment partner dropped out, but the church remained closed.

Bruno testified during the hearing that Legacy’s $15-million offer would provide money for the Episcopal ministry and that he acted on information he had at the time, which he said showed that St. James was struggling financially.

The panel found Bruno guilty of all allegations brought against him by the congregation: that he attempted to sell consecrated property without consent of diocesan leadership, made several misrepresentations along the way and acted in a manner unbecoming of a clergyman.

Bruno more recently tried to sell St. James to Newport Beach-based developer Burnham-Ward Properties, drawing a separate round of admonitions and restrictions from top church officials. That sale was set to close in July and is currently in a holding pattern, a diocese spokesman said Tuesday.

A representative of Burnham-Ward did not return a call seeking comment.

Amid the series of Episcopal Church restrictions, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled July 11 that Bruno had legal control over the St. James property, nullifying a claim by the land’s donor, the Griffith Co., that deed restrictions meant it could only be used as a church.

Bruno’s secular attorney, Brian Bauer, did not return calls seeking comment about the latest developments.

Bruno has an opportunity to appeal the hearing panel’s decision to the Court of Review for Bishops, composed of nine bishops. He has 40 days to file an appeal, according to St. James parishioner Walter Stahr, one of the complainants in the Bruno case.

In a statement Wednesday, Taylor said: “Bishop Bruno’s 40 years of ordained ministry and 15 years as sixth bishop of Los Angeles are not summed up by this order or the events that precipitated it. He is a courageous, visionary leader. ... I look forward to continuing to learn from him and consult with him about the life of the diocesan community he has served and loves so well.”

Regarding the St. James property, Taylor said he and the Episcopal Church “will do everything we can to promote a just solution that takes into account the interests of all in our community (including the faithful members of the Newport Beach church) and gives us the opportunity to move forward together.”

A statement from Save St. James the Great, a group that formed after the church’s closure, said, “We believe the reconciliation process begins now, and we look forward to a time — in the near future, we hope and believe — when we are back in our holy church and the Diocese of Los Angeles is once again a strong, united and joyful community in Christ.”

hillary.davis@latimes.com

Twitter: @Daily_PilotHD


UPDATES:

3:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments.

This article was originally published at 2:20 p.m.

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