“While the complaint did not suggest the bishop received a kickback for selling the property at half its market value, the complaint alleges the bishop needed a quick infusion of cash to finance two other property transactions.”
The Bishop of Los Angeles urged members of St James the Great Episcopal Church to trust him, because he was their bishop and his word was his bond. However, members of the Newport Beach, Cal., parish have now filed a complaint under the Episcopal Church’s disciplinary canons against the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno alleging fraud, lying, abuse of authority, corruption and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.
On 6 July 2015 members of the Orange County congregation, who have been locked out of their church since the beginning of July on the orders of the bishop, filed a complaint under Title IV alleging “140 canon violations” by their bishop. The complaint posted to the Save the St James the Great website, with the names of the signatories redacted, alleges four broad areas of misconduct:
“[N]egligent, grossly negligent, reckless or intentional ‘misrepresentation’ by Bishop Bruno in violation of Canon IV.1.(h).6.
“‘[C]onduct unbecoming’ by a Bishop of the Episcopal Church under Canon IV.1.(h).8
“[Violation of] Canon II.6.2 requiring prior consent of the Standing Committee to the transfer of consecrated church property for ungodly use.
“[Violation of] Canon IV.1, which requires that all baptized Episcopalians seek to avoid conflicts, and places a special responsibility on the clergy therefor.”
Bishop Bruno’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment or clarification.
The petitioners’ complaint begins with statements made at the 13 October 2013 by Bishop Bruno when he led services celebrating the return of the parish properties to the Episcopal Church following nine years of litigation. In his sermon to the congregation the bishop stated “that it was wonderful that the church building had been successfully reobtained from the Anglicans for worship.”
Bishop Bruno is alleged to have urged the congregation to support financially St James the Great “on the implied basis that the congregation could continue on its current basis and in its existing church property,” the complaint states.
While urging the congregation and its clergy to invest their time and treasure in supporting a building to be used “for worship”, the Bishop was secretly attempting to sell the church to cover financial losses, the complaint alleges.
The congregation and its vicar, the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, were surprised to learn on 17 May 2015 from the bishop that as “Corp Sole [he] had entered into an agreement to sell the building to a real estate developer.” The complaint states that when he broke the news to the parish, Bishop Bruno knowingly made several false statements. He stated “he had the option to leaseback the church for the benefit and use of the congregation because he had told his team to negotiate it.” No such option ever existed, the complaint alleges.
The complaint further alleges the bishop told the congregation the diocese “would provide financial support to the congregation for the leaseback through October.” Bruce and Merilee Bennett, members of the congregation asked the bishop to confirm this promise of financial support through a written declaration.
The bishop declined to do so in writing, but gave his oral assurances. “[H]e did not see why he should have to do so in writing since his word was trustworthy,” the bishop told the Bennetts according to the complaint, which further states: “In fact the Bishop has never thereafter confirmed these two commitments.
The bishop is further alleged to have told the congregation he had obtained an appraisal from “an Episcopalian that he knew” valuing the property at $7 million. Even though the bishop had sold the property to a developer for $15 million, this price was far below the market value of the church. The complaint alleges the bishop derived the $7 million valuation from the church’s property tax assessment and further states “after much inquiry by signatories to developers and knowledgeable real estate professionals, no firm or individual has estimated such a low value, with minimum estimates starting at $24 million.”
While the complaint did not suggest the bishop received a kickback for selling the property at half its market value, the complaint alleges the bishop needed a quick infusion of cash to finance two other property transactions. It also raises questions of fiduciary misconduct by giving insiders the opportunity to sell the property rather than advertise it or offer it at market value. When asked to account for the proceeds of the sale, Bishop Bruno allegedly told members of the congregation “I don’t have a fiduciary responsibility to you!”
Bishop Bruno stands accused of making false and misleading statements about the financial health of the parish, stating its operations were a drain on the diocese and that it could not afford to pay its vicar. The complaint notes the vicar had been receiving a stipend for some time and the parish was in no financial danger — and that the bishop was aware of these facts.
The bishop’s promise of June 17, 2015 allowing the congregation to “continue if it wished”, was broken within two weeks when after the Sunday June 29 service, the clergy and congregation were locked out of the church building. He further claimed Canon Voorhees had resigned as vicar. A false statement, alleges the complaint, which further states the bishop acted corruptly by having: was false, the complaint alleges, and his attempt to:
“a neighboring rector retire early by offering an international position so [Canon Voorhees} could take his position at neighboring parish, and the Bishop’s further effort, when priest declined, to offer the international position to [Canon Voorhees] as to remove her from St James the Great” was conduct “unbecoming” a member of the clergy.
Bishop Bruno is alleged to have misled, intimidated or violated the canonical boundaries of authority between his office and the diocesan standing committee by withholding information from the standing committee and by refusing to allow them to hear “any communications from the congregation with respect to the proposed sale of the church property and to redirect all such communications to the Bishop.” It was unclear whether the Standing Committee had full knowledge of the transaction purporting to transfer the parish property from the diocese to the bishop’s sole authority, the complaint alleges. “The records of the Standing Committee are unavailable to clergy without the consent of the Bishop, so even concerned clergy in the Diocese do not yet know what may have transpired.”
The complaint seeks “appropriate sanctions” against Bishop Bruno. Under Title IV.17 the complaint against Bishop Bruno will be reviewed by the Rt. Rev. Clayton Matthews, Bishop for Pastoral Development in the Presiding Bishop’s Office. If a prime facie case for misconduct is found to exist, Bishop Matthews will pass the complaint along with his findings to a panel appointed by the Presiding Bishop for adjudication.