California Episcopal Bishop in Trouble for Trying to Sell Church to Condo Developer for $15M

Jon Bruno
The Right Reverend J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is seen in a video from 2015. |

A California bishop of The Episcopal Church is facing a disciplinary hearing for allegations that he violated church law when trying to sell off a diocesan property to a condominium developer for $15 million.

The Right Reverend J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, was accused of multiple canon law violations, with a three-day disciplinary hearing beginning on Tuesday.

"Bruno is accused of violating Title IV Canon IV.4.1(g) failing to exercise his ministry in accordance with applicable church canons (specifically Title II Canon II.6.3 requiring prior standing committee consent to any plan for a church or chapel to be 'removed, taken down, or otherwise disposed of for worldly or common use')," reported Episcopal News Service.

He is also accused of dishonesty, deceit and conduct unbecoming a clergy member.

St. James Church
Saint James Church of Newport Beach, California. |

A native of Los Angeles, Bruno was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1978 and became the sixth bishop of the Los Angeles Diocese in 2002.

At issue in the case is the property of St. James the Great Episcopal of Newport Beach. The property had been previously won in a legal case against a 700-member Anglican congregation that broke away from the diocese over theological differences.

In May 2015, Bruno announced that he was selling the property of St. James the Great to Legacy Partners Residential, which planned to build 22 townhouses on the real estate.

The sale announcement went against the wishes of the fairly new congregation that began to use the church property following the legal battle.

The Orange County Register reported in July 2015 that parishioners were locked out of the property and prevented from accessing items like choir robes and Communion items.

"We were blindsided," explained one St. James member to the OC Register in 2015. "I am stunned the leadership of the diocese is so eager for condos instead of this congregation."

In the prosecution trial brief, church attorney Jerry Coughlan wrote that Bruno's actions regarding the attempted sale were "terrible for the Episcopal Church."

"He publicly misrepresented his plans for St. James raising the hopes of the congregation, and he later disguised his reasons for selling the Church," wrote Coughlan.

"He put a commercial transaction for money above the religious value of a church ignoring the important canonical requirement of previous Standing Committee approval."

Coughlan argued that Bruno was "seduced by the $15 million business opportunity, then tried to cover up his real reasons for the sale."

The defense's trial brief stated that "it made fiscal sense" for the bishop to sell the property due to the legal expenses incurred and "prepared for the sale of returned properties by discussing the subject with the Presiding Bishop."

"It was not unreasonable for him to allow Rev. Voorhees to start a congregation at the NPB Property when there was no viable buyer for it," continued the defense brief.

"It was not unreasonable for the Bishop to quickly accept an unsolicited offer of twice the appraised value a year and a half later when the fledgling congregation could be supported at a more economic facility or a neighboring congregation."

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