The Bruno Verdict: Ecclesiastical Trial raises questions about the corruption of a Diocese

 

About the author: The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey, President and CEO of the American Anglican Council, is a former member of St. James, Newport Beach. His father was the parish rector from 1967-1985.

 

“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”  Romans 3:23

 

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  I John 1:8-9

 

“We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings.”  Article 11 “Of the Justification of Man,” in The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.  (See also Art. 9 ‘Of Original or Birth Sin’)

 

The Episcopal Church (TEC) Disciplinary Hearing panel has decided to suspend Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the Diocese of Los Angeles for three years, upon the eve of his retirement.  The panel found many of his answers, and those of his top aides, misleading, evasive and contradictory (Report at pp. 51-54 and 63-75). [1] He failed to exercise his ministry in accordance with TEC Canons II.6.2-3 by failing to obtain prior consent of the Diocesan Standing Committee to the sale of St. James Newport Beach (Report at 55-62). He is guilty of conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation, in violation of TEC Canon IV.4.1(h)(6) (Report at 63-75). He is guilty of conduct unbecoming a Member of the Clergy, as defined in TEC Canon IV.2 (Report at 75-86).

 

The LA Times contacted the Diocese of Los Angeles for a comment. The spokesman for the Diocese, Bob Williams, said in an email Friday July 21 that the diocese is withholding comment, “continuing their commitment to respect the integrity of the [disciplinary] process, a priority that Bishop Bruno has upheld through the duration of the two-year proceedings.”

 

And so, the patent, public misrepresentation continues, now from the Diocese itself.  The Hearing Panel condemned Bishop Bruno in the strongest possible terms for not respecting the integrity of the process:

 

“By contracting to sell the St. James property while the conflicts involving the property were still under review and consideration by the Hearing Panel, Respondent [Bruno] disrupted and interfered with the integrity of the process of the Title IV proceeding… Bishop Bruno’s actions are contemptuous of the Hearing Panel, Title IV and the Canons of the Church. They are disruptive. They are dilatory. They infringe on the integrity of these proceedings…They are Conduct Unbecoming a Member of the Clergy. Canons IV.2; IV.3; IV.13.9” (Report at 85-86).

 

Is the Diocese of Los Angeles living into an alternate reality?  Is the Diocesan spokesman trying to emulate Baghdad Bob whose grandiose and grossly unrealistic broadcasts before and during the Iraqi war were designed to mislead journalists and keep an embattled populace ignorant of the facts?  Clearly, the Diocese of Los Angeles seems to have forgotten Paul’s admonition in tears against those “whose glory is in their shame.” (Philippians 3:19)

 

When I searched the Diocesan website I couldn't find in any of the pages, Bruno’s biography, other staff biographies or news links about the trial of Bishop Bruno, the verdict of the Disciplinary Hearing panel, or his suspension. But I did find an unrepentant and robust explanation of “The Bishop as Corporation Sole,” the legal instrument Bruno used to shield his questionable actions from any accountability.

 

As I reviewed the Disciplinary Hearing Panel Decision in the matter of Bishop Bruno, its 106 factual findings representing 911 pages of testimony from 13 witnesses and 100 exhibits, I was reminded of the famous dictum of Lord Acton:

 

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

 

Lord Acton was a British historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who observed that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases. Certainly, this extends to the people who enable that person or leader to accumulate power. As the leader’s power increases and morality decreases, the power of their supporters also increases while their conscience and morality decrease.  Without any moral compass beyond themselves, this often leads to conspiracies and coups, as we see in so many secular utopian regimes (on the right and the left) of the 20th and 21st, centuries.

 

Apart from the clarity and authority of God’s word, the Bible, there is no moral compass that will withstand the assault of secular utopian ideologies, greed, lust for power, pride and a seared conscience.  “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul,” says the Psalmist:

 

The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.  The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.  The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the LORD are t rue and righteous altogether.  More to be desired are they than gold, yea than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.”  Psalm 19: 7-10 KJV

 

If Bishop Bruno, his staff and the Standing Committee had heeded the promise of such gold and sweetness in following God’s word, their words and deeds might have been different. 

 

Instead, the Report of the Hearing Panel presents a pattern of data points that are suggestive of moral and spiritual corruption focused on gold of a lesser kind, the allure of possible profit of over $100 million that might have been obtained from the acquisition, development and resale of commercial property in Anaheim—with the proceeds from the sale of St James Newport Beach as the earnest money for a deal discussed as far back as 2007 (Report at 10). Corruption is a good word to consider in assessing the conduct of the leadership of a Diocese at multiple levels. Corruption is defined as 1. (a) dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, (b) the action of making someone or something morally depraved or the state of being so, and/or (c) decay, putrefaction.

 

You see, this is not just the story of Bishop Bruno vs. St. James. This is the story of how a whole Diocese has lost its moral compass and compromised its right to be called a Church in any meaningful Biblical sense of that term. It’s important to understand the specific findings of the Hearing Panel that it recounts in its Report to support its verdict, because they suggest that a number of people exercising power within the Diocese may have engaged in conduct that many would consider dishonest or even fraudulent. The findings of the Hearing Panel suggest that the consciences of those people were seared as they engaged in such conduct, over many years, in support of Bruno. Whatever mission the Diocese might have had at one point, it apparently decayed and putrefied into greed. According to the Panel “Beginning at the latest in the fall of 2014 Bishop Bruno and his key aides were secretly planning the sale of St. James the Great, if they got the right price.” (Report at 65). In other words, they were planning to turn what was once a sacred space into a real estate sale that would gain them funds “to purchase a further interest in commercial property in Anaheim.”  (Report at 70).  In the words of Canon Voorhees, “it is not now the developer wanting the building vacant, it is our own diocesan leadership.” (Report at 46) So it was the diocesan leadership that “evicted an active congregation,” (Report at 46), locking their own people out of that sacred space so that they could not even use it for funerals! 


So, let’s take note of the specific findings of the Hearing Panel 

 

The Hearing Panel in its Report made the following findings that suggest the corruption  of some of Bishop Bruno’s top staff:

 

  • Ted Forbath, Chief Financial Officer of the Diocese, “grossly exaggerated” the cost of litigation from actual expenses of $4.4m to $9m by including staff expenses without any time sheets or documents to support his estimate, among other things (Report at 12-13, 69).  This enabled Bruno to claim publicly and privately  that the sale of St. James was to recover costs of litigation, when in fact those costs had already been recovered. (Report at 69)
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  • When Canon Cindy Voorhees, Mission Vicar of St James the Great, was unintentionally tipped off to a possible sale by a phone call, she called Treasurer Forbath and asked him whether “she was wasting her time” trying to start a new Episcopal congregation, the Report indicates that Mr. Forbath did not give her a straight answer, but instead told her cryptically that he was “not going to get between a priest and her bishop.” (Report at 23, 52-53)
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  • She then called David Tumilty, Chief Operating and Executive Officer of the Diocese who claimed no knowledge of the sale (Report at 23, 53)
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  • The Hearing Panel found that, with regards to a parking agreement that would have provided substantial income and sustainability to the mission congregation, “…the resolution was sitting on someone’s desk in the Diocesan Office." (Report at 24-25, 27 and 54)  "It is clear to the Hearing Panel that Bishop Bruno, Mr. Tumilty and Mr. Forbath delayed signing the parking license agreement because they knew that if there were an agreement, that would get in the way of their decision to sell the St. James Property." (Report at 68)
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  • On June 29, 2015-- while the Mission Vicar was away from the church- The Treasurer Forbath and Mission Administrator Clare Bangao, with a locksmith, went to St James and changed the locks.  COO Tumilty notified Canon Voorhees that the locks had been changed and that she would need to make arrangements to access the church to remove her personal belongings. (Report at 46)

 

The Hearing Panel Report describes conduct by the Standing Committee that in my opinion could be considered  gross negligence, if not active collusion, in the improper actions of the Bishop and his staff:

 

  • In March 2009, the Standing Committee gave consent to the transfer of St. David’s North Hollywood and All Saints Long Beach to the Corp Sole managed by +Bruno alone.  For St James, there was no transfer to Corp Sole and no approval of sale.  (Report at 11)
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  • On April 10, 2015 Bishop Bruno entered a full, binding agreement to sell the St. James property to a developer, without prior knowledge or consent of the Standing Committee (Report at 31-32 and 57).  Mr. Tumilty’s notes show that the intention was to use $6.3 million out of the $15 million proceeds from the St. James sale to fund the Anaheim purchase  (Report at 34)
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  • On April 16, 2015 Suffragan Bishop Mary Glasspool called the Rev. Melissa McCarthy, then President of the Standing Committee, and asked her whether the Standing Committee had approved the sale. The Rev. McCarthy was not aware, before this call, of the sale.  Bishop Glasspool urged Rev. McCarthy to oppose the sale and to talk with the chancellor of another diocese. Instead, Rev. McCarthy informed Bishop Bruno that Bishop Glasspool was trying “to undermine what the bishop diocesan was doing.”  (Report at 32).
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  • The Standing Committee met less than a week later, on April 22, 2015.  The minutes of that meeting do not mention St. James (Report at 32).
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  • The Standing Committee met on May 27, 2015.  The minutes of the meeting show that several items concerning St James were “brought forward” to be brought to the attention of the Bishop.  But the only action concerning these items recorded in the minutes is that the Standing Committee “shared with Bishop Bruno their understanding of his reasons to sell the property in Newport Beach and will support Corporation Sole’s actions.” (Report at 36). The minutes reveal no inquiry by the Standing Committee of any transfer of St James to Corp Sole.
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  • On June 8, 2015, the Standing Committee approved a motion “to support Bishop Bruno in his endeavors with the sale of the Newport Beach property, and to concur with his decision, acknowledging that the Standing Committee has no jurisdiction over Corp Sole.” This was a special meeting called by the President, the Rev. McCarthy, at the request of the Bishop. During testimony, Rev. McCarthy could not remember reviewing any documents about the St. James sale at this special June 8 meeting. (Report at 39)

 

The Hearing Panel stated unequivocally that prior review and approval of the sale of church property by the Standing Committee “is a crucial part of the fabric and polity of the Church.” (Report at 57).  And yet the specific findings recited in the Hearing Panel’s Report show that the Standing Committee did little, if anything, to investigate the legal ownership of St. James, to review any legal documentation for the sale, and to refer to its own minutes in doing so. If they had, they presumably would have discovered that the only properties transferred to Corp Sole were back in 2009, and did not include St. James.  They would have discovered that a purported May 2014 quitclaim deed by the Diocese to Corp Sole was without any review by the Standing Committee. If they had followed Bishop Glasspool’s advice and consulted with another diocesan chancellor, they might have intervened and halted the sale. Nevertheless, they did not

 

These detailed findings in the Hearing Panel’s Report are troubling in the extreme, to say the least. Viewed as a whole, the findings strongly suggest that corruption and greed were systemic. They were not limited to Bishop Bruno himself. Key staff and leaders at the highest levels appear from the Report to have been complicit. The Standing Committee appears to have failed to properly review, let alone check, these problematic actions. Both laity and clergy close to the bishop were apparently involved.

 

How could the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles end up with so many people in positions of leadership who had lost their moral compass?

 

If the statement of the Diocesan spokesman and its webpage are any signs, the absence of conviction, humility and repentance is not promising. 

 

But neither is the final judgement of the Hearing Panel.  Despite the recommendation of the Church Attorney (the Prosecutor, if you will) to depose Bishop Bruno from ministry altogether and to recommend a forensic audit of Corp Sole (Report at 84), the Hearing Panel declined to do so.  Instead, the Hearing Panel merely suspended Bishop Bruno for three years on the eve of his retirement and the consecration of his successor. The California Courts have held that Bishop Bruno still has the legal right to sell the property. Is it possible for this suspended bishop to continue to hold the Hearing Panel in contempt and proceed with a sale? Yes, he might well be deposed for doing so, but how would that halt or interfere with the sale?

 

Secondly, the recommendation of a forensic audit of Corp Sole would certainly be in keeping with the Bible, in I John 1:7, where the apostle says that “if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all our sins.”  How strange that the Hearing Panel, which cites reconciliation and healing as one of the “lofty Goals” of TEC Canon IV.14.6, should ignore both the spirit and letter of I John 1:7 and the obvious benefit of a forensic audit. After documenting Bishop Bruno’s disruptive, discrediting and dilatory actions (Report at 86), why on earth would the Hearing Panel forgo a forensic audit of a multi-million dollar account controlled by him?    

 

Thirdly, despite the many findings of the Panel that give rise to concerns of systemic corruption and greed, the Hearing Panel could only recommend that the new Bishop and the Standing Committee “choose to take part in a process of self-examination and truth telling around these unfortunate and tragic events.” (Report at 89, emphasis added)

 

Perhaps that is the most telling statement in the verdict: “these unfortunate and tragic events.” 

 

The Panel could not bring themselves to say that this was sin, pure and simple.  What about the commandment against dishonesty: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16)?  As the source of truth, God requires that His servants always speak truthfully. Under God's inspiration, King David writes, “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellow-man … [and] who keeps his oath even when it hurts.Psalm 15:1-3 God expects truth to permeate every facet of our lives.

 

And yet this is precisely what Bruno, his staff, and the Standing Committee did not do.  Despite the Report’s recitation of specific findings that Bruno was not merely “silent” but actively, personally and publicly lied about his plans to sell St James (at 66-67), among other matters enumerated in detail (Report at 67-75), the Panel could only find each instance a “misrepresentation, but not dishonesty, fraud or deceit, within the meaning of Canon IV.4.1(h)(6).”

 

Is there any higher authority in the law of the Church than the Bible itself?  Is there any greater and more encompassing standard for “dishonesty, fraud and deceit” than Exodus 20:16?  Any higher or greater standard for servant leaders than Psalm 15:1-3?

 

When the leadership of a Church loses its moral compass, it is invariably the result of abandoning the clarity and authority of God’s word, the Bible.  Often it begins in practice rather than principle.  The Church loses faith in Jesus Christ and his loving authority to bring us to grace-filled conviction, repentance and transformation from the inside out.  Too often the Church exchanges the truth of God’s word and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in a multi-faith society for some other “truth.”  It may be an exchange of mission—from making disciples of Jesus Christ of all nations (Matthew 28:16-20) to “radical inclusion and justice.”  St Augustine would say that even such an exchange for a lesser good is the heart of sin; the deprivation of the good in Christ alone.

 

But in this case the Church lost its moral compass over money.  It’s not just tragic and unfortunate.  It’s sin.  And the only remedy for the sin sick is conviction of that sin, humble repentance and recommitment to Christ and his word alone. Only Christ can restore a seared conscience.

 


[1] This and following references are taken directly from the TEC Draft Order of the Hearing Panel In the Title IV Disciplinary Matter Involving The Rt. Rev. Jon Bruno, Respondent, published June 17, 2017, at the pages of the Draft Order cited in the parentheses.  Direct quotations from the Draft Order are also indicated with quotation marks, for accuracy.

 

The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council. 

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