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Ousted Priest's Backers Lose Bid to Gain Control of Church

January 02, 1986|LARRY GORDON | Times Staff Writer

In a court-ordered election, supporters of a dissident Episcopal priest lost their attempt to gain control of an embattled Echo Park church from a group loyal to Los Angeles Bishop Robert Rusack, said a referee appointed to supervise the recent voting.

The results of the election of a new lay governing board at St. Athanasius Episcopal Church is a big, and perhaps final, setback for parishioners who opposed the ouster of the Rev. Ian Mitchell from his position as church rector, a move led by the bishop and another group of congregants.

The eligibility of many of the 52 voters in the Dec. 8 election and their church membership were challenged by lawyers on both sides. That was expected in a bitter situation that already involved numerous lawsuits, the seizure of parish financial assets, and charges of racism and anti-homosexual bias.

Mitchell Backers Voted Down

But even if all of the pro-Mitchell votes are counted and all of the other side's challenged ballots are not, the slate of Mitchell's supporters lost the election 19 to 14, said a report by Huey P. Shepard, a retired Superior Court judge appointed to referee the vote. If all the ballots on both sides are counted, the slate loyal to the bishop wins 38 to 14, Shepard said.

Four laymen leading the fight against the bishop were not allowed to vote because the bishop placed them under ecclesiastical censure--tantamount to excommunication--for their role in the dispute. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John C. Cole, who ordered the election of a new 10-member vestry board, said he could not reinstate the four because that would violate laws mandating the separation of church and state. Cole said he tried to treat the parish as if it were a secular corporation.

Attorneys for the bishop have asked Cole to certify the election results and Shepard's report. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 22.

New Job for Mitchell

There is some talk of mounting further legal challenge to Mitchell's removal and the election results. However, Mitchell recently conceded that he will never be reinstated at St. Athanasius and has taken a job with a South Pasadena-based organization that runs day-care centers and helps poor families find housing.

Some of his supporters, embittered by the experience, have left the parish or are considering such a move. Many of them were relative newcomers to the parish, and some of them are openly homosexual, attracted by Mitchell's liberal philosophy.

The winners of the election are primarily older women who are longtime members of the church.

"It is really sort of heart wrenching," said Megan Mills, a pro-Mitchell candidate. "I'm not sure there is a place for me there."

Joseph Connolly, attorney for the bishop, said he hoped the election would end the controversy, especially since the diocese never wanted the election at all. "It does seem to me that most of what they were seeking was accomplished by having this election," Connolly said of Mitchell's supporters. "We resisted it but Judge Cole ordered it. Now, the diocese would like to get out of everybody's way and let the parish get back to normal."

In what was viewed as a compromise, Bishop Rusack recently appointed the Rev. J. Jon Bruno as the new rector of St. Athanasius. A former professional football player and policeman, Bruno is the manager of Taix Les Freres French restaurant, the Sunset Boulevard landmark just a few blocks from the church. Bruno, whose selection was confirmed by a vestry board composed primarily of the election winners, has promised to attempt a reconciliation between the two sides and said he welcomes homosexuals to the church.

Archdeacon Terence Lynberg, appointed as priest in charge since the controversy erupted in September, said that any departure of Mitchell's supporters from the parish would contradict their claims that they were primarily concerned about expanding the church's role in Echo Park, a community with a large population of Asians and Latinos.

Approval Withheld

Mitchell was elected rector by the vestry board in 1983 without the required approval of the bishop. Mitchell was not approved by the bishop because, among other things, he had divorced and remarried without getting Rusack's approval.

Mitchell served as rector until September, when a vestry majority, saying they now wanted to obey the bishop, voted to fire Mitchell. Mitchell contends that he was ousted because he angered some elderly Anglo parishioners by bringing minorities and homosexuals into the parish. His vestry opponents deny that and say that Mitchell did not show proper leadership. The dispute over the ouster led to court battles.

Cole ruled on Nov. 20 that the bylaws of the parish give the bishop final say on the choice of a rector after the vestry votes. But, in ordering the election, the judge said that the vestry should represent the will of the congregation, which was unclear at that point. The judge also scolded both sides, calling the situation "disgraceful."

On Tuesday, Connolly said he did not expect the vestry board to take any significant action until Cole reviews the election. Until the judge's decision, the parish's main assets--about $125,000 in bonds--remain in court custody. Mitchell and his supporters took the securities and some other church valuables from a bank safety deposit box in September but later handed them over to the judge.

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