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Schuller Arouses Furor in Australia : Cancellation of Speaking Tour Angers Christian Broadcasters

May 03, 1987|MARK I. PINSKY | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Robert Schuller, who has come under criticism for a misleading fund-raising appeal, is embroiled in a dispute in Australia over his last-minute cancellation of a speaking tour there in March.

The television evangelist's decision to back out of the heavily advertised and promoted series of motivational lectures is now the subject of legal negotiations in Sydney. The episode has angered Christian broadcasters in Australia and left many supporters there of the Garden Grove minister's "Hour of Power" broadcast holding unused tickets.

"I cannot stress too strongly the feeling of hurt that exists among ordinary people who purchased tickets and then found the tour canceled," said the Rev. Gordon Moyes, senior minister at Wesley Central Mission in Sydney and himself a widely respected television evangelist.

"I received scores of letters highly critical of the Schuller ministry and also highly critical of me for supporting him" after the cancellation, Moyes said.

Moyes, whose own weekly television show, "Turn 'Round, Australia," is seen across the country, said news of the Schuller cancellation broke in Australia about the same time as news of Oral Roberts' fund-raising controversy and charges of sexual impropriety made against Jim Bakker.

'Cumulative Effect'

"Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Robert Schuller hitting the press at the same time has had an enormous cumulative effect," said Moyes, who had been asked to introduce Schuller at the scheduled talk in Sydney. "People don't distinguish between each of them," he said.

"When Oral Roberts shot himself in the foot, the bullet ricocheted around Australia and set Christian fund-raising back here in Australia," Moyes said. "When Schuller didn't show at the same time as the Jim Bakker scandal erupted, the Christian cause in Australia suffered ridicule, lampooning by cartoonists in the press and lack of credibility. We will have to work hard to recover ground lost by the American evangelist."

Last week, a spokesman for Schuller acknowledged that a 1981 fund-raising appeal, claiming that the founder of the Crystal Cathedral was writing from China, was actually composed and mailed before Schuller left for the Far East.

The spokesman, Michael C. Nason, called the mailing of the letter a "clerical error." He declined to comment on a charge made by the Rev. Timothy D. Waisanen, former director of marketing and planning for "The Hour of Power," that an accompanying photograph of Schuller standing on the Great Wall was faked, taken in front of a studio backdrop.

Australian attorneys representing Schuller and Tresgain Party Ltd., the small Sydney firm that organized the tour, said last week that Schuller planned to deliver four motivational lectures between March 10 and March 18 in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne. Both parties also said Schuller had Tresgain's signed contract and had received two installments totaling approximately $27,000 (U.S.), roughly 60% of Schuller's $45,000 speaker's fee, by late February, when the final payment was due. Several weeks before that, however, disagreements over matters not specifically covered in the contracts generated some friction.

Center of Dispute

The cause of the breakdown is the subject of considerable dispute.

Sandra Patton, a director of Tresgain, said the company was concerned because the contract had not been returned with Schuller's signature. There followed a series of telephone calls and telexes with representatives of Schuller Ministries in Garden Grove and Schuller's agent in Chicago, Cheryl Miller, president of Speakers International Inc.

Patton said there was disagreement over the Schuller organization's unwillingness to make the evangelist available for promotional appearances in Australia; its reluctance to use the organization's Australian mailing list of 18,000 supporters to spread word of the visit; an unwillingness to make available for sale copies of Schuller's books and other materials; how to divide profits from such sales, and Schuller's dissatisfaction with proposed hotel accommodations in Sydney.

Patton said she was informed by Tresgain's travel agent that Schuller canceled his plane reservations on Feb. 25, and Miller telexed Tresgain on Feb. 27 that the tour had been canceled. Patton said the company received word from Schuller's Australian lawyers on March 3 "telling us to cease all advertising and to advise all ticket holders that he wasn't coming."

They complied, Patton said, but several days later she and Richard Gonda, another partner in the firm, consulted attorneys. In a return telex, Tresgain accepted the cancellation, but requested return of the $27,000 and damages, including the cost of advertising, administration and promotion. They have since estimated their claim against Schuller at about $140,000.

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