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Rev. Schuller testifies in Crystal Cathedral bankruptcy case

The church's founder is seeking to collect millions from the ministry he launched for the use of his and his family's creative works.

November 07, 2012|By Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times
  • The Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, appear on a video screen as they address the congregation at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove during services in 2010.
The Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman,… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

His voice quieter than the booming tenor that used to fill the spacious Crystal Cathedral, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller took the witness stand Wednesday in Bankruptcy Court and answered the attorney's questions slowly.

"I never gave up ownership for any of my written materials," said Schuller, 86, of his work with the Crystal Cathedral and its flagship television program, the "Hour of Power" — a crucial point in his effort to collect millions from the ministry he launched from a drive-in movie theater 57 years ago.

At times he appeared razor sharp, but at other moments his testimony seemed to drift.

Schuller said he remained a "goodwill ambassador" to the Crystal Cathedral and still chaired its board of directors. He testified that he did not recall ever signing an agreement that promised he and his wife would be paid for the use of their creative works.

But Schuller and his wife, Arvella, resigned from the Crystal Cathedral in a split from its board of directors earlier this year and he no longer serves on the board or acts as a goodwill ambassador. And the agreement is the basis of some of his monetary claims against the Garden Grove church

The evangelical pastor, once a powerhouse in American Christianity, testified for about 90 minutes in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom in a bankruptcy case that has exposed the normally private dealings of a family television ministry that once drew millions of viewers worldwide.

The church filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2010, citing $50 million in debt. The trial centers on claims that the family has made over the ministry's usage of their work and has stalled the closing of the bankruptcy.

Though Schuller, his wife, his daughter and son-in-law are alleging that the ministry owes them money for unpaid contracts, copyright infringement and intellectual property violations, Schuller also said in court that he did not know that some of his teachings had been offered freely over the Internet and that he had given "implied consent" for the ministry to use his work.

Neither Schuller nor his wife could recall specific details of arrangements they made with the ministry. In court filings, Schuller said when the ministry began, it was "small and things were handled quite informally." Often, that meant verbal agreements and in-person visits to the founder's office.

In recent years, as the Schullers began to transition out of management, Schuller said the church began streaming his sermons and selling his audio and video recordings on the Internet. In court filings, Schuller said he and his wife said they would have never allowed a use they didn't understand — such as the Internet.

Last week, Schuller's wife took the stand and said she is owed money for the ministry's use of her work as the creator and visionary for the "Hour of Power."

"The television program doesn't own what the artist has created," she said.

Schuller's daughter, Carol Schuller Milner, said outside the courtroom that her mother and father used to conduct deals "with a handshake," and that her father rarely kept track of specifics.

Milner said right before the ministry filed for bankruptcy, she was working out a process to streamline how the ministry would continue to use the Schullers' work.

"The Schullers always owned their materials and everybody knew it," she said.

When asked about a housing allowance that he received from the ministry, Schuller said he didn't know anything about it.

"I don't try to remember what people owe me," he said.

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