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Catholic diocese ups offer for Calif. megachurch

- Associated Press - Monday, November 14, 2011

SANTA ANA, CALIF. (AP) - A Roman Catholic diocese raised its offer for the financially ailing Crystal Cathedral, home of the long-running televangelist show "Hour of Power," as a federal bankruptcy court evaluated competing bids for the sprawling grounds Monday.

Diocese of Orange attorney Alan Martin said the new offer was $57.5 million, up from $55.4 million, to address concerns stemming from intellectual property and other potential claims by the megachurch's founder, the Rev. Robert Schuller, and some of his family members.

"We felt it was important to increase the offer to address the feasibility concerns," Martin said on a break from a hearing Monday.

Much of the daylong hearing focused on the need to create a reserve fund to cover the Schuller's claims, and on how big that fund should be.

Judge Robert Kwan is examining bids by the diocese and Orange County's Chapman University, which has offered $51.5 million.

Kwan will evaluate which proposal will enable the church to pay off its hefty debts and also consider the perspectives of church members, some who want the glass-spired church and cemetery to remain in Protestant hands.

The Crystal Cathedral's board has given its blessing to both bids but prefers the offer from Chapman University, which would enable the church to lease back and eventually repurchase buildings on the Garden Grove campus.

Chapman plans to use the site to expand its health sciences offerings and possibly start a medical school.

The university also proposed an alternative offer Monday that would eliminate the repurchase option, but give the Crystal Cathedral a $1 lease on core church buildings for 15 years.

The church's attorney asked for more time to review that option, but it was unclear whether Kwan would grant it because of his expressed desire for the process to move quickly.

The Diocese wants the site for a long-sought countywide cathedral. The Diocese would use the main worship space and the Crystal Cathedral would be able to lease or buy a smaller Catholic church nearby.

Several church members said they want Chapman to buy the property because it will remain a Protestant campus. Some raised concerns about the future of the church's cemetery if the Diocese assumes control, pointing out that some churchgoers may no longer wish to spend eternity there.

Diocese officials said they would assist any churchgoers who wanted relatives' remains to be relocated, but said anyone would be welcome to stay.

Schuller's Southern California ministry dates to the 1950s. What started as a drive-in church predicated on the "power of positive thinking" evolved into an international televangelism empire with the weekly "Hour of Power" broadcast beaming into 1 million homes.

The Crystal Cathedral opened in 1980 and quickly became a landmark. The $20 million architectural marvel with more than 10,000 panes of glass was designed by the acclaimed Philip Johnson. A decade later, the church added a bell tower and spire that can be seen from miles away.

Church leaders say the recession took its toll in 2008 as donations and ticket sales for holiday pageants began to drop. But some experts say the church failed to attract younger members while alienating older churchgoers with an ill-fated attempt to turn the church over to Schuller's son that ended in a bitter and public family feud.

As revenues declined, the church laid off more than half its employees, cut salaries and canceled contracts with more than 100 television stations nationwide. But unpaid bills along with a $36 million balance remaining on the church's mortgage pushed the Crystal Cathedral's debts above $43 million.

Last year, the church filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to be able to keep operating while getting its finances in order under supervision of the court.

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