Christian Science officials quit in uproar over funds

March 10, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The chairman and other top officials of the Christian Science Church resigned yesterday after reports that pension funds had been misused to prop up the church's struggling television empire and amid a split over the church's future.

Harvey Wood, who had overseen the church's recent move into broadcasting, resigned as chairman of the board after 15 years as a director,and the church said it would shut down its new cable television network, the Monitor Channel, unless a buyer is found by June 15.

Virginia S. Harris will replace Mr. Wood as chairman, and Al M. Carnesciali will fill Mr. Wood's vacancy on the board.

The church, which was founded in Boston by Mary Baker Eddy 125 years ago, said the changes would not affect its venerable daily newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor, and its circulation of an estimated 120,000, or the monthly World Monitor magazine.

But followers were split over whether the changes represented any real shift in the unique American church's direction, which has bitterly divided the faith. That dispute involves both how much effort should be put into the church's unusual dedication to journalism and whether there is something different and fundamentally superficial about broadcasting on contrast to the printed word.

In recent years, the church, which is dedicated both to healing by faith and to education through international journalism, has struggled to keep members. In reaction, Mr. Wood and other elders moved increasingly toward broadcasting as a way to attract followers, including a dramatic change three years ago that cut the cost and size of the Monitor newspaper.

Some members said that the television ventures, including a nightly news program and later the church's own cable channel, were diverting too much away from other church activities and that television debased the ideas the founder was dedicated to. Three years ago, the top three editors of the Monitor newspaper, the church's most famous entity, resigned in protest.

Yesterday's developments follow two recent controversies that have deepened the larger split in the church.

First, the church published a book that it had denounced as hereical when it was written and privately published 45 years ago. Contrary to church doctrine, the book compared Mrs. Eddy to Jesus Christ.

Critics charged that church elders had reversed themselves for simple greed. Under terms of the will of its late author, Bliss Knapp, if the church published the book and made it available in Christian Science reading rooms worldwide by May 1993, the church would get nearly $93 million from the author's estate.

Stanford University and the Los Angles County Museum of Art are contesting the bequest. They are recipients of the money if the church does not get it. And two weeks ago, a California court delayed the church bequest.

Then, a week ago, the church acknowledged that it had borrowed $41.5 million from its employee pension fund since Jan. 1 to underwrite the Monitor Channel and the Monitor newspaper.

Church management also borrowed another $20 million from the church endowment for similar purposes last September, but paid it back last month with interest equal to the prime rate plus one point.

It cost the church $250 million to launch the cable channel, which reportedly requires $4 million a month to operate.

There are 2,600 Christian Science churches worldwide, about 1,884 of them in the United States. The church said no figures are kept on membership, although estimates have ranged from 250,000 to as many as 650,000.

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