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Court rejects Christian Science motion on bequests
STANFORD -- The fate of two estates valued at about $98 million is still undecided after a Los Angeles court refused to grant a motion by the Christian Science Church that would have given the inheritance to the church.
The ruling keeps alive the possibility that Stanford, as one of two contingent beneficiaries, eventually will share in the estates.
Superior Court Judge Edward M. Ross on Sept. 17 denied the church's request for summary judgment, setting the stage for an eventual trial.
At issue are bequests by sisters Eloise Mabury Knapp and Bella Mabury that grant large legacies to the church if it meets certain conditions, including publishing as "authorized literature" a controversial book, The Destiny of the Mother Church.
Written by Knapp's husband, Bliss, in the early 1940s, the book is disavowed by many church members because it essentially deifies church founder Mary Baker Eddy.
In their wills, the women also instructed the church to maintain the book for sale and prominently display it in "substantially all" Christian Science reading rooms virtually forever. Bliss Knapp died in 1958, leaving his wife and sister-in-law to press the case for his book.
During a courtroom discussion with church attorneys, the judge expressed pessimism that the church could ever fulfill the conditions and, thus, receive the money.
"I don't think you'll ever be in a position to get it," Ross said from the bench. "I think you've got terms in that trust that will never be satisfied."
Under terms of the wills, Stanford and Museum Associates, a support group for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, would split the bequests if the church fails to meet various requirements by the expiration dates. Knapp's trus t expires in May 1993 and Mabury's will expire 21 years after the death of a named individual who is trustee for one of the estates. Mabury, who attended Stanford in 1891-92, died in 1964; Eloise Knapp died in 1973.
From the 1940s until last year, church leaders refused to publish Bliss Knapp's book. After Knapp privately published the book in 1947, church leaders sent him a letter pointing out what they considered to be the book's doctrin al flaws and asking him to destroy the book and the printing plates.
In September 1991, church leaders decided to publish the book as part of a 15-volume biographical series on Eddy.
They also signed a document promising to comply with the terms of the wills. Referring to that agreement Ross wrote, "It is compliance with the terms of the agreement that is required, not just execution of the agreement."
"Despite the apparent execution of a piece of paper ostensibly embodying the terms set forth in the will and trusts," the judge wrote, the church was required to enter the agreement "in good faith and with the intent to perform it."
The church's right to "obtain the proceeds of the trusts is conditioned upon full compliance" with the wills, he wrote.
He said the church has taken the position that it is entitled to the funds as long as it meets only two conditions: publication of Destiny and delivery of an agreement containing specified terms.
"The court disagrees," he wrote. "In this case, however, the written instrument that must control is the entire will(s). . . ." The church may not "pay attention to one portion. . .and ignore the balance."
Taken in their entirety, the Knapp and Mabury wills are consistent, the judge said, with instructions given by Bliss Knapp and contained in a document the judge characterized as "akin to a deposition" from Knapp.
"Bliss Knapp unequivocally evidenced his desire that the trust not terminate when the trustees signed a contract with the [church] directors for the publishing of Destiny," Ross wrote.
Instead, Knapp wanted the trusts "to continue until the trustees are convinced that the directors are carrying out their side of the agreement and Destiny is actually for sale in the Reading Rooms."
The wills provide that the book be available until after a year passes in which no one requests a copy.
Ross said the timing of the book's publication raises questions. Noting that no new publications about Mary Baker Eddy had been issued for years, "is it only coincidence that Destiny came out as a part of a proposed 15 volumes, " Ross asked, "or will the initial three-to-four volumes be all that are published and are these really publications or only a smoke-screen to hide and obfuscate the dissemination of Destiny?"
Showing exasperation with the mounds of documents submitted and the practice of attorneys to cram in long footnotes, Ross said that perhaps Alice [in Wonderland] was correct when she said: "You can make words mean so many diffe rent things."
Through 26 annual accountings since Mabury's death, the court had accumulated less than five volumes of files, Ross said, but since about February 1992 "the court files have expanded at a rate wherein the trees felled to suppl y the paper probably exceed the rate cut in the Brazilian rain forests."
The parties will return to Los Angeles Superior Court for a continuation of the hearing on Jan. 28, 1993. In the meantime, a special judge will hear remaining "discovery" motions in which the parties try to gather information f rom each other.
Handling the case for Stanford are university attorneys Carol Swenson and Michael Vartain and outside counsel from the Los Angeles firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson.
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