In re The Bible Speaks, Bankruptcy No. 86-40392JFQ.

CourtUnited States Bankruptcy Courts. First Circuit. U.S. Bankruptcy Court — District of Massachusetts
Writing for the CourtJAMES F. QUEENAN, Jr.
Citation73 BR 848
PartiesIn re THE BIBLE SPEAKS, Debtor.
Docket NumberBankruptcy No. 86-40392JFQ.
Decision Date19 May 1987

Gordon Walker, McDermott, Will & Emery, Boston, Mass., for Elizabeth Dovydenas.

Charles Morse, Co-Counsel, Worcester & Sullivan, Boston, Mass., Norman Grutman, Grutman Miller Greenspoon Hendler & Levin, New York City, for debtor/The Bible Speaks.


JAMES F. QUEENAN, Jr., Bankruptcy Judge.

Elizabeth Dayton Dovydenas (the "Claimant") seeks the return of several large contributions made to The Bible Speaks (the "Church"). The Church is a debtor in this Chapter 11 proceeding primarily because of this claim, having prevailed in its opposition to the Claimant's motion to dismiss the proceeding. See In re The Bible Speaks, 65 B.R. 415 (Bankr.D. Mass.1986). The Court has conducted a three week trial of the claim, after extensive discovery proceedings by both parties that produced much acrimony. By separate judgment, the Court has today allowed the claim in the sum of $6,581,356.25. This is a case of undue influence exerted upon a church donor which appears to be unsurpassed in our jurisprudence in its variations and in the sums involved. Revealed is an astonishing saga of clerical deceit, avarice, and subjugation on the part of the Church's founder, Carl H. Stevens. He has abused the trust of the Claimant as well as the trust of many good and devout members of the Church. This is also, apparently, one of the few restitution cases brought by a church donor where First Amendment issues have been fully briefed and argued by the parties. We set forth here findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of the judgment allowing the claim.

A. The Parties

The Church is an evangelical, Bible-believing fundamentalist Christian church. It enjoys corporate tax exempt status as a religious and educational organization. It has about 1,200 parishioners and supports missionary work in numerous foreign countries. The Church operates The Stevens School of the Bible, which enrolls some 600 adults, many of whom board at the school, and a private day school for children in kindergarten through the twelfth grade, which enrolls about 300 students. It conducts a daily radio program in the form of an hour-long "talk show" concerning religious education, which is broadcast throughout the country. The Church has a cooperative relationship with a number of autonomous religious organizations located in this and other countries, called "affiliated ministries," which also use the name "The Bible Speaks." The Church owns extensive real estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, which was formerly occupied by a college preparatory school for boys. The Church moved its principal operations to Lenox from South Berwick, Maine in 1976.

Carl H. Stevens ("Stevens"), age 57, founded the Church in 1973. He is its Pastor and President, and at all material times has been its chief executive and chief operating officer. Stevens is articulate and mild in manner, but he can at times fulminate from the pulpit in the style of a Cotton Mather. He has a commanding presence in private. Although Stevens has basically no formal education, he has taken courses at Moody Bible Institute. He holds an honorary degree from Clarksville Theological Seminary, for which the Church paid a "processing" fee.

The Claimant, age 34, is an intelligent college graduate who has taken post-graduate courses in art. She is an attentive mother, and a trusting and dependent person. She is in excellent health and enjoys many of the simple aspects of life, such as camping, horses and dogs. She has continued her interest in art. The Claimant is a descendent of the founders of the Dayton Department Stores, now operated by Dayton-Hudson Corporation ("Dayton-Hudson"). She grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, and came into substantial wealth at an early age. Prior to her involvement with the Church, her net worth was approximately $19 million. In 1978, she married Jonas Dovydenas ("Jonas"), who was then working as a free lance photographer in Chicago. He is some 14 years older than the Claimant, and is a very capable individual.

The Claimant and Jonas began their married life in Chicago. After the birth of their first child, they desired a country setting to raise their family. In 1981, they moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, a cultural town in the picturesque Berkshire Mountains. Neither Jonas nor the Claimant had any previous close association with that area. They were very much in love and happy in all aspects of their married life. They were particularly relaxed concerning their respective roles in family finances. The income from the Claimant's investments was of course more than enough to support them. They had agreed early in their marriage that it made no sense for Jonas to attempt to earn enough for their joint support. In Lenox, Jonas continued his activities as a free lance photographer, although these became less extensive because of his involvement in various projects improving their substantial property there.

B. Beginning of Claimant's Relationship With the Church and Stevens

The Claimant was raised in a Presbyterian family, and Jonas in a Catholic family, but neither attended these churches regularly as adults. After moving to Lenox, they attended a few different churches before settling on the Church in 1982. The Claimant was attracted to the Church by the large and enthusiastic crowds at its services, as well as by the relative youth of its parishioners. After attending several services, they left a $600 check in the basket. This generosity precipitated a travail for their marriage.

Shortly thereafter, two ministers of the Church appeared, uninvited, at the Claimant's home. They asked whether Stevens could visit the Claimant, and she consented. Stevens's secretary called, and the Claimant invited him to tea. Stevens was then a widower; he came accompanied by Barbara Baum ("Baum"), whom he was dating and whom he married in 1984. During that first visit he asked the Claimant and Jonas, separately, if they had accepted Jesus Christ. Each replied in the negative. The Claimant was embarassed by the question. Baum, who is the Claimant's age, expressed her desire during that visit to get to know the Claimant better.

Baum and the Claimant soon became good friends, and the Claimant began spending more time in the activities of the Church. Sometime later Baum introduced the Claimant to Kathleen M. Hill ("Hill"), who was also about the Claimant's age. Hill was employed as a bookkeeper by the Church and lived on the Church's property. She was close to both Stevens and Baum. Hill also became very friendly with the Claimant, and spent an increasing amount of time with her in church and social activities.

In mid-1983, the Claimant had a conversation with Baum and Stevens in Stevens's office, in which for the first time the Claimant affirmed to Stevens that she was a "born again Christian." Stevens then asked her to pray for Jonas, who had not made this affirmation. He told the Claimant that Jonas was in the Kingdom of Darkness because he was not yet "born again" through the Church. This statement caused the Claimant grave concern, and she began to view Jonas as one controlled by the Devil. Her changing view of Jonas was the beginning of a growing estrangement between them. The Claimant thereafter increased the amount of time she spent with Stevens and in the activities of the Church. She had numerous private counseling sessions with Stevens, attended daily Bible classes and daily "rap sessions" that he conducted, and occasionally traveled to Framingham with him, where he delivered a sermon on Friday nights.

The Claimant's confidential relationship with Stevens, her psychological make-up, and his role in her marital strife will be more fully described later. It suffices to state here that she disclosed to Stevens the details of her wealth, as well as essentially all other personal matters. Stevens told her, in substance, on numerous occasions that: giving money to the Church was her primary mission on earth; all she needed to live on was $1 million, and the rest should be given to the Church; she should not be influenced by her husband, or her parents, sisters or advisors, because they have not been "born again" through the Church and are therefore controlled by the Devil; and her money gave her the power to release God's judgment in order to effect miracles. The Claimant accepted and believed all of this.

C. The $1 Million Gift

Baum suffered from severe migraine headaches, which frequently incapacitated her. In November of 1984, shortly before Stevens and Baum were married, the Claimant told them, separately, she had received a message from God that she should give $1 million to the Church in order to cure Baum's migraine condition. Stevens and Baum were delighted, and urged her to do this. The Claimant got this notion because Stevens had convinced her that she was a special person who could release material benefits from God through gifts to the Church. The idea first came to her in October of 1984 when Stevens said to her, while they were in a car together driving from an evening church service of an affiliate in another city, that it "seems" she had been hearing from the Holy Spirit. The Claimant's normal annual gifts to charities had been about $10,000 per year, except in 1977 when she gave $127,000 to the Minneapolis Art Center. When the Claimant informed Jonas of her intention to make the $1 million gift, he said he thought the idea of giving that amount away in one fell swoop was "crazy." He urged her to consult with the legal and financial advisors whom they and other members of the Dayton family had employed for years. She refused. Jonas then contacted Okabena Company ("Okabena"), the family's financial advisor located in Minneapolis, and asked for...

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