An LDS Church affiliate has purchased the debt owed by the financially troubled Sea Trek Foundation and will in turn sue the foundation to recover the nearly $500,000 debt.
Sea Trek owed the money to three Norwegian tall ships that participated in last summer's re-creation of the Atlantic Ocean crossings by 19th century converts who emigrated to America.
In a press release issued Thursday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Property Reserve Inc., "a third party affiliated with the church," has purchased the $468,000
debt owed to the ship foundations that brought passengers from Scandinavia and the British Isles to New York last fall. Church spokesman Dale Bills said no tithing money would be used to pay the debt.
The purchase effectively pays off the owners of the tall ships, who said last month they would take legal action against the Sea Trek Foundation and its chairman, Salt Lake venture capitalist William Sadleir, for his failure to pay off outstanding debt incurred by his privately organized venture.
The threat of suit became public in January when newspapers in Norway reported that representatives of the ships the "Statsraad Lehmkuhl," "Christian Radich" and "Srlandet" were angry at Sea Trek, Sadleir and the church because the debt had not been satisfied and arrangements for payment had not been made.
Under the headline "Faith in the Mormons lands Tall Ships in court," a story in the Jan. 22 edition of Aftenposten Norway said a "messy court battle" was imminent "after a group backed by the Mormons in America failed to pay for its charter of the graceful old vessels last year."
Bills has told the press on several occasions over the past year that Sea Trek was a private venture, and from the beginning the church declined to participate financially with the organization. But organizers tied their celebration so closely to the church re-creating the voyage of its early immigrants, enlisting participation from LDS historians, musicians and writers, and working with regional LDS leaders in foreign lands that few people could make the distinction between the private nature of the enterprise and church sponsorship.
Per Langhelle of Bergen, Norway, who represents the tall ships, was quoted in the church's Thursday press release.
"We are very grateful to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for its assistance in helping to arrange for the satisfaction of this debt, which was incurred by Sea Trek Foundation and Mr. Sadleir. We recognize that Sea Trek was a private venture not sponsored by the church and that the church had no legal responsibility for it.
"But when it became apparent that Sea Trek Foundation and Mr. Sadleir may not be able to pay the debt, the church contacted us and offered to help, for which we are most grateful."
Sadleir said Thursday that the threat of litigation by the church comes as a surprise, as does the church's arrangement to pay the debt.
He said he has never been contacted by the LDS Church about the debt and is "completely unaware of any legal action" taken in Norway against him or Sea Trek.
"I've seen no legal documents at all. The only reason I'd be aware there is any legal action" planned by the church is through calls from reporters seeking comment, he said.
The church's press release said Property Reserve Inc. "has purchased the (tall ships) foundations' debt and will join them in the legal action now pending against Sea Trek Foundation and Sadleir in Bergen City Court."
"I don't have a plan at this point it's caught me by surprise. If this is indeed the case I'm very disappointed. I think it might ultimately cause other people to be very hesitant about being actively engaged in a good cause of their own free will," Sadleir said. "I think a lot of people will be shaking their heads in dismay."
Sadleir acknowledges the unpaid debt and said he has worked "full-time on trying to raise the money" since returning from the voyage but so far has been unsuccessful. Since returning to Salt Lake City, he has changed the name of the former Sea Trek Foundation to the Pioneer Heritage Foundation, also registered as a nonprofit corporation. He has taken down the Sea Trek Web site. The renamed foundation has its own Web site, www.pioneerheritage.org, to raise funds.
The fund raising will come in $500 increments, Sadleir said, from people who want to have their family name and the name of an ancestor included on a bronze plaque to be displayed at one of several statuary monuments financed by Sea Trek. Some of those statues have been placed in port cities that Sea Trek stopped in, while others are completed but have yet to be placed in their destined locations.
He said the effort has raised $5,000 within the past week. A sculpture destined for placement in Oslo, Norway, has been put on display at the Crossroads Plaza to help publicize the effort.
Sadleir said he has had "tremendous, quiet support even from (LDS Church) general authorities, and received donations from them with their names not attached who feel very strongly that what we did was very beneficial to the reputation of the church in Europe."
Both the church and Sadleir said the Sea Trek venture generated "good will" for the church in Europe. But Sadleir also acknowledged the church has taken a "PR hit" in Norway because of Sea Trek's financial problems.
The church statement quoted Espen Amundsen, a church spokesman in Olso, Norway, saying the church recognizes the tall ships as a treasure in that country and their important role in preserving and commemorating Norway's great seafaring heritage.