Jim Bakker may be officially defrocked from the ministry, but he demonstrated . last week that he has lost none of his preacher's skill at summoning up a supportive Bible verse. He recited the above words from Psalms 38: 12 during the second of two remarkable performances on ABC-TV's Nightline show, capping a soap opera-like, ten-week saga of money, power and sex that has transfixed skeptic and believer alike. Flanked by his moist-eyed wife Tammy Faye, Bakker informed Nightline Host Ted Koppel and his television audience -- the largest in the show's seven-year history -- that his lethal enemy was the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the televangelist to whom he had entrusted his scandal-stained PTL* ministry last March. Bakker portrayed Falwell as a liar and thief who
"stole" PTL from its rightful ministers.
Until last week, Falwell, a Fundamentalist Baptist from Lynchburg, Va., with his own TV-based spiritual empire, had been relatively reticent in detailing the sins of the Bakkers, who are Pentecostals. Obviously irked when Bakker leveled the charge during his first Nightline appearance, Falwell called a press conference that stretched over 90 minutes and even displaced the Iran- contra hearings on Cable News Network. Falwell fumed that Bakker "either has a terrible memory, or is very dishonest, or he is emotionally ill." He portrayed Bakker as a man consumed by avarice and said that he had documented evidence of homosexual misconduct by the fallen preacher.
The angry exchanges stemmed from Bakker's abrupt, unexpected resignation on March 19 as head of PTL, a glitzy TV and entertainment empire that he had created and nurtured over 13 years. Responding to charges that were about to break in the Charlotte Observer, Bakker confessed that he had paid $265,000 in hush money to cover up an afternoon of adultery in 1980 with Jessica Hahn, a 21-year-old church secretary from Long Island, N.Y. At Bakker's request, Falwell became PTL's new head, amid rumors that another TV evangelist, Jimmy Swaggart of Baton Rouge, La., was conspiring to wrest control of PTL.
Succeeding weeks brought new disclosures of scandal, including accusations that the Bakkers and their cronies had siphoned huge sums of money from PTL and allegations that Jim had been involved in homosexual activity. Four weeks ago, Bakker was ousted from the ministry by the Assemblies of God, a major Pentecostal denomination. Jim and Tammy fled to their handsome retreat in Palm Springs, Calif., from which Jim sent messages indicating that at some point he hoped to reclaim his domain.
| And no wonder. At stake in the Bakker-Falwell struggle was an empire consisting of a daily TV show carried on 161 stations; the largest all-day religious cable service, transmitted to 13 million homes; and the gaudy 2,300- acre Heritage USA theme park at Fort Mill, S.C., a kind of Christian Disneyland that last year had more than 6 million visitors. PTL claimed 1986 proceeds of $129 million.
As the week of "Jim vs. Jerry" dawned, Falwell's team was straining to get PTL under control. That meant an exasperating search for missing PTL records and monies, an emergency drive to raise $7 million by May 31 so PTL could keep functioning, and an almost nonstop talk with PTL creditors and inquisitive federal agents. Besides all that, a group of Bakker sympathizers was trying to undermine Falwell's leadership.
On his two Nightline appearances, Bakker offered a new interpretation of the key events that led to Falwell's takeover of PTL. Bakker's version: in the crucial meeting at a Palm Springs hotel on March 17, Falwell precipitated Bakker's resignation with the threat that Swaggart was plotting a "hostile takeover" of PTL. Said Bakker: "I did not choose Jerry Falwell to take my ministry." Bakker noted that Falwell said he would be a "caretaker" to prevent the takeover while Richard Dortch, one of several Bakker aides who were later to be sacked by Falwell for mismanagement, would remain in charge. Subsequently, Falwell "betrayed" him, said Bakker, who added, "I mean, I sit back and I say, 'Dear God, how could we have our ministry stolen from us?' " Bakker said if PTL were a secular business, Falwell would be sent to jail for taking over "under false pretenses."
Tammy Bakker said she had advised her husband, "Something isn't right here. Don't do it, Jim." She asserted that Lawyer Norman Roy Grutman, hired by PTL, pledged that members of Falwell's newly constituted PTL board would submit resignation letters in advance. Supposedly Grutman said that "anytime you and Jim want to walk back in, all you have to do is tell the board of directors."
In response, Falwell scoffed, "To say that Jerry Falwell stole PTL is like accusing someone of stealing the Titanic just after it hit the iceberg." As Falwell told it, Bakker "misled me and lied to me in the meeting in Palm Springs." The Lynchburg televangelist insisted that he did not threaten Bakker with the Swaggart takeover rumor. Rather, Bakker asked him to take over PTL, saying, "You're the only preacher I trust right now."
Bakker, Falwell said, described the adulterous 1980 tryst with Hahn as a 20- minute encounter in which Hahn was the aggressor and intercourse did not occur. According to Falwell, Bakker also said that the $265,000 in hush money came from his personal funds, not from PTL. On that basis, Falwell told Bakker that if he ironed out problems with his church body, the Assemblies of God, "I see no reason why you couldn't get back in the ministry." Falwell declared his willingness to "step aside" at PTL.
Did Falwell renege? He freely admitted changing his mind as the scandal continued to unfold. Falwell charged that he has since learned that on the day in 1980 in Florida when, according to Hahn, Bakker and his companion, Evangelist John Wesley Fletcher, had intercourse with her, a PTL staffer then attempted to do the same, and Bakker later asked the third man, "Did you get her too?" Said Falwell: "That made my blood boil." Falwell-installed auditors subsequently discovered that the $265,000 in hush money had been siphoned from PTL accounts through a false billing.
Despite Bakker's denials, Falwell also said he has heard taped testimony from "men that have told me of your homosexual advances." He identified one of the witnesses as ex-PTL Staffer Gary Smith. Falwell added that he is concerned about Bakker's "homosexual problems, dating back from 1956 to the present time as they have been alleged to us." On Nightline, Koppel remarked that if Falwell was lying, Bakker could "sue the pants off that man." Bakker responded that it is against his biblical principles to sue, but that the accusations had "no substance." One case involved a supposed "homosexual look," said Bakker, and another a rubdown in a locker room where men were customarily naked.
Sex aside, huge questions loomed about money. Said Falwell: Bakker "needs to return the millions of dollars that have been taken from the coffers of this ministry at the cost of widows and supporters and people who have sacrificially built this Christian ministry." At the press conference, Falwell waved a note that Tammy had jotted on her own stationery. She had given it to a PTL emissary who was sent last month to Palm Springs by Falwell to arrange a severance package. The note's wish list: $300,000 a year for life to Jim; $100,000 a year for life to Tammy; all royalties and rights to their PTL-related books and records; the furnished $400,000 lakeside mansion in South Carolina that PTL had provided for the Bakkers' personal use; two cars; security staffing; payments for attorneys to handle the Bakkers' possible problems with the Internal Revenue Service; a maid and secretary for one year. Falwell thundered, "I see the greed. I see the self-centeredness. I see the avarice that brought them down."
On Nightline, the Bakkers described the list as a starting point for bargaining, but it was apparent that they were not geared for a hardscrabble life. Jim estimated his 1986 salary at $1.1 million, while Tammy professed that she had no idea what she made. (By Falwell's account, Jim got a salary of $1.6 million, and Tammy, $300,000, not counting perks.) Bakker, however, did admit to Koppel that "I think we've made a lot of mistakes, and I'm very sorry about it."
The couple protested that the PTL board had urged the munificent sums upon them, and Koppel did not pursue the nature of Bakker's control over the board. The Washington Post later reported that PTL board minutes, which could prove important in federal investigations, show that members often took no action on important money matters.
To underscore the Bakkers' opulent life-style, the Falwell administration escorted journalists on tours of the couple's private penthouse in PTL's Heritage Grand Hotel. There they examined Tammy's 50-ft. walk-in closet and the gold-plated plumbing fixtures. The lavish expenditures of the Bakkers were pointed up even further at a mammoth May 23 auction of the possessions acquired during the fat years of PTL. The auction served a second purpose, explained by a PTL aide: "Whatever we don't need we are trying to convert to cash."
No auction artifact better symbolized the excesses of Bakkerdom than the air-conditioned doghouse that Tammy had built at their lakeside home. Among the 1,000 bargain-hunting fans on hand at Fort Mill was a California contractor who bought the doghouse for $4,500, and then donated it back to PTL so it could be resold for $600, this time to a Pennsylvania railroad worker. Other notable transactions: $27,000 for a restored 1927 Franklin automobile, $10,500 for a 25-ft. boat. So mountainous is the miscellany that a second auction will be held on July 4.
The day's $200,000 take, however, was piddling compared with the amounts of PTL cash the auditors have been trying to trace. Supporters had sent in $50 million to build an addition to the PTL hotel at Fort Mill -- a project now in suspension -- but only $11 million was allotted to construction. The Bakkers have drawn salaries and bonuses of $4.8 million since 1984; they and top aides also picked up $640,000 in unexplained cash advances. One Bakker friend, James Taggart, got $120,000 a year to decorate Tammy and Jim's residences. Peter Teeley, Vice President George Bush's former press secretary, received $120,000 as a consultant.
South Carolina last week was given $1 million in back taxes due from a PTL "Lifetime Partner" offer of three nights a year at the hotel to all who donated at least $1,000. Meanwhile, the state consumer-affairs office is checking out complaints from Lifetime Partners who have been refused promised hotel visits. The IRS is so intrigued by the flow of cash that it has opened a temporary field office at Heritage USA. Federal tax laws state that officials' remuneration from nonprofit organizations must be "reasonable," which might mean deep trouble for the Bakkers and their well-paid former executives.
The FBI and the Department of Justice are also on hand, and PTL Board Member Jerry Nims, for one, hopes for a full-dress fraud investigation. He charges that the local representative for PTL's outside auditors, Laventhol & Horwath, operated a secret fund through which PTL higher-ups got enormous bonuses. Laventhol says it is unable to discuss the situation until PTL gives permission. In addition, says Nims, some PTL officials were observed pocketing cash from mail donations right off the counting table.
What are PTL's prospects? Amazingly enough, attendance at Heritage USA is running 20% ahead of last year's levels. At week's end a banner at the entrance to the amusement park that had read MAY EMERGENCY had been altered to read MAY MIRACLE! The proclamation was the result of a surge of donations that enabled Falwell to raise the $7 million he said was needed by May 31. Now, however, another $20 million to $25 million within 90 days is being solicited by Falwell, who claims PTL requires that amount to consolidate its loans and pay 40 TV stations to which it owes $8 million. Survival depends on keeping the daily PTL show on its broadcast and cable systems so that money will continue to roll in. Belt tightening and staff cuts (including the Bakkers' $45,000-a-year housekeeper) have dropped the monthly operating deficit from $2 million to $250,000.
Nonetheless, long-range prospects are at best uncertain. One looming threat ) emanates from a vocal group that wants to rally the 518,000 PTL Partners in order to oust Falwell. Like the Bakkers, these protesters are Pentecostals and Charismatics, believers in "gifts" of the Holy Spirit, such as healing and speaking in tongues. As a Fundamentalist Baptist, Falwell is doctrinally opposed to these practices, and the five-member PTL board he appointed has no Pentecostal representatives. The loudest of the anti-Falwell group is the Rev. Mike Evans of Fort Worth, who thinks the chastened Bakker "has every right to have the PTL back," if he is not guilty of homosexual sins. Evans regards the homosexual charges as unproven. As for Falwell: "I think the guy is a skunk."
On Nightline, Bakker, musing about a possible return to PTL, proposed to set up a new 25-member board to govern the organization. The notion of the Bakkers' making a comeback might seem incredible, but supportive mail has poured in to the Palm Springs retreat. Some Pentecostals think Bakker could try to set up a clone of Heritage USA in California, or an independent Charismatic congregation somewhere. Indeed, one Chattanooga, Tenn., TV station has already offered to help Bakker launch a new gospel show. Says the Rev. Tommy Barnett, of the flourishing (15,000-member) Phoenix First Assembly of God: "I know the man has his drive and dreams, and you just don't hold a man like that back."
The scandal seems to have had a fallout effect on some other televangelists. Falwell admits that proceeds at various enterprises in Lynchburg were down $2 million in April; Jimmy Swaggart reports a $1.5 million decline for that month. The Rev. Robert Schuller of Garden Grove, Calif., whose popular Hour of Power is carried by 172 TV stations, shows a 3% dip in donations so far in 1987, but he does not consider that necessarily a result of the PTL scandal. The televangelist with the most to lose is the one with the biggest video operation, Republican Presidential Candidate Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network. He briefly took time out from the campaign trail to report that April donations were down a perilous 33%. "We can't just continue to have that sort of drain," said the worried preacher.
It is not difficult to discern why many contributors are becoming edgy about secretive and sensationalistic televangelism empires. Asks McKendree R. Langley in Eternity, a respected evangelical news monthly: "Wouldn't it be a step in the right direction for TV preachers to cut back on financial appeals, end outrageous claims of having direct pipelines to God, reaffirm by example the rightness of modest life-styles, demonstrate deeper biblical spirituality and articulate a Christian worldview?" That sound you hear is an army of embarrassed Christians shouting "Amen!"
FOOTNOTE: *The initials stand for Praise The Lord or People That Love, though mockers suggest other variations, such as Pass The Loot or Pay The Lady.