TV's Unholy Row: The Scandal of Televangelism

A sex-and-money scandal tarnishes electronic evangelism

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Bettmann / CORBIS

October 03, 1989: PTL founder Jim Bakker (left), his son, Jamie, (center) and wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, greet supporters as they leave federal court in Charlotte

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The key player in the early convolutions of the drama was Jim Bakker, the religious entrepreneur who reigned over the domain called Heritage USA. Nestled in the pine-carpeted piedmont just south of the border between North and South Carolina, Heritage is the third most popular theme park in the country (after the two Disney operations). It drew more than 6 million people last year to its 500-room hotel, 2,500-seat church, five-acre water park, and mock gable-fronted "Main Street USA," an enclosed mall with 25 stores and a 650-seat cafeteria.

The heart of the operation is the PTL cable network, which reaches 13.5 million households over 171 stations and until last month featured the chatty Jim and Tammy Show. On the hourlong daily program, Jim continually pleaded -- and sometimes Tammy wept through enormous fly-whisk eyelashes -- for funds to support such new projects as a home for unwed mothers and Heritage USA's $100 million re-creation of England's 1851 Crystal Palace.

Bakker's fall from this sugarplum land of his own creation began on a warm December day in 1980 at a hotel in Clearwater Beach, Fla. At the time, Jim and Tammy, although sunny on camera, were going through a chilly time offstage. According to some accounts, Evangelist John Wesley Fletcher arranged for Bakker to meet young Jessica Hahn, a secretary for the Full Gospel Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church in Massapequa, N.Y. According to Bakker's official statement in resigning as head of PTL, the brief encounter was a setup: "I was wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends and then colleagues who victimized me with the aid of a female confederate." One friend, Jamie Buckingham, a well-known charismatic writer, told the Washington Post that Bakker "was very surprised that this gal was able to perform the way that she did . . . He described her as very professional for 21 years of age . . . She knew all the tricks of the trade." Hahn indignantly told Long Island's Newsday, "That was not my style, honest. I think it's a ridiculous statement."

Those on Hahn's side portray her as a devout follower of Bakker's who was spiritually and emotionally "shattered" by the tryst. Hahn told her pastor, the Rev. Gene Profeta, about the incident. Profeta consulted his friend Paul R. Roper, a business consultant in Anaheim, Calif., and self-appointed monitor of clergy skulduggery. John Stewart, a Christian broadcaster and teacher at ! the Simon Greenleaf School of Law in California, became Roper's partner in the project. Hahn told Roper that Bakker had pressured her into sex. Roper says, "She was overwhelmed by being in the presence of this man ((Bakker)), who was second to God in her mind." Roper said that Fletcher had given Hahn a glass of wine, and that at some time after, she had engaged in sex with Bakker for one hour. In a vivid if inelegant assessment of her plight, Roper disclosed, Hahn later said she felt like a "piece of hamburger somebody threw out into the street."

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