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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Roper repeatedly notified PTL of Hahn's story, and when no reply resulted, he and Stewart sent PTL officials a draft of a civil complaint on Hahn's behalf, claiming emotional distress, as well as Hahn's account of her Florida tryst. Within ten days that document got the attention of Dortch, an Assemblies of God minister who was installed as Bakker's top administrator in the wake of press allegations of misuse of PTL moneys. Dortch met Roper in tony Newport Beach, Calif., in 1985 and soon hired as PTL's representative Criminal Lawyer Howard Weitzman, whose clients have included ex-Motor Magnate John De Lorean.

On Feb. 27, at a meeting held in Weitzman's office, PTL agreed to pay Hahn $115,000 immediately. Of that Hahn got $20,300, and the rest went to Roper and Stewart and for expenses. In addition, PTL established a $150,000 trust fund, with interest to be paid out monthly. In 1985 Hahn collected $10,046. Under the deal, if Hahn filed no lawsuit and kept quiet about the Bakker liaison for the next 20 years, she would receive the $150,000 as well.

As surely as word of King David's liaison with Bathsheba eventually reached the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 11-12), the sordid little tale did not remain bottled up. Last September rumors reached the receptive ears of Revivalist Jimmy Swaggart. Swaggart's source was an old friend, Fletcher, who had arranged the Clearwater rendezvous. Fletcher knew Profeta and Hahn, and had been defrocked by the Assemblies of God for alcohol problems.

Swaggart was not the most disinterested recipient of such news. Although something of an entrepreneur on his own, Swaggart had made no bones about his contempt for Bakker's "Christian Disneyland"; what's more, Bakker had taken Swaggart's show off the PTL cable network. (Swaggart says the squabble was over time slots; PTL defenders insist Bakker wanted to eliminate Swaggart because of his sharp attacks on Roman Catholicism.)

Swaggart asked to meet with Bakker. Instead, Dortch flew to a Baton Rouge hotel to talk with Swaggart and two officials of the Assemblies of God. As Swaggart tells it, "I confronted Dortch about the Jessica Hahn thing. He flatly denied it. He lied to me." Swaggart did nothing further until the February convention of National Religious Broadcasters, the trade association for radio-TV preachers. Swaggart was about to speak when the Rev. John Ankerberg, Southern Baptist proprietor of a weekly TV show, approached, knelt down and whispered to him that the Charlotte Observer was hot on the Bakker- Hahn story.

Shortly thereafter Swaggart alerted Assemblies of God leaders to the impending scandal. Then, on March 19, Bakker beat the Observer to the punch. He confessed to the newspaper his adultery and the payment of "blackmail," quit PTL, and to the surprise of his followers handed control over to Jerry Falwell.

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