LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Ted Haggard, the powerful U.S. evangelist who fell from grace in 2006 amid a gay sex scandal, returned to the spotlight Friday saying his faith was stronger but he wished people had been more forgiving.
Haggard, 52, was exiled from the New Life mega-church he founded and told by church elders to leave Colorado after admitting “sexual immorality” and buying methamphetamines from a male prostitute.
It was a stunning admission for the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a formidable force among U.S. conservative Christians and a group that had the ear of the White House.
An HBO documentary about Haggard’s year in exile, his struggle with his sexuality in the face of his past condemnation of gays, and his attempts to make a living outside the church, will air on the cable TV network on January 29.
Haggard, his wife Gayle and two of his five children appeared on a panel for U.S. television critics Friday to promote the documentary, “The Trials of Ted Haggard.” He had previously been barred by evangelical leaders from speaking to the media.
“I don’t think it is a flattering piece. I think it is even-handed,” Haggard told Reuters in an interview. “It is embarrassing for me for people to see it, but it does answer their questions.”
Haggard refers to himself in the documentary as a sinner who deserved the punishment meted out to him. He says he came close to suicide.
But he said the year his family spent living in cheap motels or the homes of friends had ultimately strengthened his faith — although he held out no hope of returning to work as a pastor.
“I can’t imagine very many churches inviting me to speak, even though I am a better Christian now and have a better understanding of scriptures than ever,” said Haggard, who is back in Colorado working as a life insurance salesman.
“It has strengthened my faith. I do wish others had been more forgiving toward me. But I think those who hate me and judge me had a reason. I deserved it.”
Three weeks after church elders told Haggard to leave and ordered him to undergo “spiritual restoration,” they announced that after counseling he was “completely heterosexual.”
Haggard smiled wryly at the statement, saying he fits into neither the gay nor the evangelical community.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Haggard did not rule out a return to public life or the pulpit. He spoke before he appeared before TV critics in Los Angeles to promote “The Trials of Ted Haggard,” an HBO documentary on Haggard’s exile after his confession to “sexual immorality” and fall as a top evangelical leader.
“I am guilty. I am responsible,” Haggard, 52, said Friday in a phone interview. “I got off track, and I am deeply sorry and I repent … I’m moving along in a positive direction.”
Haggard resigned as president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals and was fired from the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., in November 2006 amid allegations that he paid a male prostitute for sex and used methamphetamine.
In a written apology at the time, Haggard confessed to a long battle against feelings contrary to his beliefs and admitted buying the drugs but said he never used them.
During a guest sermon last November at a friend’s church in Illinois, Haggard said a co-worker of his father molested him when he was 7, an experience that “started to produce fruit” later. Clarifying that Friday, Haggard said: “I’m certainly not saying that because of that, I did this. I did what I did by my choice, and I’m responsible for it.”
Haggard said he isn’t qualified to judge what factors into one’s sexuality, but still believes it’s “God’s perfect plan” for marriage to be between a man and woman.
“I think sexuality is confusing and complex,” Haggard said. “I am totally completely satisfied with the relationship with my wife now, but I went through a wandering in the wilderness time, and I just thank God I’m on the other side of that.”
Asked whether he could define his sexual identity, Haggard said: “The stereotypical boxes don’t work for me. My story’s got some gray areas in it. And, of course, I’m sad about that but it’s the reality.”
Later Friday, in a Q&A session with reporters at a Television Critics Association meeting in Universal City, Calif., Haggard said he should have been more open with his family and his congregation earlier, calling his actions “hypocrisy.”
Asked to expand on his attitude toward homosexuality, Haggard said, “I believe all human beings fall short of the standards they believe in.”
He added, “I would say the biggest change is I now know about hatred than I ever dreamed, and I know it doesn’t help. And I know more about judgment and I know it doesn’t help. Since my experience, I know more about the power of love and forgiveness. I know a lot more about the necessity of people not judging one another.”
At the time the film was shot in 2007, Haggard described still occasionally struggling with same-sex attraction. Asked Friday whether those attractions remain, Haggard did not say definitively but said he was “not anywhere near” where he was at that time.
Now back living in Colorado Springs, Haggard said Friday he hopes to build his business selling insurance and debt-reduction software and is considering marketing himself through a speakers bureau to share his story — “if the terms were right. I have to earn a living.”
“If what I have is helpful to other people, then I want to make that available to them,” he said. “If it’s not, then I’m perfectly happy building my business.”
Haggard also plans to launch a nonprofit group to help the poor and needy, his Web site says. As for a return to pastoring a church, Haggard said: “I have learned enough to know a lot can happen to anybody. And when Jesus is our Lord, we can’t plan our path.”
The nature of Haggard’s return — and his harsh words in the film for his former church — is drawing criticism. Haggard is also is to tape an “Oprah Winfrey Show” appearance next week for an episode scheduled to air this month, a spokesman for the show confirmed Friday.
“If you’re going to come out and begin a new life, why would you choose an HBO documentary, then meet with the liberal Hollywood press?” said H.B. London, a former counselor to Haggard and an executive at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. “The fact that he’s attacking the church or New Life Church, when they did so much to help him and his family, is below the belt.”
Haggard lashes out at “the church” in the documentary, which was produced by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He said “the church has said go to hell” and “the church chose not to forgive me.”
Over a 14-month period ending Dec. 31, 2007, New Life Church paid the Haggard family $309,020 in salary and benefits, according to a church document obtained by The Associated Press.
The payout included $152,360 in salary for Ted Haggard, $62,177 in salary for his wife, Gayle, $26,426 for counseling, $11,168 for legal fees and $26,000 to help care for the couple’s special-needs son, who is in his early 20s.
Haggard on Friday said his family is grateful for the severance, but he was angry for being forced to leave Colorado Springs as one condition. He also challenged the church’s statement that he halted a process meant to restore him, saying he still receives counseling.
The church has since released Haggard from all restrictions, including a prohibition on speaking publicly, and both Haggard and church leadership say relations are positive.
Haggard’s successor at New Life, Brady Boyd, wrote in a blog post Friday that “the motives behind every decision” involving the Haggards were pure, and the church was generous in its severance and support. He would not respond to Haggard’s specific complaints.
The Rev. Brady Boyd of New Life Church has met twice over the past month with the controversial pastor he replaced almost 18 months ago: Ted Haggard.
Boyd initiated the meetings in part to counsel Haggard and his wife, Gayle, on the struggles that have bedeviled Haggard since he was forced to resign as the head of New Life after an affair with a male prostitute. Haggard has since said he was sexually abused as a child and has struggled with his sexuality.
“He is still trying to figure out what happened with his life and what to do next,” Boyd said Friday. “Imagine having your whole world taken away.”
Besides praying together in their meetings at Haggard’s Colorado Springs home, the two talked at their most recent meeting on Monday about Haggard’s bitterness toward the 10,000-member church. “Any time someone is removed from a position, even with best intentions, there are hurt feelings,” Boyd said. “He is dealing with a lot of hurt.”
On Friday, Boyd e-mailed a letter to the members of New Life to offer them perspective on Haggard’s disparaging comments in the documentary and in public.
Boyd, who was named senior pastor of New Life in August 2007, 10 months after Haggard was fired, writes in the letter that the church committed more than $300,000 to Ted and Gayle Haggard and their five children. That included 13 months of salary for Ted and Gayle, who also worked at the church, as well as a pickup truck, counseling, health insurance for the family, moving expenses to Arizona, and additional medical care for son Jonathan, who has special needs.
One month ago, Boyd released Haggard from a severance agreement that he would not talk to the media about the controversy. On Friday, Haggard began promoting the HBO documentary in Los Angeles by answering questions from television critics. He’s also scheduled to appear on “Larry King Live” on Jan. 29, and will be filmed on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” next week.
Based on his recent meetings with Haggard, Boyd said Haggard is no longer as angry as he appears in the film. He also said there was no ulterior motive behind the meetings other than to counsel Haggard.
“As a pastor, I am to help people through difficult times,” Boyd said.
However, neither side is ready for the Haggard family to be New Life parishioners, he said. Boyd acknowledges that some mistakes were made in handling Haggard’s firing and severance, but overall the church went out of its way to be “kind and considerate.”
“The only motive was to bring restoration,” Boyd said.