Judge in TBN Case to Step Aside
Nov. 23, 2004
Claire Luna, Times Staff Writer
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Tuesday November 23, 2004
Jurist says he could be perceived as biased against a Times reporter who wrote of Crouch.
Citing concerns about remarks he made in an earlier hearing, an Orange County judge removed himself Monday from a case involving televangelist Paul Crouch.
Judge John M. Watson made the decision during a contempt-of-court hearing for Enoch Lonnie Ford, a former TBN employee who says he had a homosexual tryst with televangelist Paul Crouch.
However, while some legitimate ministries and teachers (those who adhere to the orthodox teachings and practices of historical Christianity) appear on TBN, the network promotes such an incredible amount of heretical material – including extremist Word-Faith teachings – that it is often referred to as “The Blasphemy Network.”
Crouch, 70, founded the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and is a popular on-air personality. He has vehemently denied the accusations.
In 2003, Watson issued a restraining order that forbade Ford, 41, from speaking about the allegations or about his employment at TBN. Network attorneys went to court seeking sanctions against Ford for allegedly violating that order in stories that appeared in The Times.
Watson said he stepped aside because of the perception he could be biased against the reporter who wrote the stories and who might be called to testify.
At a hearing in September, Watson told Crouch’s lawyers that any contempt hearing would probably include Times staff writer William Lobdell as a “star witness” and that his colleagues would come to watch him on the stand.
“They just love that kind of stuff,” Watson said at the hearing. “And hopefully we take him out of here in shackles with a big ball chained to his foot so they can get a picture of that in the paper and how noble they are.”
In 1998, Crouch gave his accuser $425,000 not to discuss the allegations, but Ford threatened last year to break that promise by publishing a memoir that contained the accusations. This prompted legal proceedings to keep the allegations confidential.
Watson issued the restraining order and sent the case to private mediation, in which an arbitrator ruled that Ford could not publish the book without violating the 1998 confidential agreement. Ford also was ordered to pay more than $100,000 in legal fees to Crouch. At Monday’s hearing, Watson said his remark about the reporter was not meant to be taken seriously. “It was an ill-advised attempt at humor in an otherwise un-funny case,” he said.
Still, the judge said the comment might cause some people to think he would treat Lobdell unfairly in his courtroom. After Crouch’s lawyers told Watson on Monday that they planned to subpoena Times reporters Lobdell and Stuart Pfeifer, the judge said he could not hear the case because of the potential of an appearance of bias.
The contempt trial now will probably take place in January, after a new judge has been appointed and subpoenas have been sent.
Lawyers for Ford and Crouch said they were surprised and disappointed by the recusal. “I think he’s very fair, very ethical, and he clearly has a very dry sense of humor,” said Crouch’s attorney, John B. Casoria.
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