Oral Roberts University captured attention for money woes and messages from God long before a lawsuit filed last week alleged illegal political involvement and misspending for the benefit of the university president’s family.
But Tulsans said they are waiting for evidence to back up the recent accusations before guessing at the fate of the city’s charismatic Christian icon.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Tulsa County District Court, claims ORU President Richard Roberts required a government professor to make his students help with a local mayoral campaign, in violation of laws for tax-exempt organizations. The suit also includes the summary of a report, allegedly written by Roberts’ sister-in-law Stephanie Cantese, that claims the Roberts family used university and Oral Roberts Ministries money for personal purposes. Plaintiffs said they hope the report isn’t true.
Three former professors — John Swails, Tim Brooker and Paulita Brooker — amended their lawsuit Thursday to add a claim of “libel/slander/defamation” after Roberts told ORU students in a chapel service Wednesday that he was “not intimidated by blackmail and extortion.”
A recent ORU graduate, Michael Branscun, said he’s almost come to expect scandals from the charismatic Christian world.
The Rev. Ted Haggard resigned last year as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals and was dismissed as the leader of the 14,000-member New Life Church that he founded. He admitted to “sexual immorality” — paying a man for a massage and methamphetamine. The televangelist Benny Hinn testified in court earlier last year that he returned profits from investments discovered to be made in a Ponzi scheme.
In “the whole charismatic movement . . . stuff like this seems to always happen,” Branscun said.
“In the words of Notorious B.I.G., ‘Mo’ money, mo’ problems,’ (and) the easier it is to think you’re invincible,” he said.
People who appear on television and ask for money “are held to a higher standard,” Branscun said.
Roberts issued a statement Friday outlining a variety of procedures to keep ORU and the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association financially accountable. He said he pays his family’s personal expenses.
Amy Sawyer said she was concerned for ORU students, who “don’t want their degree to be associated with the reputation (ORU) is accumulating right now.”
Branscun said he thinks parents will think twice about paying almost $30,000 a year to send their children to ORU because they’ll wonder how the money is being spent.
Jayne Emerson said she thinks people have their minds made up about whether they like ORU. She respects the fact that ORU has a vision and has stuck to it.
As for the lawsuit’s effects on ORU, she said, “You know, it’s survived a lot.”
Oral Roberts, Richard Roberts’ father, started the university in 1965. Now 89, he lives in California.
In 1977, Oral Roberts said God told him to build the City of Faith medical complex. The plan faced immediate opposition; state officials were concerned that the city didn’t need more hospital beds. The plan was eventually approved.
During the hospital’s construction in 1980, Oral Roberts spoke of a vision he had of a 900-foot Jesus assuring him, “I told you I would speak through your partners and through them, I would build it!”
In 1989, with the City of Faith $25 million in debt, Oral Roberts announced it would close.
Oral Roberts told media in 1989 that he was “laughed at, mocked, scoffed” for saying on national television that God would “call me home” if he didn’t raise $8 million in early 1987 for a medical missionary program. ORU reached the fundraising goal.
“I myself have been blamed, not immorally or not irresponsible in finances, but because I heard the voice of God,” he said in 1989.
Richard Roberts asked supporters in 1989 to donate $11 million within about one month to keep university and ministry operations afloat. Oral and Richard Roberts again asked for money in 1991 to pay the bills “or all hell is going to break loose against this ministry.”
Richard Roberts told students last week that he wanted to “tell you what I know.”
“I am bursting to tell somebody what I know, but I have been advised by our attorneys not to do that at this time,” he said.
Branscun, who said he wasn’t surprised when he heard about the lawsuit, said he loved his ORU classes and the dorm life. He wants to wait until he sees evidence of wrongdoing before he forms an opinion. He said that even if administrators made “mistakes,” that “doesn’t mean the whole university is bad.”
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