A drug addict’s allegations of gay sex sessions with the founder of the world’s largest televangelist group has sparked a furious response, reports Andrew Gumbel
The time was the autumn of 1996, the scene a cabin in the San Bernardino mountains near Los Angeles. The cabin was owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world’s largest televangelist organisation with outlets on thousands of satellite, cable and terrestrial channels around the world. That much we know.
According to Lonnie Ford, an admittedly troubled sometime drug addict who worked for the station, it was also the site of an inappropriate – and potentially scandalous – sexual encounter between himself and TBN’s president and founder, Paul Crouch.
For eight years, Mr Ford has been threatening to go public with the story and has written a lengthy manuscript detailing his allegations. The two sides have been in and out of court, money has changed hands and each has accused the other of acting in bad faith.
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.”
Mr Crouch has denied everything, as well he might, since homosexuality is a big no-no in the Christian fundamentalist world which he inhabits and which has provided him with a lifestyle of striking lavishness over the past 31 years. In fact, the star evangelist on TBN, Benny Hinn, once announced that “God will destroy the homosexual community of America … with fire”.
For eight years, TBN managed to keep the story under wraps, persuading courts to keep the relevant documents sealed and threatening Mr Ford with legal action if he tried to break the terms of a 1998 settlement and seek a publisher for his manuscript. That changed last weekend, though, when The Los Angeles Times got wind of the affair and went public with at least the gist of it. Through interviews with some of the participants, including a friend of Mr Ford’s who helped him write the manuscript, the Times pieced together a tawdry legal history in which Mr Ford has brazenly demanded large quantities of money in exchange for his silence and TBN has reacted first by paying up and then by branding him a liar and an extortionist.
One way or the other, it seems America may be about to witness its first really juicy televangelist scandal in 15 years. In a hastily issued statement over the weekend, TBN described the allegations as “deplorable”, “salacious” and “false”, but avoided going into any details of what may or may not have transpired on that weekend in the mountains. Mr Ford’s friend and co-author Sandi Mahlow, meanwhile, told the Times how Mr Ford had broken down in tears after returning from the cabin near Lake Arrowhead and told her that he and Mr Crouch had engaged in sexual acts. “Lonnie has a lot of bad traits. One thing he isn’t, and that’s a liar,” Ms Mahlow said.
The Times also quoted a letter written by TBN lawyer Dennis Brewer, in which he recalled Mr Crouch’s youngest son, Matt, telling his then law partner, David Middlebrook: “I am devastated; I am confronted with having to face the fact that my father is a homosexual.” Mr Middlebrook and the younger Mr Crouch now deny there was ever such a conversation.
In its statement, TBN painted Mr Ford as a disturbed man with a history of relapses into drug addiction – something theTimes’s piece discussed as well. “It is a reprehensible fact of modern life that public persons like Dr Crouch are targets of such dishonest, false and scandalous claims,” statement lamented. “The lifelong ministry of Dr Crouch has been to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world. The good works of TBN are what define Dr Crouch and it is this work that will continue to define him.”
But TBN also acknowledged that it had agreed to a financial settlement with Mr Ford – the Times put the figure at $425,000 – rather than go to court to fight his twin allegations of sexual harassment and wrongful termination. “This course of action was deemed less expensive and would avoid the bad publicity, time and effort that it would take to fight the false claims,” the statement said. “Dr Crouch reluctantly agreed to this advice with the understanding that the accuser would go away and leave both he and TBN alone forever.” One understands why TBN has fought so hard to keep even the allegations out of the public eye. The affair’s oddly compelling pairing of sex and sanctimony – whether substantiated or not – are a direct reminder of the scandals of the late 1980s that brought down Jimmy Swaggart, the preacher forced to admit he was addicted to pornography and prostitutes, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the husband-and-wife team behind the Praise The Lord network. Jim Bakker was not only forced to admit having an affair with an employee, a former Playboy playmate, Jessica Hahn. He was also caught trying to pay her off with $265,000 from church funds – one of a string of financial improprieties that landed him in prison.
TBN shares many of the traits of those earlier televangelist outfits. Mr Crouch and his wife, Jan – who started out as business partners of the Bakkers – like to portray themselves as regular humble folks doing the Lord’s work and giving of themselves just as they hope their viewers will give, by sending in financial contributions.
Their costumes and studio sets are every bit as gaudy and kitschy as anything the notoriously campy Tammy Faye Bakker ever came up with. The motif of the whole station, in fact, is distinctly regal, with a crest based on the British lion and unicorn (plus a religious dove, thrown in for good measure). During their personal appearances on air, the Crouches like to sit on high-backed purple chairs that look just like thrones.
Questions have been asked about the money the Crouches have generated and how exactly it has been spent. The Bakkers had tens of thousands of dollars of gold plating in their bathrooms, and air-conditioning in their dog kennel. The Crouches, meanwhile, bought a $5m oceanfront home in the ritzy California yachting resort Newport Beach a few years ago. They gave various explanations for the move, suggesting at one point that the property belonged to the church and they would not actually be living in it, then saying that the purchase was proof of the lavish rewards bestowed on them by the Almighty for their good works. The real estate column in theTimes, meanwhile, cited sources close to the couple explaining: “Jan Crouch had been wanting a bigger yard for her dogs.”
Similar lavishness appears to be in order at the couple’s private offices, which occupy half of the top floor of TBN’s headquarters just off a freeway in Costa Mesa, 20 minutes’ drive from Newport Beach in Orange County. The 8,000 sq ft personal office space is off limits to the public and the press, but construction workers who helped build it have told reporters it includes a wet bar and sauna, a personal gym, meticulously handcrafted black walnut woodwork and ornate velvet furniture. “This makes Hearst Castle look like a doghouse,” Steve Oliver, the master carpenter, told the Orange County Register when the building opened in 1998. TBN described the premises as “standard executive offices”.
The money issue has been exacerbated by the Crouch’s singular fund-raising techniques. They have some stiff competition when it comes to spinning lines to true believers and inducing them to open their wallets. (Back in the 1980s, Oral Roberts once told his viewers that God would strike him down and kill him if his supporters did not send him $8m within a year. The money arrived, and Mr Roberts’ life, miraculously, was spared.) Mr Crouch’s favoured rhetorical trope appears to be equating his network with the Lord God Himself. “If you have been healed or saved or blessed through TBN and have not contributed to [the] station, you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven,” he said on air in 1997.
The Crouches also have a singular line in defensiveness when it comes to criticism of the station – criticism that has spanned many lawsuits and also included accusations from rival Christian organisations that TBN is spreading blasphemy. “God, we proclaim death to anything or anyone that will lift a hand against this network and this ministry that belongs to You, God,” Mr Crouch said in 1997. A few years earlier, he reacted even more vehemently to critics he characterised as “heresy hunters”: “To hell with you!” he ranted during a Praise-a-thon in 1991. “I say get out of God’s way! Quit blocking God’s bridges or God’s going to shoot you – if I don’t.”
The Crouches are positively tame compared with Mr Hinn, the star performer on their network, who has preached that Adam was a superman who flew to the moon and expressed his belief that one day the dead will be raised by watching TBN from inside their coffins. Describing his frustrations with his enemies, Mr Hinn once expressed regret that the Bible didn’t sanction murder. “Sometimes I wish God would give me a Holy Ghost machine gun. I’d blow your head off!” he vented. Mr Hinn was embroiled in his own legal controversy a few years ago when Mario Licciardello, a private investigator he hired to look into his ministry’s finances, turned against him and threatened to publicise the dirt he had dug up. The investigator died shortly afterwards, and Mr Hinn moved his ministry from Florida to Texas.
Licciardello has now shown up in the gay sex allegations. The Los Angeles Times found a deposition in which Licciardello quoted Mr Hinn talking about “a sexual relationship that Paul Crouch had with his chauffeur”. Mr Hinn also said: “Paul’s defence was that he was drunk.” Mr Hinn has denied saying these things, but at least one other witness has corroborated them.
In the mid-1990s, the Crouches tussled with the Federal Communications Commission over the legality of some of their station licences and only narrowly escaped being yanked off the air in key markets. In 1999, they were also slapped with an embarrassing lawsuit after a terminally ill woman from Virginia accused them of ripping off a novel of hers for their commercially successful end-of-the-world movie The Omega Code. The Crouches denied any impropriety, but they also entered settlement negotiations and ended up paying the woman an undisclosed amount of money.
One thing they have on their side is some powerful friends. Paul Crouch, 70, was brought up in the same Missouri town as John Ashcroft, President George Bush’s fundamentalist Attorney General, and still regards him as a close friend. When Mr Ashcroft was facing the Senate confirmation process in January 2001, TBN drummed up support for him in hour upon hour of programming. Who knows if Mr Crouch will ever ask the country’s top law officer to return the favour?
On 21 February 1988, Jimmy Swaggart addressed his 7,000-strong congregation in tearful tones and admitted to having sinned against his God and his wife, Frances, after being caught on film taking a prostitute to a Louisiana motel. Not just the sin of adultery but hypocrisy, too – Swaggart had been instrumental in having rival preachers Jim Bakker and Martin Gormann defrocked for similar failings. Swaggart, first cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis, had – since 1958 – built his ministry into a $150m-a-year (£85m) concern. It staggered on, but after an allegation the following year of a 10-year affair, his two million television audience turned its back on him.
In 1987, Oral Roberts made an urgent plea, telling his massive television audience that God had told him to raise $8m (£4.5m) or he would “take him home”. He raised $9.1m, including a donation of $1.3m from a dog track owner. By 1989 his financial difficulties got the better of him and he closed his City of Faith medical centre in Tulsa. Former friends and employees have alleged that Roberts used expense accounts to buy clothes and jewellery and fund travel in an eight-seat fanjet. He remains chancellor of Oral Roberts University, where his son Richard – also a televangelist – is president.
Tilton dominated the televangelism vacuum left by the falls of Swaggart and Bakker. In the late 1980s, hewas pulling in $80m (£45m) a year. His followers were soon to find out that they, not God were blessing Tilton with these rewards. ABC’s Primetime Live revealed that far from praying over prayer requests made with donations, Tilton never saw most of them, a batch of which were found in rubbish bins. His second wife, Leigh, also made allegations of physical abuse and drunken debauchery. His ministry never recovered. Reports are that he is turning a dollar from a Florida-based mail-order firm.
Jim Bakker would tell critics of his extravagance that prosperity was a “gift from God”. The funds began to dry up after he was caught in an affair with a church secretary, Jessica Hahn, to whom he had funnelled $265,000 (£150,000) in church funds as hush money. That failed to stop Ms Hahn appearing in Playboy in 1988, but by this time he had had to resign from PTL, the television business he had helped to found, been defrocked as a minister and indicted for fraud and conspiracy. Bakker admitted to taking more than $158m of his ministry’s funds. He was found guilty and sentenced to 45 years in 1988. Released in 1994, he returned to televangelism last year with The New Jim Bakker Show.