Two weeks before his trial was to begin, Foundation for New Era Philanthropy founder John G. Bennett, Jr., pleaded no contest to 82 federal fraud charges.

Bennett's attorney claimed at the March 26 hearing that a judge's ruling against Bennett's "religious fervor" defense made it impossible for Bennett, 59, to prevail in a trial. Until New Era's abrupt demise two years ago, Bennett promoted it with double-your-money promises to hundreds of churches, charities, and foundations.

"And whose decision was it to plead nolo contendere to this 82-count indictment?," U.S. District Judge Edmund V. Ludwig asked at the Philadelphia hearing.

"It's mine, Your Honor," replied Bennett.

In March, Bennett's attorneys told Ludwig that Bennett suffered from an "unchecked religious fervor" that caused him to believe that his promise to double investors' money with matching funds from nonexistent "anonymous donors" was not fraud but his "mission from God to change the world." Defense witness Robert L. Sadoff, director of forensic psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said Bennett, though sane, suffered from a "kingdom focus" and believed that God talks to him "telling him what he must do."

Bennett's anticipated religious fervor defense made many evangelicals uncomfortable. David Powilson of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation in suburban Philadelphia cautioned that "the logic of Bennett's type of defense could excuse all crime."

Sadoff testified that Bennett suffered from a mixed personality disorder that involved narcissism, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and mood cycles aggravated by brain damage—which the defense said Bennett received from two auto wrecks. Martin Kelley, prosecution psychiatrist from Harvard ...

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