Henry J. Lyons, beleaguered president of the National Baptist Convention USA, was forgiven by his board during a September annual session in which he confessed he had an "inappropriate" relationship with a female employee.

But the unanimous decision by 195 board members to forgive Lyons did not put an end to his problems. He faces trial in Florida state and federal courts on charges he used his position to steal millions of dollars from big corporations. A decline in donations has brought about a financial crisis within the denomination, which claims 8 million members. Critics contend the convention has inflated statistics and really has fewer than 1 million members.

In his annual address, Lyons, 56, said he has made "serious miscalculations in judgment" in his personal and professional lives. "From the bottom of my soul, I am truly sorry. I want you to forgive me. I ask for your mercy," he said. The convention proved merciful. After forgiving Lyons, it passed a resolution forgiving President Clinton for his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. "We stand firmly behind our President," Lyons said. "We'd like to see the majority Republican Congress get off his back. We'd like to see Mr. Starr get off his back."

BEGINNING OF TROUBLES: Lyons's troubles began in July 1997 when his wife of 26 years, Deborah, set a fire that damaged a $700,000 waterfront house in Tierra Verde, Florida, near Saint Petersburg. Lyons owns the home with Bernice V. Edwards, a former convention public-relations director once convicted of embezzling $60,000 from a school for at-risk students. Deborah Lyons told police she started the fire in a fit of anger after learning Lyons and Edwards own the house together. She later pleaded guilty ...

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