How big a televangelist scandal?

How big a televangelist scandal?
When Rick Jones, an ordained minister and former cop, heard his boss talking about another minister's homosexual activity with an employee, he "got up and walked away," the Los Angeles Times reported on its front page yesterday. "I didn't want to hear gossip."

But his boss was televangelist Benny Hinn, a staple on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. And Hinn was talking about TBN founder and president Paul Crouch. And Los Angeles Times reports that it's no longer just gossip—it's a tale of attempted extortion, litigation, and tragedy.

For all the details, you'll have to read William Lobdell's extensively reported, 1,900-word article. But here are a few observations.

First, extortion seems like the only word to describe what Enoch Lonnie Ford, the former TBN employee who says he and Crouch had extramarital sex in 1996, attempted. Crouch paid him a $425,000 settlement in 1998 after Ford accused the global network of wrongful termination. Key to the settlement, of course, was a secrecy agreement. Last April, however, Ford handed Crouch an autobiographical manuscript detailing his claims of a sexual encounter. The Times reports:

Ford's lawyer later told ministry officials that they could keep the work out of public view by buying the rights. After some discussion, he suggested that $10 million might be a reasonable price. … Ford's attorney, Eugene Zech, said [TBN attorney Dennis G. Brewer Sr.] called him the next business day [after Ford gave Crouch the manuscript]. In court papers, Zech said that Brewer asked "if Ford might be willing to accept $1 million in exchange for the manuscript." Zech said in the court filing that he suggested $10 million.

$10 million! Simon & Schuster paid Hillary Clinton only $8 million for her memoir, Living History. GE chairman Jack Welch got $7 million for Straight from the Gut. That number isn't about a book—it's about keeping Ford's story "out of the public view"—something Crouch had already paid $425,000 expressly to do.

TBN yesterday issued a statement explaining the settlement. It says, in part:

In an effort to address this matter in 1997, Dr. Crouch sought the advice and counsel of some trusted advisers, attorneys and spiritual leaders. The consensus viewpoint was that it would be better for TBN and Dr. Crouch to reach a financial settlement rather than to fight the accuser in court. 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. Dr. Crouch reluctantly agreed to this advice with the understanding that the accuser would go away and leave both he and TBN alone forever. The importance of the settlement does not rest on the money paid, but rather on Dr. Crouch's vehement denial of the allegations made against him as well as the agreement of the accuser to keep confidential and refrain from repeating his false claims and accusations. Most importantly, at no time were ministry funds used in any portion of this settlement.
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Second, it's clear that this story isn't yet to the level of the Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart scandals of the 1980s. Both of those men were accused of breaking the law—Bakker for fraud related to time-shares, and Swaggart for prostitution. If the Crouch story is true (and the Times reports much evidence that it may be), the TBN head is guilty of having consensual sex with an employee. That's immoral and unethical, but not criminal—especially in post-Monica America.

Ford's claim to wrongful termination doesn't seem to have much basis, either. TBN terminated his employment in 1998 while Ford was serving a prison sentence for violating terms of his probation through drug use. The network hired him in 1992, took him back after a 1994 jail term for statutory rape, and again took him back after a 1995 conviction for possession of cocaine. One would think that TBN had ample reason to let him go.

But it wasn't the fraud that brought down Bakker's PTL, and few could probably tell you why he went to prison. Still, people vaguely remember Jessica Hahn, and it was the affair that stopped the contributions. TBN may take a major hit in the wake of this story, and Crouch's position as president could be at risk, but he's not going to prison.

Then again, Crouch and TBN could very well make it through this. Ford is legally prohibited from talking about his claim. The Times quotes arbitrator Robert J. Neill's ruling that Ford's "right to discuss these matters was bought and paid for. He relinquished that right." That right, Neill said, "was sold to [Crouch] for $425,000."

It doesn't appear that Crouch is going to make a big deal of responding to the Times story. The press release calls the claims "dishonest, false, and scandalous," and adds that "Dr. Crouch will continue to respond to God's call on his life as president of TBN. … This storm will pass." Another storm was the focus of today's "Behind the Scenes," a live show that focuses on "the ministries & activities taking place each day at TBN locally and around the world. Crouch did not host today, but his son (Paul Crouch Jr.) focused on the effect of Hurricane Ivan on TBN's Caribbean affiliates. The Times story was not mentioned. (The Crouches' better-known show, "Praise the Lord," airs at 2 p.m. Pacific, and is streamed live online.)

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Crouch has weathered decades of criticism for his Word-Faith theology, and is famous in some evangelical circles for his prophecies against his critics. ("God, we proclaim death to anything or anyone that will lift a hand against this network and this ministry that belongs to You, God," he said in 1997.) The question now will be whether Crouch's donors see the Times story as a revelation, as a demonic attack, or (as the TBN press release puts it), "a reprehensible fact of modern life." If Crouch is forced to leave, it could have a huge effect on the world's largest religious television network (and thus global Christianity). TBN is broadcast via 43 satellites and more than 10,000 television and cable affiliates worldwide.

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