Echoes of the past: What next in Crouch story?

So far, the Paul Crouch story has proceeded along the traditional lines of a low-level conservative sex scandal, by which I mean a scandal that is not part of some hypernews event (think Jim Bakker era) or a political crusade (think minister with strong ties to the White House). For those just tuning in, here is a Los Angeles Times summary paragraph on the drama so far:

On Sunday, The Times detailed the fierce legal battle that Crouch successfully fought to keep secret a 1998 agreement that paid Enoch Lonnie Ford $425,000 in exchange for staying silent about his allegations of a sexual encounter between him and Crouch in 1996 at a TBN-owned cabin near Lake Arrowhead. When Ford wrote a manuscript last year that contained details of his allegations, Crouch went to court to enforce the 1998 agreement.

Stop and think about this for a minute. In the age of talk radio, blogs and major leaps in alternative "Christian entertainment," how many people out there are all that interested in televangelism? On top of that, there is the fact that the vast majority of Protestant megachurches have movie screens hanging in the front of their alleged sanctuaries. In other words, video-centric Protestantism has become the norm.

Nevertheless, there are a few signs that reporter William Lobdell's story may have legs, even if another full-scale Pearlygate media storm fails to match the power of Rathergate. Then again, perhaps CBS has a new incentive to cover the TBN story.

As one would expect, the Los Angeles Times promptly did a follow-up, one noting that lots of people were buzzing about its original story, but that the accused was denying everything. Crouch would stay put -- for now -- pending further, well, revelations.

"We prepared for the worst and prayed for the best," knowing that the allegations would be made public over the weekend, said Paul Crouch Jr., eldest son of the pastor and an executive at the network. "So far our prayers are being answered. Most of the e-mails and calls have been very positive."

He said the network received unsolicited backing from dozens of Christian leaders who called or e-mailed their support, including author Josh McDowell; Doug Wead, a onetime advisor to former President George H.W. Bush; and singers Pat Boone and Carman.

Lots of shocking news there. Doug Wead? Wow, Carman.

The televangelist's network also offered a traditional response to the newspaper's evidence of the earlier settlement: "TBN officials said that Crouch agreed to the settlement to avoid costly litigation and scandal." There was nothing to it, in other words. To which the Times responded: "Neither the civil court judge or private arbitrator ruled on the validity of Ford's claims -- only that the 1998 settlement prevented their disclosure."

Meanwhile, there is a ripple of interest out there in new media land, symbolized by nearly 1,500 comments on a Yahoo message board. The more important news is that the omnipresent Ted Olsen of the Christianity Today digital desk has decided to run with the story. That validates it in mainline evangelical circles. On the conservative side of the evangelical aisle, World magazine has a TBN story in the works by Godbeat veteran Edward Plowman. Now, what will we see in Charisma?

Olsen noted that there is only one word to describe what is happening here -- extortion. The court documents make that clear, along with a nasty allegation that the network was willing to write a second check to keep this out of the headlines. The accuser's lawyer said TBN offered a mere $1 million. Ford's lawyer thought $10 million sounded better. Olsen captures the mood:

$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.

This is true. But Olsen also makes this valid point:

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.

This is true. But we are also talking about one of the patriarchs of the global world of charismatic Christianity. People are going to talk -- in all kinds of languages.

While reading between the lines of the Los Angeles Times story, I was reminded of what it was like doing off-the-record interviews during the Jim and Tammy era in Charlotte.

Olsen is right. The legal issues are the hooks that make the story valid. But in evangelical, charismatic and fundamentalist circles, it is the sexual politics that collapses the ministry's tent. This is especially true if the allegations mention gay or bisexual conduct. An influential historian in these circles told me this.

"For most Pentecostal and charismatic people, the most serious questions about Jim Bakker were all those allegations of moral misconduct. ... People haven't forgotten that," said historian Vinson Synan of Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. "There does appear to have been a kind of subterranean, homosexual world inside PTL that has never been fully described. That's where so many questions remain."

When I was at the Charlotte News, I actually took several calls from the late John Wesley Fletcher, a spurned Bakker aide. This was clearly a case of one minister trying to blackmail another, not just for money but in an attempt to hurt his ministry. This was revenge and the plot was positively Byzantine. Here is a chunk of one of my columns on this.

In addition to his ties to Hahn, it was Fletcher who made anonymous calls in 1983 spreading dirt about Bakker. One of those calls went to me, when I was working as a religion writer in Charlotte, N.C., and I later shared my information with reporter Charles E. Shepard, author of "Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry." Years later, Shepard confirmed that Fletcher was my mystery caller.

Fletcher mentioned Hahn by name in 1983 and also said David Taggart was Bakker's lover. Fletcher was bitter and said Bakker had failed to keep promises and had forsaken him during tough times. But Fletcher did not, during those calls, say what he later said during the "Pearlygate" media storm -- that he, too, had been sexually involved with Bakker.

"I never knew a more corrupt person in my life, period, than Jim Bakker," Fletcher told me. "Now I see him for what he is."

Well now, what should we look for in the TBN case? If this story is true, it will almost certainly not be an isolated case. Then there will be evidence of major charismatic and evangelical ministries distancing themselves from this already controversial network. And finally, watch for signs that Crouch is preparing for a sermon that proclaims, "I have sinned, I have repented and I have been healed."

Above all, watch the cover of Charisma magazine. Why should the secular newspapers get to write all of the important stories about what happens inside conservative sanctuaries?

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