JUSTICE

Trial and tribulation

Evangelist Jim Bakker faces a new test

NORA UNDERWOOD September 11 1989
JUSTICE

Trial and tribulation

Evangelist Jim Bakker faces a new test

NORA UNDERWOOD September 11 1989

Trial and tribulation

JUSTICE

Evangelist Jim Bakker faces a new test

On a television show broadcast from Orlando, Fla., Tammy Faye Bakker begged viewers last week to send money to help God perform a miracle—one that would vindicate her husband, Jim, founder of the PTL (for Praise the Lord and People That Love) ministry. As his wife’s plea went out, the former head of a $129-million-ayear empire went on trial in Charlotte, N.C., charged with diverting more than $4 million of the church’s funds to his own family’s use. At first, the 49-year-old television evangelist listened impassively in the crowded courtroom as prosecution lawyers described him as a man who used “untruths and half-truths and concealed truths” to deceive PTL donors and board members. Then, in a dramatic courtroom scene, Bakker appeared to suffer an emotional breakdown after former PTL executive Steven Nelson collapsed on the stand during his testimony. After marshals led the shackled and weeping evangelist from the courtroom, psychiatrist Basil Jackson testified that Bakker was suffering from acute depression and had begun to hallucinate.

Outside the courtroom, Bakker pleaded, “Please don’t do this to me,” before climbing into a car and assuming a fetal position. Meanwhile, federal Judge Robert Potter suspended the trial and ordered the evangelist committed to a psychiatric hospital for tests to determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial. Before Bakker left the courtroom, David Taggart, a former assistant to Bakker, testified that, despite a reported income of nearly $2 million in 1986 alone and four houses, Bakker was not satisfied with what he had. Taggart said that Bakker considered his lifestyle shabby compared to that of other evangelists, including Oral Roberts. Taggart, who was convicted last month of evading taxes on $1.1 million diverted from PTL, also said that, on Bakker’s instructions, he purchased houses, luxury cars, jewelry and furs for the couple with ministry money. As well, he said that the Bakkers received about $4 million in bonuses between 1984 and 1987.

The charges against Bakker centre on the PTL’s promotion of so-called lifetime partnerships in the church’s 2,300-acre Heritage U.S.A. theme park in Fort Mill, S.C. Under the program, donors who contributed more than $1,000 could spend three nights a year at a PTL hotel free of charge for the rest of their lives. U.S. assistant attorney Jerry Miller said that the prosecution would attempt to prove that Bakker continued to sell the partnerships even though the membership had been “more than

100-per-cent oversold.” For his part, defence lawyer George Davis portrayed Bakker as a divinely inspired “creative genius who left administrative matters to others.”

Bakker’s troubles began in March, 1987, following reports of a 1980 sexual encounter with church secretary Jessica Hahn, then 21. Bakker later admitted that PTL officials paid Hahn $315,000 to keep quiet about the incident, but she sold her story—and seminude photos—to Playboy magazine. Then, following investigations by the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. justice department, charges of fraud and conspiracy were laid against Bakker in December, 1988. If convicted, he could face up to 120 years in prison and a $ 5-million fine. Still, Bakker could escape prosecution if he is found mentally unfit to stand trial. Jackson testified that, when Bakker was taken out of the courtroom, the people outside “took the form of frightening animals, which he felt were intent on attacking him, harming him.” It was a turn of events that will likely dim the prospects for a quick answer to Jim and Tammy Bakker’s prayers.

NORA UNDERWOOD with correspondents’ reports