1987: Jim Bakker resigns from PTL; Jerry Falwell assumes leadership

This story originally was published March 20, 1987.

PTL President Jim Bakker, who built a fledgling Christian TV show in Charlotte into one of the nation’s most popular TV ministries, resigned Thursday from PTL “for the good of my family, the church and of all of our related ministries.”

Bakker, 47, his voice trembling by the end of a telephone statement to The Observer, said fellow TV evangelist Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg, Va., would replace him as chairman of PTL’s board. Falwell immediately announced a new board of directors.

And PTL Executive Director Richard Dortch told employees at the Heritage USA headquarters south of Charlotte that he will succeed Bakker as president. He also said he will host PTL’s weekday talk show, now called the “Jim and Tammy” show after Bakker and his wife.

In the statement, Bakker said that seven years ago he was “wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends” who “conspired to betray me into a sexual encounter.” He did not identify those people.

Then, Bakker said, he “succumbed to blackmail to protect and spare the ministry and my family.”

“Unfortunately, money was paid in order to avoid further suffering or hurt to anyone to appease these persons who were determined to destroy this ministry.

“I now, in hindsight, realize payment should have been resisted and we ought to have exposed the blackmailers to the penalties of the law.”

Bakker made the comments as The Observer was investigating allegations that a New York woman and her representatives received $115,000 in 1985 after she told PTL she had sexual relations with Bakker in a Florida hotel room. Bakker also said he was resigning from his Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God.

“I am not able to muster the resources needed to combat a new wave of attack that I have learned is about to be launched against us by The Charlotte Observer, which has attacked us incessantly for the past 12 years,” he said.

Rich Oppel, editor of The Observer, responded in a statement: “We were investigating allegations about PTL’s Jim Bakker at the time of his resignation . . . . No article would have been published unless we were convinced of the accuracy and fairness of the information, which did involve allegations of a sexual encounter and subsequent payments.

“Mr. Bakker often has questioned our motives in pursuing coverage of PTL’s activities. The accuracy of our coverage has never been successfully challenged.

“We have covered PTL closely for more than 10 years because it is a major institution in our community. It has many employees, substantial real estate holdings, an image that is projected nationally and raises millions of dollars from public broadcasts.”

A lawyer representing PTL, Norman Roy Grutman of New York, refused Thursday to answer whether PTL, Bakker personally or some other source supplied the money Bakker said was paid. He also declined to say how much money was paid. Grutman said payment was made under a pledge of secrecy, and PTL would not violate that.

The Observer first sought comment from Bakker and other PTL officials Feb. 24. Dortch canceled an interview, declined to answer questions submitted in advance and issued a three-paragraph statement.

“We refuse to become bitter and respond to rumors, conjecture and false accusations,” Dortch’s statement said then. “We place ourselves and our ministry in the hands of those who have spiritual rule over us and submit to their disposition of any matters brought before them concerning us.”

On March 13, however, lawyer Grutman agreed to make Bakker and Dortch available for an interview. The interview began with Bakker’s statement Thursday at 2:30 p.m. PTL employees gasped and cried when told of Bakker’s resignation two hours later, during a closed staff meeting in the church at Heritage USA. Falwell also spoke by phone to the employees, who numbered about 400.

The developments open a new chapter for PTL, which reported $129 million in revenues in 1986, employs about 2,000 people and owns the 2,300-acre Heritage USA retreat between Charlotte and Fort Mill, S.C. PTL reported 6 million visitors last year.

Bakker, a Michigan-born preacher, moved to Charlotte in early 1974 and soon became the top figure at fledgling PTL. He became PTL’s senior pastor, preaching before overflow crowds Sunday mornings. He used his personality and gift for TV to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from viewers. The weekday broadcast once known as the “PTL Club,” for Praise The Lord or People That Love, was renamed after Bakker and his wife. He was Heritage USA’s master planner, conceiving two 500-room hotels, a water amusement park, homes for single mothers and street people and other buildings.

There are plans for developments worth hundreds of millions of dollars more.

In other developments Thursday:

▪ PTL and Dortch also are leaving the Springfield, Mo.-based Assemblies of God, lawyer Grutman said. Dortch will serve on the new PTL board. Denomination officials told The Observer in the past week that they had begun formally investigating allegations against PTL, including the charge of sexual misconduct by Bakker. The investigation will continue, despite the resignations, church officials said Thursday.

▪ Bakker disclosed that “my and Tammy’s physical and emotional resources have been so overwhelmed that we are presently under full-time therapy at a treatment center in California.”

“Tammy Faye and I and our ministries have been subjected to constant harassment and pressures by various groups and forces whose objective has been to undermine and to destroy us. I cannot deny that the personal toll that these pressures have exerted on me and my wife and family have been more than we can bear,” he said. On March 6, in a videotape shown to PTL viewers, Bakker and his wife of 26 years disclosed that Tammy Bakker was being treated for drug dependency. Since mid-January the Bakkers have been in the Palm Springs, Calif., area, where they own a home. PTL viewers had been told in recent broadcasts that Bakker would be returning from California.

▪ The entire board of directors at PTL, which Bakker had chaired, resigned. At least two of eight members of the board had resigned in recent weeks. One of those, the Rev. Charles Cookman of Dunn, is the N.C. district superintendent for the Assemblies of God. In that role, he is responsible for the investigation of Bakker and PTL. Cookman, a longtime personal friend and colleague of Dortch’s, confirmed Monday he had resigned from PTL. He did so, he said, to avoid a conflict of interest, not because he had reached any conclusion on the allegations’ merits. When an Assemblies of God minister is found guilty of a moral indiscretion, church procedure says, the minister will, at minimum, be suspended for two years. For at least some of that time, ministers are barred from preaching if they want to return to the ministry in the denomination, church officials say. In more extreme cases, the minister is dismissed from the denomination.

▪ Falwell, speaking from Virginia on the same telephone hookup with Bakker and The Observer, said he agreed to take the PTL post in part because he feared “a backwash that would hurt every gospel ministry in America, if not the world.” Falwell, who will continue his ministry in Virginia, pledged the new PTL leadership will have an open-door stance toward the news media. PTL officials have for years regarded many reporters with suspicion, accusing The Observer and its parent corporation, Knight Ridder Inc., of a conspiracy to destroy PTL and Bakker.

Thursday’s events have their roots on a sunny, breezy Saturday afternoon in Clearwater Beach, Fla., six years ago. Bakker, then 40, was in Florida Dec. 6, 1980, to appear on a broadcast for a nearby Christian TV station. At the time, his marriage was troubled - a fact Bakker touched on Thursday.

Among those accompanying Bakker in Florida was Oklahoma City evangelist John Wesley Fletcher, then a friend of Bakker’s and a regular guest on PTL broadcasts.

Also at Bakker’s hotel in Clearwater Beach was a 21-year-old church secretary from New York named Jessica Hahn.

Fletcher had arranged for her to fly to Florida to meet Bakker and see the broadcast, according to Fletcher and Hahn. She said she was emotionally troubled by the encounter, which she said she did not expect, and by gossip that she said followed.

In his statement Thursday, Bakker said: “I sorrowfully acknowledge that seven years ago in an isolated incident I was wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends and then colleagues who victimized me with the aid of a female confederate.

“They conspired to betray me into a sexual encounter at a time of great stress in my marital life. Vulnerable as I was at the time, I was set up as part of a scheme to co-opt me and obtain some advantage for themselves over me in connection with their hope for position in the ministry.”

Hahn said Thursday, “There was no blackmail, no extortion.”

“Jim Bakker is obviously trying to protect himself . . . . I know what the truth is. I don’t want Jim Bakker to leave PTL.”

Fletcher could not be reached Thursday.

In a Feb. 24 interview, Fletcher told The Observer that Bakker was depressed by his marital troubles.

“Anything that I did for Jim, I did, honest to God, because I thought I was helping him. I believed it,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher, crying during portions of the interview, said he regrets his actions. “My vocabulary fails me, the word sorry is so inadequate. But if no one forgives me down here, if no one on earth forgives me, I know that I found forgiveness in God’s hands,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher was dismissed from the Assemblies of God in October 1981 for what he describes as a drinking problem. He has not reappeared on PTL programs.

In a 1984 interview, Hahn said she had complained to PTL and met twice with Dortch in New York. In the second meeting in November 1984, she said, she signed a document recanting her allegations. She later said she felt pressured to sign.

In late 1984 or early 1985, Hahn met with Paul Roper, an Anaheim, Calif., businessman.

Roper’s activities have included managing a 10,000-member Anaheim church and running a Seattle savings and loan. He is one of more than 20 people who have been sued by a federal agency in connection with the thrift’s failure.

Roper once announced a campaign to investigate TV evangelists. Roper also knew the New York woman’s pastor and had spoken at her church.

By early February 1985, Roper had sent PTL officials the draft of a lawsuit detailing the woman’s allegations and seeking millions of dollars in damages from PTL, Bakker and others. He did so, he said in an interview, because he was unable to get PTL officials to return his telephone calls.

“All I did was threaten to place it (the complaint) in the hands of an attorney for whatever action that attorney might take,” Roper said.

Bakker did not mention a draft lawsuit in his statement Thursday. But he said, “I categorically deny that I’ve ever sexually assaulted or harassed anyone . . . . Anyone who knows Jim Bakker knows that I never physically assaulted anyone in my life.”

Oppel, The Observer editor, said the newspaper’s investigation didn’t involve allegations of sexual assault or harassment.

At least twice in February 1985, Roper met with Dortch or Los Angeles lawyer Howard Weitzman and his partner Scott Furstman. Roper said he presented the woman’s allegations and suggested compensation, including a trust fund, if her story was true.

Also discussed was a provision that the woman forfeit the money if she sued or otherwise made her charges public.

On Feb. 27, 1985, a check for $115,000 drawn on the “Howard L. Weitzman clients trust account” was given to Roper on the woman’s behalf, Roper confirmed March 11.

Staff writer Liz Chandler contributed to this article.