Earl Paulk dies at 81; progressive evangelical's legacy fell to sex scandals

Archbishop Earl Paulk, a former mega-church leader who rose to fame with his progressive evangelical ministry only to have it all crumble after a series of sex scandals, has died in Atlanta. He was 81.

Paulk, of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit at Chapel Hill Harvester Church in Decatur, Ga., died Sunday after a battle with cancer, his family said in a statement.

For years the church was at the forefront of many social movements -- admitting blacks to its mostly white membership in the 1960s, ordaining women and opening its doors to gays. But Paulk was dogged for decades by accusations of molestation and sexual misconduct.

The most shocking revelation came in October 2007 when a court-ordered paternity test showed that he was the biological father of his brother's son, D.E. Paulk, who had become head pastor of the church after the archbishop retired the previous year.

Earl Paulk had sworn in an affidavit that he'd never had sex with anyone but his wife, which led to him pleading guilty to a felony charge of lying under oath. He was sentenced to 10 years' probation and a $1,000 fine.

Paulk's church, which he co-founded with his brother, Don, grew from a tiny congregation in the 1960s to a massive enterprise with 10,000 members, an international television ministry, a Bible college and a $12-million sanctuary on an expansive 100-acre plot in Decatur, Ga. Paulk was invited to a White House prayer breakfast by then-President Reagan, and the church was named one of former President George H. W. Bush's "1,000 Points of Light."

Earl Pearly Paulk was born May 30, 1927, in Appling County in southeastern Georgia. His father was a minister at a church in Greenville, S.C. Paulk graduated from Furman University in 1947 and earned his divinity degree at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

He taught at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., before becoming pastor of a Church of God congregation in Moultrie, Ga., in the late 1940s. He went on to serve several Church of God congregations before leaving the denomination to establish the Chapel Hill Harvester Church.

In addition to his brother, Paulk is survived by his wife, Norma Davis Paulk; two daughters; three sisters; eight grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.