Seeks to Reassure Followers : Falwell Takes the Stage, Says a Prayer for Bakker

Times Staff Writers

The Rev. Jerry Falwell prayed, preached and talked a little business Thursday on a telecast that had long been the electronic pulpit of Jim Bakker, expressing confidence that God would treat the scandalized preacher and his troubled wife "as they need and should be treated."

Falwell's morning appearance on the "PTL Club" show, though congenial and understated, punctuated what appeared to be the end of Bakker's leadership of a television ministry he and his wife nurtured into a $129-million-a-year religious powerhouse--and the beginning of Falwell's reign as chairman of the board of PTL. The acronym stands for both Praise The Lord and People That Love.

Bakker admitted last week that he had engaged in a one-time sexual encounter seven years ago with a young church secretary in a Clearwater, Fla., motel room. The confession roiled the waters of television evangelism, as Bakker and his attorney accused another preacher, Jimmy Swaggart, of attempting to manipulate the scandal to take over PTL. Other ministers of equally lofty stature hastily joined the battle: Some chastised Swaggart for attacking Bakker; others accused Bakker of trying to shift blame for his own indiscretion to others.

On Thursday's PTL telecast, conducted on a sound stage designed to resemble a family room, Falwell sought to ease any wariness toward him among Bakker congregants. The 1,600-seat studio was filled to capacity.

"I am not going to stamp Jerry Falwell on this ministry or create an independent Baptist empire," said the founder of the Moral Majority, now called the Liberty Foundation.

Falwell described how he had flown to Palm Springs to ask Bakker about then-undisclosed rumors that he had been involved in a sexual liaison. Falwell, Swaggart and Tennessee evangelist John Ankerberg previously had sent Bakker a letter detailing allegations, according to Ankerberg.

Falwell said Bakker asked him to assume leadership of PTL and quoted him as saying, "You know, Jerry, in seven years, you are the only brother who loved me enough to confront me with it."

"I want to tell you," Falwell told Bakker's former television audience, "there was love. It wasn't all this garbage floating around in the press."

Prays for Bakkers

Falwell led a prayer from the L-shaped sofa that had long been the main prop in Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's talk show-like production, petitioning God for the "spiritual restoration" of Bakker and his wife. Tammy Bakker is undergoing treatment at the Betty Ford Center for an addiction to prescription drugs.

Away from the PTL set, Falwell declared that the Bakkers would continue on the PTL payroll for an undetermined length of time, but added that the Pentecostal evangelist would not be welcome back soon as the head of the ministry.

"We're here to do what Jim Bakker asked me to do . . . to maintain the stability and the ongoing health of this ministry of Christ," Falwell said of himself and the new board of directors he appointed to replace Bakker's panel. "It is our opinion we could not do it if Jim Bakker were here on this campus."

A return by Bakker, he said, would create a problem of "credibility," and prompt the resignation of the new board, which includes several ministers, a Bible publisher and former Interior Secretary James G. Watt.

Elsewhere, there were other developments in the highly public religious scandal.

Hahn Speaks Out

Jessica Hahn, who has admitted to the tryst with Bakker, told reporters from her home in West Babylon, N.Y., that she did not want people unfamiliar with Christian churches "under the impression this goes on everywhere. It does not go on everywhere."

Hahn, 27, denied trying to blackmail Bakker, but declined to provide any details about her encounter with the preacher and its still reverberating aftermath.

"My feeling right now," she said, "the only thing I can really discuss, is that I feel deeply concerned about the people that attend all these churches. I hope they see this will pass, and this has no reflections upon the Lord. God is still there for them and always will be. I am all right but would like for this to end. I don't want to see innocent people get hurt."

In Orange County, a man who represented Hahn in negotiations with Bakker in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the sexual liaison secret confirmed reports that, in addition to $115,000 paid in a lump sum to Hahn and several attorneys, $150,000 had been set aside in trust for the young woman to draw from each year.

Claim Refuted

And in Springfield, Mo., the head of the Assemblies of God denomination, which ordained Bakker, said that the evidence refutes the evangelist's claim that he had been the target of blackmail and a hostile takeover attempt.

"The information we have received indicates to us the high probability that there was not an effort by any person or organization to take over PTL," the Rev. G. Raymond Carlson, general superintendent of the 13-member executive presbytery, the ruling body of the 2.3-million-member denomination, said at a press conference.

"We do not believe there is any evidence of blackmail. To the contrary, the evidence seems to indicate that effort and money have been expended to cover moral failure. . . . We grieve for the impact all of this has had upon the entire Christian community."

Carlson declined to give details of his evidence. He said officials would soon designate "a day of fasting and prayer" in Assembly of God churches.

'Saddened, Ashamed'

"We want the public to know that we, as church leaders, are deeply saddened, ashamed and repentant before God for the problems that have developed in our church family as well as in the evangelical world church," Carlson said, reading from a prepared text.

Though he refused to single out individuals, Carlson also said the leadership "deeply regrets that national TV personalities have spoken out publicly and so boldly on matters about which they had very little information." This appeared to refer to claims by evangelist Oral Roberts that Bakker had been sabotaged by rivals.

"We have no evidence that anybody was trying to wreck PTL," Carlson said.

His comments came a day after the presbytery met privately for eight hours with some of Bakker's key accusers. Bakker, Carlson said, had declined to attend the session, sending a "gracious" note from his gated Palm Springs home.

Here at the PTL headquarters, which includes a thriving family amusement park, Falwell said the absence of the Bakkers' leadership would not deal the ministry a lethal financial blow. "As of this day," he said, "revenues are up as compared with the same day a year ago."

Loan Confirmed

Nonetheless, he confirmed that the ministry had obtained a $50-million loan to consolidate its debts.

There are significant religious differences between fundamental Baptists like Falwell and Pentecostals like Bakker, but Falwell and other board members stressed that PTL would remain essentially unchanged despite the abrupt change in leadership.

Falwell said that none of the new board members "is compromising our theological integrity, nor are we going to change or ask anyone else to change. We're trying to close ranks and prevent the enemy from having a field day."

Significantly, Bakker's top assistant, the Rev. Richard Dortch, was installed as president and regular host of "PTL Club," and Falwell prayed for him on television, too, saying, "Boy, he's going to need help from you as he never needed it before."

Strong Sympathy

While Falwell received frequent applause during the television show, sympathy was strong for a restoration of the Bakkers among visitors to the Heritage USA complex here. Elderly loungers in the atrium of the Heritage Grand Hotel expressed certainty that God has forgiven Bakker.

"I can forgive and forget," said George Chadwick of Binghamton, N.Y., "because he has done so much for the whole Christian family."

Added Chadwick's wife, Janet: "Where else can you go for Christian family atmosphere like this?"

In a concession perhaps to such sentiment, Falwell said there are no plans to remove billboards here sporting pictures of the Bakkers, nor will their record albums, books--or Tammy Bakker's personal line of cosmetics--be removed from store shelves at the Christian amusement park.

Times staff writer Bob Secter contributed to this story from Springfield, Mo.

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