Paul Roper, a self-appointed Christian vigilante who forced television minister Jim Bakker to own up to an extra-marital sexual encounter, has for the second time appeared in the middle of a fray over ecclesiastical morality.
The first time was four years ago when Roper took to task Rev. Ralph Wilkerson, the flamboyant founder of Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim. He alleged that Wilkerson's misspending of church funds for personal purposes had helped to push that church to the brink of bankruptcy.
Some Roper admirers say that when he took control of Melodyland's finances, he returned the church to solvency. "In six months Roper turned it around," said Lowell Jones, a Yorba Linda resident who formerly was an administrator at the Melodyland School of Theology.
But Wilkerson's attorney, Michael R. McDonnell, said that after the Anaheim Police Department and Internal Revenue Service thoroughly investigated Roper's allegations, they declined to file any criminal charges against the minister.
McDonnell said Roper's role in the current Jim Bakker scandal is characteristic: "He is always right there in the middle, stirring it up."
Henry J. Block, a retired Vancouver businessman who said he made a mistake by entrusting the management of his enterprises to Roper, contends Roper has a tendency to exaggerate. "There is some truth in what he says, but it tends to grow," he said.
Roper, the 43-year-old son of missionaries who grew up on a Crow Indian reservation in Montana, said Friday that he does not regret his role either in the Melodyland or Bakker controversies, which he says boils down to simply trying to right a wrong.
Complaining that some ministers are hypocritical, he admonished: "They should live the way they talk. . . . The whole work of God will be better if we get these phonies out of it."
Roper's wife Cindy said, "He just has a real love and belief that people should know Jesus--and they shouldn't be fleeced."
Roper, who frequently leads Bible classes and gives church sermons, said in the past he has been a licensed minister but has allowed the licenses to lapse. At the age of 17 he attended L.I.F.E. Bible College in Los Angeles for theological training. Then he said he took classes at Cal State Fullerton before going into business for himself. He hopscotched among various occupations, at one time owning a chain of three home furnishing stores in Seattle.
He said he decided to move to California to continue his studies at Cal State Fullerton when Wilkerson asked him in 1979 to become general manager of Melodyland, which was $8 million in debt.
Roper took immediate measures at Melodyland to cut costs--selling two church-owned airplanes, dismantling the church's television ministry and slashing staff and staff salaries. He also arranged for a real estate tycoon named Henry Block to buy Melodyland's land and buildings for $4.3 million, giving the church much needed funds, and then lease the facilities back to the church. Roper said he later acquired Block's financial interest in the church management company. And in April, 1983, when the church was in better financial shape, the congregation bought back the property.
With the Melodyland uproar behind him, Roper was invited to Vancouver to oversee Block's various business enterprises. "He didn't work out," said Block, who had been favorably impressed by Roper's performance at Melodyland. He said Roper advised him to invest in an oil drilling venture in Kentucky that failed and in Queen City Savings & Loan Assn. in Seattle, which turned out to be sinking in red ink.
Charged With Fraud
Roper has been charged with fraud, negligence and breach of fiduciary duty in a $20-million civil lawsuit involving his management of the defunct Seattle savings and loan, where he served as chief executive officer, director and vice chairman of the board from Jan. 12 to Aug. 1, 1983.
"I have not defrauded anyone of anything," Roper responded to the lawsuit, which the Federal Savings & Loan Insurance Corp. filed in 1985 in Seattle in federal court against Roper and about 29 other former officers and directors of Queen City. Roper argued he was not at fault in the failure of the financial institution and said that a settlement of the charges against him is pending.
Nonetheless, Bart Freedman, an attorney for FSLIC, which took Queen City under receivership and then sold it to Gibraltar Savings & Loan, said that Roper resigned his positions at Queen City at the urging of state and federal officials.
After the Queen City fiasco, Block and Roper parted company, but friction remained. Block recently filed a lawsuit against his former protege over disputed ownership of a mortgage on property in Yorba Linda.
Roper, meanwhile, has returned to Orange County, where he is a third year law student at Western State University in Fullerton and running a part-time business as a management consultant. When Roper left Melodyland, he announced that he was establishing an organization to expose errant ministries.
Hahn Came to Him
While that organization never materialized, Roper said, "literally hundreds of people have come to me with various stories of wrongs. . . . " One of those was Jessica Hahn of Long Island, N.Y., who told him how she had been invited to Florida in 1980 to attend a taping of Jim Bakker's television show and wound up having a sexual encounter with the minister in a hotel room. Although Roper will not vouch for the accuracy of Hahn's story, he said he found her to be credible. "I simply believed the lady," he said. "I did an independent investigation into the allegation and came to the conclusion that her story was what she said it was."
Acting on Hahn's behalf, Roper said he repeatedly tried to contact Bakker and his South Carolina-based PTL ministry. Roper said he had wanted the truth of Hahn's allegations determined by arbitrators in a confidential church forum. But he said he got the attention of Bakker and other officials of PTL, which stands for Praise the Lord and People That Love, only after he drew up a potential civil lawsuit against Bakker.
He drafted the lawsuit with the help of John Stewart, a Bible teacher and law instructor who answers questions on a call-in radio talk show. Stewart recalled that he met Roper in 1983 when Roper came to speak at the Lighthouse Christian Fellowship in Anaheim where Stewart was pastor. Later, he said, they became close friends as fellow law students at Western State.
Roper said that when PTL rejected the idea of binding arbitration, he threatened to file the prepared lawsuit. But to avoid a court battle, he said, negotiations began that ultimately resulted in a $265,000 settlement. Roper said he is "vitally interested" in the origin of the money, which he worries may have come from PTL's treasury. He said he was told previously that Bakker would sell a house he owned to raise the funds.
When knowledge of Bakker's encounter with Hahn was about to be made public, he resigned from PTL, charging that he had been "blackmailed."
Roper acknowledged he has accepted a fee for handling Hahn's case--the amount of which he refuses to disclose. But he said his primary motivation was to do the right thing. "If somebody is wronged, do I have any choice but to make it right?" he demanded.
Times staff writer John Spano contributed to this story.