Possible extortion payments to a woman who had a sexual encounter with television evangelist Jim Bakker could lead to a criminal investigation of the scandal, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said Saturday.
The source of the money paid to the woman has not been determined, and Falwell said an audit will be made to see if any of the hush money came from PTL ministry funds. If so, the Internal Revenue Service could seek to revoke PTL's tax-exempt status. That action could plunge the already financially pinched organization into deeper trouble. PTL stands for "Praise the Lord" and "People That Love."
"When you get to paying extortion money, that's real close to the edge, especially if it's not your money," Falwell, who took over the PTL ministry after Bakker's resignation, said in a newspaper interview published Saturday.
Although Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, had previously referred to the possibility of a criminal investigation, it was the first time he had used the word "extortion" in reference to the Bakker affair. Bakker has described the payments as "blackmail."
"Everything that has happened so far we didn't know two weeks ago," Falwell said in a story published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "And so, my soul, if in the next two weeks comparable information comes out--and today would indicate maybe that's what's happening . . . the people (at PTL) may be in serious trouble."
Falwell spokesman Mark DeMoss in Lynchburg, Va., said Falwell was unavailable for further comment over the weekend.
Officials at Bakker's multimillion-dollar South Carolina PTL complex had previously referred to the $265,000 paid to Jessica Hahn, 27, of West Babylon, N.Y., as a "trust account" set up after her attorneys confronted PTL officials with details of her 1980 tryst with Bakker in a Florida hotel room.
Bakker's representatives repeatedly contacted Hahn afterward, warning her to remain silent, according to John Stewart, an Orange County law professor and Christian broadcaster who represented Hahn in talks with PTL officials.
He said Hahn later was coerced into signing a confession saying that she seduced Bakker.
'Looked Up to This Man'
"She looked up to this man . . . then she has this encounter where he kind of forces himself on her, pressures her, whatever you want to call it, and her world is shattered. Then they begin to manipulate her, telling her: 'Hey, it was really your fault. For the sake of the ministry you need to hush up,' tactics that caused more and more distress," Stewart said in an interview with the Washington Post.
Norman Roy Grutman, appointed last week as PTL's general counsel, dismissed Stewart's version of the events as "so preposterous that it falls of its own weight."
Since the 1980 episode became public, Stewart and Paul Roper, an Orange County businessman and self-appointed "watchdog" of Christian ministries, have referred to a lengthy taped account of Hahn's encounter with Bakker that she shared with them after seeking their counsel. So far, Roper and Stewart have declined to release the tape.
"There are things on that, her allegations and her description of the situation, that I don't think should be made public," Stewart said. "This is National Enquirer stuff."
Asked about Hahn's alleged confession, Roper told The Times on Saturday that Hahn told him that she signed a document presented to her in late 1983 or early 1984 by the Rev. Richard Dortch, Bakker's top assistant at the time. Roper said that, according to Hahn, it was a prepared statement, but she does not recall clearly what the paper said and does not have a copy of it.
Roper added that Dortch told her that if she did not sign it, God would not give her any peace.
However, Roper said Dortch has denied to him that such a document exists. "If they have a confession, why don't they bring it out?" Roper asked.
Resigned as Minister
Dortch, who resigned as a minister of the Assemblies of God last week without explanation, has been accused by rival TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and others of being involved in arranging the payments to Hahn.
Assemblies of God officials at the denomination's headquarters in Springfield, Mo., said Friday that they plan to meet this week with Dortch, whom Falwell appointed to succeed Bakker as host of the popular PTL television program.
The Rev. Tom Whidden, assistant superintendent of the North Carolina District of the Assemblies of God, said the meeting will take place in Dunn, N.C. "We have requested him (Dortch) to appear. The reason we're looking at him is because he has submitted his resignation," Whidden said.
If a minister in the 2.3 million-member church is not under suspicion of wrongdoing, his resignation is routinely accepted. But the Pentecostal denomination also has the option of conducting a detailed investigation and dismissing a minister for cause, according to church representatives.
Dortch was not available for comment. Bakker, who also submitted his ministerial resignation to the Assemblies of God after disclosure of the scandal, has written church authorities that he will not appear if a similar hearing is scheduled for his case.
Another former Assemblies of God minister has acknowledged that he was the one who introduced Bakker and Hahn at the Florida hotel in 1980.
"It is true that I introduced a church secretary, just as I introduced hundreds of other people, to Jim Bakker," John Wesley Fletcher of Oklahoma City said in a statement issued during a church service he conducted Friday night in Rochester, N.Y.
'Nothing Wrong With That'
"There's nothing wrong with that. My family and I were introduced to President Reagan and Pope John Paul II. . . . Forgive me, but nowhere in the Bible is it written, 'Thou shalt not introduce one another,' " Fletcher said.
His statement did not say why he introduced Hahn to Bakker, and he could not be reached Saturday for further comment.
Times staff writer Leslie Berkman contributed to this story.