Pat Robertson Lays Off 500, Seeks Funds

Times Religion Writer

Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, saying the Jim Bakker-PTL scandal and evangelist Oral Roberts’ life-or-death bid for money “hit the evangelical world like a bombshell,” laid off 500 workers at his religious television network Friday and issued an emergency appeal for funds.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Jerry Falwell asked viewers on the PTL broadcast “to make an extra sacrifice” amid reports that the Internal Revenue Service has recommended stripping the PTL of its tax-exempt status.

The latest money crisis and increased scrutiny of television ministries by government agencies underscores the spreading fallout triggered in March when PTL founder Bakker turned his TV and entertainment empire over to Falwell after admitting that he had an extra-marital sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn, a church secretary, and paid hush money to cover it up.


Others’ Income Sinks

The Rev. Jimmy Swaggart of Baton Rouge, La., and the Rev. Robert Schuller of Garden Grove have also reported income declines in their television ministries during recent weeks.

But Robertson, who bristles at being called a TV evangelist and has tried to distance himself from the other embattled religious video stars, may have the most to lose from the so-called TV “holy wars” since he is considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.

Robertson, appearing on his Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club” on Friday morning, said the network had lost $12 million in May. He projected losses totaling $28 million for the year. That would represent a 20% drop from contributions received by the Virginia Beach, Va.-based organization during the fiscal year that ended in March.

“This is an emergency,” Robertson told viewers as he joined hands with another CBN official on the air Friday and bowed in prayer.

Can’t Pay Salaries

“We are laying off godly, dedicated, wonderful people--500 of them--because we just don’t have the money to pay their salaries,” Robertson said, adding: “We had nothing to do with PTL. . . . We had absolutely nothing to do with any of it.”

Benton Miller, a Christian Broadcasting Network media spokesman, said the layoffs represent about 25% of the ministries’ 2,000 employees. The layoffs “did not come as a total shock” to the workers, who were informed Thursday night and Friday morning that Friday would be their last day, Miller said in a telephone interview.


Falwell, speaking from his Lynchburg, Va., office on the PTL program--which had been hosted by the Bakkers until their fall--announced that a $7-million emergency appeal in May for the debt-ridden PTL had been oversubscribed by $1.5 million.

But he pleaded with supporters to dig deeper for $10 million more in June. “We are not out of the woods,” Falwell said. “We are still in a precarious position.”

Tax Exemption in Doubt

He did not mention a report by USA Today on Friday that a confidential IRS report concluded that PTL’s tax exemption should be revoked dating from 1980, partly because of lavish salaries and bonuses paid to the Bakkers and other top PTL executives.

Without the exemption, PTL donors could not deduct contributions on their tax returns, and PTL could be forced to pay back taxes and penalties of more than $1 million.

Neil Eskelin, a PTL spokesman, said PTL attorneys are working with IRS officials on the matter; Larry Batdorf at IRS headquarters in Washington said the agency had no comment.

But the Justice Department confirmed on Tuesday that it was coordinating inquiries by six government agencies into alleged financial wrongdoing at PTL during Bakker’s reign.


Falwell, an independent Baptist, said contributions to his own “Old Time Gospel Hour” started dropping just before the PTL scandal, and that donations in April were down $2 million. Last week, he asked supporters in a letter to erase a $4-million deficit in his ministry.

Sees Devil at Work

Swaggart, who had reported a $2-million contribution decline in April, told supporters in a recent appeal letter that Satan had “engineered the PTL fiasco . . . to destroy Jimmy Swaggart’s ministries. . . . We must raise $5 million immediately. . . .”

Schuller’s “Hour of Power,” which is carried on 172 TV stations, has suffered a modest 3% drop in donations so far in 1987, according to Fred Southard, financial vice president of Schuller ministries in Garden Grove.

Meanwhile, in their first public appearance outside Palm Springs since the furor erupted over their departure from the PTL, Jim and Tammy Bakker appeared this week at the Anaheim crusade of evangelist Kenneth Copeland.

Crusade officials said the Bakkers attended sessions on Thursday and on Friday morning at the Anaheim Convention Center, but were not scheduled to speak. Ironically, the next featured speaker at the center, on Sunday, is John Wesley Fletcher, the defrocked Assemblies of God minister who is alleged to have arranged the meeting that resulted in the sexual encounter between Bakker and Hahn.