Swaggart Awaits Final Ruling on Penance

Times Staff Writer

Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who put his $142-million religious empire in jeopardy with a tearful public confession of sexual misconduct, waited Tuesday for the national leaders of his denomination to approve or modify the rehabilitation plan that prohibits him from preaching for three months.

Meanwhile, a number of religious leaders and observers said that the penance local church officials have meted out is too light and warned that going easy on Swaggart might further embarrass the scandal-ridden Assemblies of God Church.

"He could be back on the air before the next new episode of 'Moonlighting,' " said Rice University sociologist William Martin, who has been studying television evangelists for the last two decades.

Possible Bad Impression

That, said Martin, could give the impression that the church is being cowed by Swaggart, whose ministry provides $12 million of the $48 million the Assemblies of God spends yearly on foreign missionary work.

"It's my understanding that the national body may recommend a stricter punishment," Martin said. "Given the circumstances, it opens the church up to the charge of not wanting to curtail the activities of it's chief money-raiser."

The Swaggart scandal began to unfold last Thursday when Swaggart was confronted with what were reportedly photos of him in the company of a known prostitute. It culminated Sunday at his Family Worship Center in Baton Rouge, when the fiery evangelist tearfully confessed to his congregation that he had sinned.

The Rev. Glenn Cole of Sacramento's Capital Christian Center, a member of the 13-member Executive Presbytery of the Assemblies of God, which initially heard Swaggart's confession Thursday, told The Times that Swaggart had long struggled to overcome the problem but had committed such indiscretions on and off since his youth.

Smarting From Bakkers

The national presbytery, based in Springfield, Mo., announced Tuesday that it will convene "within the next few days" to discuss the Swaggart punishment. Procedures of the denomination, which is still smarting from the Jim and Tammy Bakker scandal, call for the executive body to act on discipline meted out by the local district council.

That body, the Louisiana district of the Assemblies of God, met late into the night Monday and recommended that Swaggart undergo two years of counseling and rehabilitation but that he be suspended from preaching for only three months. It exempted foreign appearances already booked.

Religious historian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago agreed with Martin that the Assemblies of God would be subject to criticism if the state level recommendation was allowed to stand.

"They are playing a high-risk game," he said. "The only thing they have been in the news for is when empires fall and when there are scandals."

Possible Factor Suggested

The Rev. Russell Spittler, an Assemblies minister who teaches New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said he thought Swaggart's international reputation was a factor in the length of his suspension from preaching.

"I would not be surprised if the pulpit restriction were greater for a person with considerably less influence," he said. But Spittler also said Swaggart's penalty "doesn't seem to be inconsistent" with church policies. "Cases are treated individually and individual circumstances are taken into consideration," he said.

Sociologist Jeffrey Hadden of the University of Virginia said it is hard for an outsider to judge whether Swaggart was treated with exceptional leniency.

"It's not even clear what the heck he (Swaggart) did," Hadden said in a telephone interview, alluding to published reports that Swaggart has said that he did not engage in sexual intercourse with the prostitute but "paid her to perform pornographic acts."

"If you look at it cynically, you could say that the church did not want to jeopardize its contributions from Swaggart's ministry," Hadden said. "But at the same time you have to acknowledge that there was high drama in his confession."

Attention on Empire

The scandal has focused attention on the Swaggart television empire, which is not under the direct control of the Assemblies of God. By some measures, Swaggart is the most watched evangelist in the world, reaching hundreds of millions of people in 143 countries. He also bills himself as the world's most successful gospel singer, having cut an estimated 50 albums that have accounted, he says, for more than $100 million in sales.

His television ministry has its headquarters just south of Baton Rouge. There, donations in the past have poured in at the rate of more than $500,000 a day, supporting Swaggart's 12-building World Ministry Center and the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College.

But Swaggart has managed to keep its financial dealings comparatively secret, using, among other things, lie detector tests and agreements of confidentiality with employees. And, having won church classification in a 1982 court battle, Swaggart's ministry is no longer required to file financial reports with the Internal Revenue Service.

'Harder to Gain Information'

"Swaggart has one of the most closed organizations," said Quentin Schultze, a communications professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "I think within the Swaggart organization, the workers have a real allegiance to Jimmy Swaggart. That makes it harder to gain information."

Swaggart grew up in Ferriday, La., with his cousins, singers Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley. Gilley described Swaggart on Tuesday as a boy who never misbehaved, and defended the evangelist in the wake of his troubles.

"He's done a heck of a lot more good than he's done wrong," said Gilley.

Times religion writer John Dart in Los Angeles contributed to this story. The Swaggart affair boosts Broadway-bound musical, TV movies. See Calendar, Page 1.

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