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TBN Axes Live Fund Drive

Times Staff Writers

Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian television ministry shaken last month by allegations that its founder had engaged in a homosexual tryst, has dropped plans for its annual live fall telethon next week and instead will show 40 hours of reruns of previous “Praise-a-thons.”

The twice-annual “Praise-a-thons” have been a fundraising mainstay of the Orange County-based network since its birth 31 years ago and now bring in more than $90 million in pledges each fall and spring.

TBN officials said the decision was made weeks ago and was prompted largely by concerns about the health of network co-founder Paul Crouch, 70, and his wife Jan, 66, who remain the most popular on-air personalities for the world’s largest religious broadcaster.

But observers were quick to suggest that TBN was reacting to news reports last month that Paul Crouch secretly paid an accuser $425,000 in 1998 to keep quiet about claims of a homosexual encounter with the televangelist. Crouch has denied the allegations.

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“To take the live broadcasting off -- I can’t imagine” that, said R. Marie Griffith, a scholar at Princeton University who studies evangelical Christians and the media. “It suggests a very strong sense of the chaos they are undergoing there.”

Griffith and others also said it would be unseemly for the Crouches to ask for money after articles in The Times detailed the robust financial health of TBN, which averages annual surpluses of $60 million, and the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the Crouches.

Paul Crouch Jr., a network executive and son of its founding couple, acknowledged that TBN’s decision to go with reruns would take pressure off the guest pastors scheduled to appear on the “Praise-a-thon.”

“It seems that when TBN is persecuted, so goes the whole body of Christ,” Crouch said. “Other ministries get concerned that they are going to be next on the hit list.”

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But other factors were more important in deciding to cancel the live telethon, he said. Among them: Jan Crouch had been slow to recover from recent gallbladder surgery.

And a “best of” format, with segments from past shows edited down to small chunks, will allow for a faster-paced telethon, he said.

Perhaps more important, he said, Paul and Jan Crouch may no longer be up to appearing on fundraisers twice a year.

During a weeklong “Praise-a-thon,” pastors plead with viewers to make a pledge. They also preach heavily on the “prosperity gospel,” a controversial doctrine that says a donation -- in this case, specifically to TBN -- will result in blessings from God, material as well as spiritual.

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