“A cancer that needed to be excised from the body of Christ”
Jim Bakker was a seemingly charming tele-evangelist who, with his permanently over made-up wife Tammy Faye, was the public face of the PTL Ministry. PTL stood for Praise The Lord or People That Love but wags suggested it really meant Pass the Loot, as the Bakkers earned a fortune from their religion.
One of their main rivals was a Southern fundamentalist firebrand named Jimmy Swaggart. Based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries grossed about $140 million annually. In March 1987 it was revealed that Jim Bakker had, on 6 December 1980 in a Florida hotel room, had sex with (she says she was drugged and raped) a 21-year-old virgin by the name of Jessica Hahn and then had bought her silence with $265,000. Bakker, said Jessica Hahn, told her that by “helping the shepherd, you are helping the sheep” before having sex with her. Aftewards, Bakker’s fellow evangelist John Wesley Fletcher also, according to Jessica, raped her. Bakker, far from accepting he had done wrong and going quietly, accused Swaggart of a “diabolical plot” to take over PTL, which included a satellite television network and a Christian theme park called Heritage USA.
Swaggart hit back by claiming that the Bakker affair was “a cancer that needed to be excised from the body of Christ”. Swaggart had reported the extra-marital activities of two preachers —Bakker and a New Orleans-based TV clergyman called Marvin Gorman — to the Assemblies of God in a bid to clean up the evangelist industry. Unbeknown to his congregation, Swaggart had himself been visiting a prostitute, Debra Murphee, in a New Orleans motel room. She adopted suggestive poses for him, which she was happy to do until he suggested her nine-year-old daughter join them. Murphee was so disgusted she went straight to the newspapers. In February 1988, Swaggart appeared on his own channel in tears confessing to his “moral sin” without specifying what it was.
In 1984 The Charlotte Observer began to investigate the goings-on at PTL. These included selling $1,000 lifetime memberships that entitled the purchaser to an annual three-night stay at Heritage USA. Bakker sold tens of thousands memberships but only one 500-room hotel was ever built. Much of the money went into Bakker’s personal bank account. Bakker resigned on 19 March 1987 when the story of Jessica Hahn was made public. Jerry Falwell replaced Bakker at PTL and then raised $20 million to keep Heritage USA open. Falwell called Bakker “a liar, an embezzler, a sexual deviant and the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history”. On 6 May 1987 the Assemblies of God defrocked Bakker for his encounter with Jessica Hahn.
Sheraton Sand Key Resort, Clearwater Beach, Florida, USA
Saturday 6 December 1980
On 21 September 1987 a federal grand jury convened in Charlotte to hear testimony in the allegations against Bakker. The first witness was Jessica Hahn. In 1988 Jim Bakker was indicted on eight counts of mail fraud, one count of conspiracy and 15 counts of wire fraud. On 5 October 1989 Bakker was found guilty on all 24 charges and sentenced to 45 years in federal prison and a $500,000 fine. Bakker appealed his sentence and in 1991 his 45-year sentence and fine were quashed. Instead, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
He was paroled in 1993. Three years later Bakker wrote a book, I Was Wrong, in which he admitted that the first time he had read the Bible completely was in prison. In 2003 Bakker returned to broadcasting. He still owes the internal Revenue Service about $6 million. He and Tammy Faye were divorced on 13 March 1992. She died at 4am on 20 July 2007 after an eleven-year battle with cancer. Heritage USA closed in 1989. Jessica Hahn posed topless for Playboy in November 1987 — for which she was supposedly paid $1 million. She posed naked for the magazine in 1988 and again in 1992.