“In 1989, televangelist Jim Bakker was convicted by a jury of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy and sentenced to 45 years in prison for having bilked members of his Praise The Lord ministry out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Bakker had raised these funds by selling “lifetime partnerships” to viewers that entitled them to an annual free stay at his Heritage USA Christian theme park, but the number of partnerships sold far exceeded the park’s capacity and millions of dollars were diverted to fund Bakker’s own lavish lifestyle.” (Right Wing Watch)
They canceled me. Mainly it was the media, and the media got a Pulitzer Prize for putting me in prison. That’s what they do, they reward the enemies of the gospel. And the cancel culture, we had the largest ministry of its type in the world—Heritage USA—millions of people came there, and it was millions being saved around the world, and they literally took it away.
That was what cancel culture is. One of the biggest agencies of the federal government produced video from my show video and edited it and put me in prison. They testified that it was that video that made people believe, ‘Well, something must be wrong.’ They made me say things I didn’t say. They just put pieces together, thousands of pieces of my show, and so when I went to trial for the last trial—after I got out of a prison, I was put on trial again—and in that, the lawyers got all that tape that the government had edited—the government did it! Just like now, this is cancel culture—and they took it apart and put it back the way it was on the show. And the lies—they made me tell lies that weren’t there—when the courts heard this, they saw the first video that the government had edited and then they saw the one from the original, they voted unanimously that I wasn’t guilty.
It was cancel culture. Everything to erase me.
A $279,000 payoff [by Jim Bakker] for the silence of [Jessica] Hahn, who alleged that Bakker and former PTL Club co-host John Wesley Fletcher drugged and raped her, was paid with PTL funds through Bakker’s associate Roe Messner. Bakker, who made PTL’s financial decisions, allegedly kept two sets of books to conceal accounting irregularities. Reporters for The Charlotte Observer, led by Charles Shepard, investigated PTL’s finances and published a series of articles.
On March 19, 1987, after the disclosure of a payoff to Hahn, Bakker resigned from PTL. Although he acknowledged that he had a sexual encounter with Hahn at a hotel room in Clearwater, Florida, he denied raping her. Bakker was also the subject of homosexual and bisexual allegations made by Fletcher and PTL director Jay Babcock, which Bakker denied under oath. Rival televangelist John Ankerberg appeared on Larry King Live and made several allegations of moral impropriety against Bakker, which both Bakkers denied.
Bakker was succeeded as PTL head by the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Bakker chose Falwell as his successor because he feared that fellow televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who had initiated an Assemblies of God investigation into Bakker’s sexual misconduct, was attempting to take over his ministry.
Bakker believed that Falwell would temporarily lead the ministry until the scandal died down, but on April 28, 1987, Falwell barred Bakker from returning to PTL upon hearing of allegations of illicit behavior which went beyond the Hahn allegations. Later that summer, as donations declined sharply in the wake of Bakker’s resignation and the end of The PTL Club, Falwell raised $20 million to keep Heritage USA solvent and took a promised water slide ride at the park. Falwell and the remaining members of the PTL board resigned in October 1987, stating that a ruling from a bankruptcy court judge made rebuilding the ministry impossible.
In response to the scandal, 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 CNN, Swaggart stated that Bakker was a “cancer in the body of Christ”. In February 1988, Swaggart became involved in a sex scandal of his own after being caught visiting prostitutes in New Orleans.
In Bakker’s aforementioned rant alleging the Federal Government canceled him, Bakker tells a whopper of a lie: “when the courts heard this, they saw the first video that the government had edited and then they saw the one from the original, they voted unanimously that I wasn’t guilty.”
The PTL Club‘s fundraising activities between 1984 and 1987 were reported by The Charlotte Observer, eventually leading to criminal charges against Bakker. Bakker and his PTL associates sold $1,000 “lifetime memberships”, entitling buyers to an annual three-night stay at a luxury hotel at Heritage USA during that period. According to the prosecution at Bakker’s fraud trial, tens of thousands of memberships were sold but only one 500-room hotel was ever finished. Bakker sold “exclusive partnerships” which exceeded capacity, raising more than twice the money needed to build the hotel. Much of the money paid Heritage USA’s operating expenses, and Bakker kept $3.4 million.
After a sixteen-month federal grand jury probe, Bakker was indicted in 1988 on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. In 1989, after a five-week trial which began on August 28 in Charlotte, North Carolina, a jury found him guilty on all 24 counts. Judge Robert Daniel Potter sentenced Bakker to 45 years in federal prison and imposed a $500,000 fine. At the Federal Medical Center, Rochester in Rochester, Minnesota, he shared a cell with activist Lyndon LaRouche and skydiver Roger Nelson.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld Bakker’s conviction on the fraud and conspiracy charges, voided Bakker’s 45-year sentence and $500,000 fine, and ordered a new sentencing hearing in February 1991. The court ruled that Potter’s sentencing statement about Bakker, that “those of us who do have a religion are sick of being saps for money-grubbing preachers and priests”, was evidence that the judge had injected his religious beliefs into Bakker’s sentence.
A sentence-reduction hearing was held on November 16, 1992, and Bakker’s sentence was reduced to eight years. In August 1993, he was transferred to a minimum-security federal prison in Jesup, Georgia. Bakker was paroled in July 1994, after serving almost five years of his sentence. Bakker was released from Federal Bureau of Prisons custody on December 1, 1994, owing $6 million to the IRS.
Once a con-man, always a con-man.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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