Popular evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, under church investigation reportedly for adultery, tearfully confessed Sunday that he had sinned and he will leave the pulpit for an indefinite period--marking the second major blow to television evangelism within a year.
"I beg your forgiveness," Swaggart beseeched 7,000 worshipers at his World Faith Center in Baton Rouge, La. Embraced by his wife, Frances, and applauded frequently by his faithful, Swaggart heard a sympathetic statement from an Assemblies of God state official, who said that the fire-and-brimstone minister had confessed with "true humility" to "specific incidents of moral failure."
Without naming his offenses or denying news reports that he was seen leaving a motel room with a prostitute, Swaggart spoke only of his contriteness: "I am not going to whitewash my sin. It was not a mistake. It was a sin."
'In the Hands of the Lord'
"I will step out of this pulpit for an indeterminate period of time, and we will leave that in the hands of the Lord," Swaggart said.
Swaggart, who has alternated for years with the Crystal Cathedral's Robert Schuller for the largest religious TV audiences, said his Jimmy Swaggart World Ministries, which has an $11.5-million payroll, would continue under the leadership of the Louisiana District Council of the Assemblies denomination.
Ironically, it was Swaggart who had urged the Springfield, Mo.-based denomination to investigate charges of sexual immorality by fellow Assemblies minister Jim Bakker, the founder-president of the PTL (Praise the Lord) television ministry and resort park in Fort Mill, S.C.
Swaggart's role in Bakker's downfall was not generally known, however, until after Bakker suddenly announced last March 19 that he was resigning his PTL posts. Bakker claimed that he was "betrayed" by his close aides into a sexual encounter seven years earlier and that he had "succumbed to blackmail" to keep the incident quiet.
Bakker's attempt to resign from the Assemblies was refused by officials. Last May, they stripped him of his ministerial credentials for the sexual incident with Jessica Hahn, his attempted cover-up and "alleged misconduct involving bisexual activities."
Swaggart, 52, who has been quick to chastise other preachers for straying in doctrine or behavior, told a Los Angeles news conference eight days after the Bakker resignation that the PTL scandal was a "cancer" that had to be cut out of the church.
That night before nearly 15,000 at the Sports Arena, he lashed out against "hypocrites" and "false prophets." Swaggart asked to be saved "from pompadoured pretty-boys with their hair done and their nails done who call themselves preachers," suggesting that "millions are deceived" and "duped" by such people.
Bakker More Charitable
Bakker, reached in Lancaster, Calif., on Sunday by United Press International, was more charitable. He said his wife, Tammy Faye, cried when she heard the news. "I think the only comment Tammy and I would have is the words of Jesus, 'Ye who are without sin cast the first stone,' " Bakker said.
The Washington Post said on Saturday that Assemblies of God elders were trying to determine whether Swaggart had committed adultery. It quoted a source close to the church as saying the investigation focused on "sexual moral charges . . . with other women."
ABC News reported on Friday that New Orleans minister Marvin Gorman was believed to have told church leaders that he had photographs showing that Swaggart had visited a prostitute at a motel room.
Gorman, defrocked by the Assemblies for immorality, filed a $90-million suit against Swaggart last March, alleging that Swaggart had conducted a defamation campaign against him. Gorman admitted to one affair but said God forgave him for it. The suit was dismissed a few months later by a civil district judge.
Swaggart met with the Assemblies' Executive Presbytery on Thursday in Springfield, but denominational spokeswoman Juleen Turnage said she could not divulge any details, including whether Gorman had anything to do with the investigation. Swaggart was "cooperating fully," she said.
Turnage said if the Louisiana district church officials decide to lift Swaggart's credentials, denominational rules permit a minister to enter a rehabilitation program--"almost always a two-year program." The clergyman seeking restoration is prohibited from preaching the first year and may engage in a limited ministry the second year, she said.
Forrest H. Hall, secretary-treasurer of the Louisiana district, hinted at leniency during the Sunday morning service at Swaggart's World Faith Center. "Justice can sometimes be best served with mercy," Hall said.
Speaking for other district leaders, Hall said, Swaggart "has shown true humility and repentance and has not tried to blame anyone else for his failure."
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