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Amazing Disgrace : Jim Bakker's Now Battling Not Only With the Law but to Keep a Grip on Reality

September 01, 1989|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Jim Bakker is having a problem and is called before the government, that is Christianity being called before the government. That is the Body of Christ's problem.

--Jim Bakker in his 1980 book, "Survival: Unite to Live"

Nine years ago in the same book where he equated himself with an entire religion, PTL founder Jim Bakker wrote of a premonition. He believed that "God's clock is in the final hour," meaning that the world would end soon.

He may have been right--but not in the way he intended.

Thursday Bakker was on the precipice of a personal Armageddon that forced a halt to his media-saturated trial on federal charges of fraud and conspiracy. Bakker, whose PTL television ministry once had the potential to reach a billion people, was ordered to undergo psychiatric testing to see if he is mentally competent to stand trial, after he apparently became hallucinatory and irrational. The order by U.S. District Judge Robert Potter suspending the trial in its fourth day came after Bakker's psychiatrist testified that the televangelist, 49, suffered hallucinations and "was lying in the corner of his attorney's office with his head under a couch, hiding."

"He was expressing thoughts that someone was going to hurt him," Dr. Basil Jackson testified in a brief competency hearing in Judge Potter's court Thursday morning.

Federal marshals led a crying Bakker from his attorney's office shortly after the order was issued. "Please don't do this to me," Bakker pleaded before crawling into the waiting car and assuming a fetal position. He was taken to the federal courthouse here for paper-work processing and was led, crying and disheveled, out of the building some 90 minutes later in handcuffs.

Jackson, a Milwaukee psychoanalyst, said Bakker's hallucinations began Wednesday after a prosecution witness collapsed while being cross-examined.

"Mr. Bakker reported that when he left the courthouse, suddenly people outside took on the form of frightening animals which he felt were intent on destroying him, attacking him and hurting him," Jackson said. After the witness had collapsed, Bakker, prompted by his attorney, went to the witness' side, knelt down and began to pray.

The psychiatrist also said that Bakker was suffering from "acute depression" and had "lost the ability to judge and evaluate reality." Bakker apparently was continuing to hallucinate Thursday morning when he was persuaded not to appear in court because "he was not able to participate in a rational manner in these proceedings."

Jackson, who testified that he has been treating Bakker for about nine months, was present in court last week, ostensibly to advise Bakker's attorneys during jury selection.

Federal marshals indicated that psychiatric tests would not be completed before Tuesday or Wednesday. Potter recommended that the tests be conducted at a psychiatric hospital that is part of a federal prison in Butner, N.C., about 140 miles northeast of here.

When he headed the PTL network, Bakker exercised power over millions with his emotional, often tearful, appeals. His sense of drama and staging brought PTL from backwoods obscurity to national and, ultimately, international prominence before the electronic ministry collapsed.

Before he was forced to resign from PTL in 1987, Bakker reigned over Heritage USA, a gigantic theme park, resort and ministry headquarters that included hotels, a shopping center and PTL's state-of-the-art TV studios and satellite broadcast links. It was Bakker's need for luxury and television time, the government charges, that led him to divert donations earmarked for construction at Heritage to PTL's operating expenses and to his own pocket.

Bakker's current, bargain-basement teleministry, based in Orlando, Fla., is carried by only eight television stations, in contrast to the hundreds that once beamed PTL programming into millions of homes.

The Bakkers' overall circumstances are a comedown of interstellar proportions, too. And that fall from the heights seems to have put a strain on both. Lately, Tammy Faye Bakker--who has not been present at the trial and who taped a program for broadcast Thursday--has been issuing emotional pleas for contributions to her husband's legal defense fund, claiming that they owe lawyers about $1 million. At its height, PTL--which means Praise the Lord and People that Love--brought in $100 million a year in donations, defense attorney George T. Davis said in his opening argument.

Bakker's apparent mental collapse underscores concerns expressed before the trial began here Monday that Bakker was in a fragile state of mind. Moreover, court records, the testimony that had been presented against the television evangelist and his own behavior, indicate that the former high-flying head of PTL is a man who lived grandiose dreams but denied his own nightmares.

In fact, denial or avoidance of hard realities was a Bakker hallmark.

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