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Televangelist Paul Crouch Attempts to Keep Accuser Quiet

A former worker at TBN threatened to disclose an alleged 1996 homosexual encounter.

September 12, 2004|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

Televangelist Paul Crouch, founder of the world's largest Christian broadcasting network, has waged a fierce legal battle to prevent a former employee from publicizing allegations that he and Crouch had a sexual encounter eight years ago.

Crouch, 70, is the president of Trinity Broadcasting Network, based in Orange County, whose Christian programming reaches millions of viewers around the world via satellite, cable and broadcast stations.

The source of the allegations against him is Enoch Lonnie Ford, who met Crouch at a TBN-affiliated drug treatment center in 1991 and later went to work for the ministry.

After Ford threatened to sue TBN in 1998, claiming that he had been unjustly fired, Crouch reached a $425,000 settlement with him. In return, Ford agreed, among other things, not to discuss his claim about a sexual encounter with the TV preacher.

But in the last year, Ford has threatened to go public with his story, prompting a flurry of legal maneuvers -- conducted in closed court hearings, sealed pleadings and private arbitration.

In court papers, Crouch has denied the allegations, and ministry officials have described Ford -- who has a history of drug problems and has served time for a sex offense -- as a liar and an extortionist.

At stake are the public image of one of the world's most successful televangelists and, potentially, the fortunes of the broadcasting empire that Crouch and his wife, Jan, built over the last 31 years.

TBN and Crouch went on the legal offensive after they learned that Ford had written a book manuscript that included an account of the alleged sexual encounter.

In a dramatic flourish, Ford had appeared at a TBN broadcast studio in Costa Mesa, minutes before the start of a "Praise-a-thon" fundraiser, and, without comment, handed Crouch a copy of the manuscript

Ford's lawyer later told ministry officials that they could keep the work out of public view by buying the rights. After some discussion, he suggested that $10 million might be a reasonable price.

While negotiations continued, Crouch sued to enforce the 1998 secrecy agreement and obtained a restraining order barring Ford from seeking a publisher for his book.

Orange County Superior Court Judge John M. Watson also granted Crouch's request to conduct the case in secret, sealing all documents and expunging any mention of the suit from public court records.

Both sides eventually agreed to let a private arbitrator decide the matter. In June, the arbitrator ruled that Ford could not publish the manuscript without violating the 1998 settlement -- an act that could subject him to monetary damages.

This account of the controversy is drawn from interviews with friends of Ford's, unsealed court records, correspondence among TBN lawyers and a copy of the arbitrator's confidential ruling. The arbitrator's decision contains details about the 1998 settlement and Ford's manuscript -- both of which are under seal.

Records and interviews show that even as they battled to keep Ford's story from leaking, TBN lawyers worried that details would eventually come out.

"I am absolutely amazed that Lonnie hasn't gone to Penthouse or Dianne [sic] Sawyer with his manuscript, notwithstanding the [judge's] injunction," TBN attorney Dennis G. Brewer Sr. wrote in a March letter to the network's other lawyers.

In a subsequent letter, in May, Brewer mentioned the anguish that Ford's accusations had caused Crouch's youngest son, Matt, when he learned of them in 1998.

Brewer wrote that the younger Crouch had told his then-law partner, David Middlebrook: "I am devastated; I am confronted with having to face the fact that my father is a homosexual."

Middlebrook and Matt Crouch have denied that there was such a conversation.

Millions of Viewers

Paul and Jan Crouch started TBN in 1973, using a rented studio in Santa Ana. Over the next three decades, they built a worldwide broadcasting network by buying TV stations and negotiating deals with cable systems and satellite companies.

Today, TBN's 24-hour-a-day menu of sermons, faith healing, inspirational movies and other Christian fare reaches millions of viewers from Spain to the Solomon Islands.

Paul Crouch is the driving entrepreneurial force behind the network and one of its most popular on-air personalities. He and Jan, his wife of 46 years, have cultivated a folksy on-screen image as a devoted couple.

TBN officials have long been concerned about how Ford's allegations could affect the network, which relies heavily on donations from viewers. Officials said they were particularly worried about possible comparisons to the scandal that brought down televangelist Jim Bakker in 1987.

Bakker resigned from his PTL Ministries in 1987 after admitting to paying a secretary $265,000 in ministry funds to be silent about an earlier affair. Bakker later went to prison for bilking donors.

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