With his earnest, pleading manner and his trademark white suits, Benny Hinn has become the star preacher of the Trinity Broadcasting Network. A self-proclaimed prophet, Hinn once suggested that people place caskets of their dead loved ones in front of their television sets. If they were watching TBN, he said in 1999, their dearly departed shall rise from the dead.
"People around the world will say to undertakers, 'Not yet. I want to take my dead loved one and place him in front of that TV set for 24 hours,' " he said in an appearance on the network with TBN founder Paul Crouch.
But as Hinn was speaking to the remarkable powers of the world's largest religious media company, he was allegedly holding more scandalous conversations about Crouch's rumored extramarital affair with an employee and ex-con named Enoch Lonnie Ford. That has since touched off a protracted legal battle now surfacing in the courts and in the press, most notably the Los Angeles Times. Trinity Broadcasting is based in Orange County, Calif., although the company has its sprawling Trinity Music City campus in Hendersonsville, 18 miles outside Nashville. Trinity Music City includes a recording studio, a virtual reality theater and a re-creation of an ancient street in Jerusalem.
A global giant that broadcasts around the world, TBN features some of the most bizarre personalities of the evangelical movement. Hinn himself may be the most notorious, peppering his sermons with forecasts of death and violence. In 1989, he preached that the Lord told him that sometime in the mid-'90s, "God would destroy the homosexual community of America. He will destroy it with fire." It wasn't the last time the virulent anti-gay message has been peddled by one of the network's personalities. Which of course makes the accusations against Crouch, who also has ties to anti-gay evangelists and groups, all the more relevant.
Paul Crouch's wife, Jan, puts a softer, if more heavily caked, face on the network, often shown grinning exuberantly as she and her husband give thanks to God. But in her own inimitable fashion, Jan is even more eccentric than Benny Hinn. Recently, she wrote on the TBN Web site that a spirit awakened her in the middle of the night and left her suspended in the air.
It is against that backdrop of doomsday prophecies and allusions to the occult that TBN fends off allegations against its founder and entrepreneurial genius, Paul Crouch. Crouch's principal accuser is a former drug addict and convicted sex offender, but if his credibility is suspect, there are other accounts to support the allegations. In 1998, Mario Licciardello, a former bodyguard for Benny Hinn, said in a deposition that Hinn talked openly about Crouch's gay extramarital affair. Hinn and an entourage were in the middle of a European tour, traveling from Germany to Holland, when the televangelist bemoaned Crouch's poor choice in a sexual partner. "I can't believe Paul Crouch had sex with a black man, his chauffeur, and paid him $600,000, and now the guy wants more money. I can't believe that," Licciardello said in a deposition obtained by the Scene.
Licciardello, who has since passed away, said in the deposition that Hinn told his staff that Crouch confessed over dinner at their favorite restaurant in Newport Beach. "And Paul's defense was that he was drunk. He was drunk on wine and that he had sex with this chauffeur, a black chauffeur...."
Colby May, Crouch's spokesperson, vigorously denies that the 70-year-old pastor ever had an affair with the male employee, Enoch Lonnie Ford. But in 1998, while Hinn was allegedly talking about the affair to his staff, Crouch reached a $425,000 settlement with Ford, who had threatened to sue Crouch, claiming he had been unjustly fired. According to the Los Angeles Times, which has launched a series of explosive stories against the religious media company, Ford agreed not to discuss his claim about a sexual encounter with the TV preacher in return for the payment. Interestingly, Ford is a former drug user who also served time for having sex with a 17-year-old boy. He wouldn't appear to be a credible witness, but TBN paid him off anyway and then rehired him after he served time.
May, though, says that no part of the settlement substantiated Ford's claim. "It's not hard to understand why someone in his 60s at the time would say, 'enough already.' This is not true, but his lawyers thought it would be cheaper and easier to resolve it."
As for Licciardello, whose deposition came in an unrelated lawsuit, May says he's hardly a credible witness. Hinn himself has denied ever talking about Crouch's alleged affair. But Rick Jones, a retired police officer and minister who also worked for Hinn, told the Los Angeles Times that he heard the televangelist talk about Crouch's dalliance with a male employee. The retired officer told the paper he was disgusted by the rumormongering and "got up and walked away."
Meanwhile, as the saying goes, love hath no fury like a former employee scorned by a televangelist. Recently, Ford made an unwelcome appearance at a TBN studio in California and had a surprise for his supposed paramour. He gave Crouch a copy of "Arrowhead," a manuscript that he co-wrote that included an account of their alleged affair. The name of Ford's manuscript comes from a TBN-owned cabin near Lake Arrowhead in Southern California, where he and Crouch began their dallianceat least according to the fledgling author.
Then the soap opera took a predictable turn. According to the L.A. Times account, Ford's lawyers told TBN officials that if they wanted to keep the manuscript from being publicized, they could buy the rights. Initially, TBN negotiateduntil Ford's lawyers floated a $10 million price tag. Crouch then sued to enforce the 1998 settlement and won a restraining order banning publication of "Arrowhead." The literary world weeps.
TBN has also tried to counteract the bad publicity it's received over Ford's allegations. In a press release, the ministry characterized Ford as a "convicted child molester" and "drug user" who manufactured his allegations as part of a wrongful termination claim. But behind the scenes, Crouch's lawyers continue to fret over Ford and what he might do. According to correspondence obtained by the Scene, TBN attorney Dennis Brewer Sr. wrote to the network's other lawyers that the former employee is a "treacherous vindictive devil." Brewer also wrote that he was "absolutely amazed that Lonnie hasn't gone to Penthouse or Diane Sawyer with his manuscript...."
Then in a subsequent letter, first detailed in the Los Angeles Times, Brewer wrote that Crouch's son, Matt, confided to a friend about Ford's allegations. "I am devastated; I am confronted with having to face the fact that my father is a homosexual," the younger Crouch told his friend, according to Brewer's letter.
Both Matt Crouch and his friend denied to the Los Angeles Times ever having such a conversation. Still, it was a lawyer for TBN, not Ford or any other detractor, who recounted that alleged discussion.
Meanwhile, as TBN faces what may be its steepest challenge since its inception in 1973, its personalities seem stranger than ever. Recently, Jan Crouch wrote on the station's Web site about a prayer episode that mimicked a strange sexual fantasy.
"I reached and opened the oil and placed a Holy Spirit oil cross on my own forehead and when I didI BURST INTO DEEP, DEEP LOVING OF MY JESUS," she wrote, using all caps to emphasize her point.
"I began to feel His presence in me, over me, around me (in fact) it has been 3 hours and I am still feeling His glory like I have NEVER felt!," she wrote. "I began to deep crydeep moanand deep rejoice."
Later, she concluded her account by urging others to relive her experience. Go to a garden or local park, she urged. Use oil (or even liquid Crisco), she wrote, and feel his presence.
"Feel what heaven is all about. Ohhhhh. I can't wait 'till tomorrow AM. It's You and me sweet jesus. It's a date."
For now, Paul Crouch and TBN face a protracted legal battle in silencing Ford for the last time. It can't help their fight, however, that the network is impossible to take seriously.
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