October 4

This Day in History

Crime

Oct 4, 1988:

Jim Bakker is indicted on federal charges

Televangelist Jim Bakker is indicted on federal charges of mail and wire fraud and of conspiring to defraud the public. The case against the founder of Praise the Lord (PTL) Ministries and three of his aides exploded in the press when it was revealed that Bakker had sex with former church secretary Jessica Hahn.

On December 6, 1980, Bakker and Hahn had a sexual encounter in a Florida hotel room. Although they each told different stories of what had happened, Bakker eventually paid Hahn over $350,000 to remain silent. When the arrangement became public, the scandal helped to bring down the entire PTL ministry.

Hahn, who claimed that she didn't want to be in the spotlight, became an overnight celebrity. She posed for Playboy magazine, wrote a book about her relationship with Bakker, and even briefly lived in the Playboy mansion. Hahn, a radio announcer in Phoenix, Arizona, at the time of Bakker's indictment, soon became a regular on Howard Stern's radio show and appeared in rock music videos, as well.

Jim and his wife, Tammy Faye, were on top of the world before the scandal first broke. They were enormously successful at raising money for their televised religious programs, and after its 1974 debut, their cable show became the highest rated religious show in the country. The Bakkers then added talk-show elements to standard preaching, often featuring celebrities, music, and comedy. With all of the money they made from their programming, the Bakkers built a 2,200-acre resort, Heritage USA, which featured a studio large enough to seat 1,800 people. Six million people visited the park in 1986, placing it behind only Disney World and Disneyland in terms of attendance.

When the Hahn scandal was leaked, other televangelists were outraged. Jimmy Swaggart, in particular, went out of his way to condemn Bakker. Tammy Faye responded to their critics by singing "The Ballad of Jim and Tammy Faye" to the tune of "Harper Valley PTA" on their show. Still, Tammy Faye could not defend the ministry against federal charges that the funding for Heritage USA had been acquired by defrauding their viewers and donors.

Although the evidence was not particularly strong, Jim Bakker was convicted in 1989 and sentenced to 45 years in prison. The sentence was later reduced to eight years, and he was released in 1994. Tammy Faye divorced Jim while he was in prison; she died in 2007.

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