Jim Bakker Resigns from PTL
March 19, 1987
On March 19, 1987, inside a glass-walled room at 600 South Tryon Street, Charlotte became ground zero for a whirlwind scandal that would thrust the city into the nation's consciousness for week after astounding week.
Gathered inside the editor's office at The Charlotte Observer were publisher Rolfe Neill, editor Richard Oppel, two of Oppel's top editors, and the newspaper's lawyer. I sat at Oppel's desk, a thirty-two-year-old investigative reporter uneasily working under the eye of the paper's most powerful executives and unsure what to expect from a scheduled interview of Jim Bakker, president of the Fort Mill-based PTL Television Ministry.
Bakker, forty-seven, was a TV star to millions of Christians nationwide, and his ministry's success at building a Christian resort along the N.C.-S.C. border seemed to be winning Bakker respect he longed for after years of criticism about poor management and deceptive fund raising.
Over the preceding two months, I had pieced together the story Bakker and his aides had worked for years to cover up—Bakker's 1980 sexual encounter with a young N.Y. woman inside a Florida hotel room and PTL's clandestine efforts to silence her accusations using the nonprofit ministry's money. After weeks of resisting my requests for an interview, Bakker had suddenly reversed course.
The phone rang at 2:30 p.m. After brief introductions, Bakker joined the call.
The voice was his, though the words sounded scripted. His delivery was surprisingly steady, given his most astounding disclosure: "I have decided that for the good of my family, the church, and of all of our related ministries that I should resign and step down immediately."
As stunning as Bakker's resignation was the sonorous voice that joined the call.
"I have accepted the chairmanship," a sober Jerry Falwell (above left) told us.
The Observer's front page the next day offered the first explanation for Bakker's sudden departure. And, in the weeks that followed, it became apparent that Falwell's selection had helped foster the very tumult that Bakker and Falwell hoped to avoid.
Alarmed by corruption he discovered, Falwell forced out the associates Bakker had left in charge. Falwell used the media swarm that descended on Charlotte that spring to discredit Bakker, block his hoped-for return to control, and help launch a federal criminal investigation of PTL. Bakker and three associates would be sent to prison. PTL soon disappeared in bankruptcy.
Charlie Shepard covered Jim Bakker and the PTL ministry for The Charlotte Observer from 1984 through 1989. His coverage was instrumental in The Observer's winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. He wrote Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry, the definitive biography of Bakker published in 1989. He is presently a business consultant based in Washington, D.C.