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Monday, December 28, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Swaggart Still Preaches, But A Lot Fewer Are Listening

The Baltimore Sun

`I HAVE SINNED, my Lord.' A decade after he was caught with a prostitute, the televangelist has lost much of his flock and financial empire.

BATON ROUGE, La. - The Rev. Jimmy Swaggart plays a scale on his grand piano and slides off the bench to grab the microphone.

"Praise Jesus!" he says, launching a spellbinding two-hour sermon, which he interrupts twice to record 30-second promotional spots for the TV version.

Swaggart yells. He collapses to the floor. He recounts a conversation with God. Seven times, he abruptly breaks into tears. And he lays hands on a partially paralyzed young man. "Jesus will heal you because he can heal you," says Swaggart, weeping again. "I know we have sinned, but Jesus, please, please help him."

The tears resemble those that fell from Swaggart's face in 1988, when the televangelist, caught with a prostitute, told his congregation, "I have sinned, my Lord."

Ten years later, everywhere Swaggart looks, his eyes see the damage caused by his indiscretion in a New Orleans motel room.

To his left and right, huge curtains block off seats and disguise the fact that his 7,000-seat Family Worship Center on Bluebonnet Road now attracts only 500 people to Sunday services. Outside, the 100-plus poles that once carried the flags of every country where his sermons were broadcast stand unused. Decorating the stadium-sized, mostly vacant parking lot at the worship center are signs for a shuttle bus that long ago stopped running.

Like Jim Bakker and Oral Roberts, Swaggart, 63, has lost much of his flock and his financial empire, which once enjoyed annual revenues of $150 million. But Swaggart still preaches the same message from the same place, his 200-acre complex in Baton Rouge. His only public concession to falling popularity is his use of public-access channels (more popular cable outlets largely shun him) to broadcast his message to 250 TV markets at odd hours of the week.

He remains, he says, an "old-fashioned, Holy Ghost-filled, shouting, weeping, soul-winning, Gospel-preaching preacher." He still preaches that Jews and Catholics are going to hell, and he still assails - without a hint of irony or compromise - homosexuality, pornography, psychology and, yes, prostitution and hypocrisy. And he still lives in the same gated mansion.

"We don't discuss the past because we don't live in the past," says his son Donnie, 44, a vice president in Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. "We've moved past that."

Avoiding the past might prove impossible. In a book set to be published next month, Hunter Lundy, the attorney who exposed Swaggart's fondness for prostitutes, suggests strongly that the minister was also a pedophile. Swaggart's old rival, the Rev. Marvin Gorman, has re-emerged, driving a Toyota, doing tent revivals and generally posing a humbler contrast.

Swaggart refused to be interviewed for this article. But his sermon offers a reply to his critics. "You can find things about me you don't like. And frankly, I don't want to hear it," he says. "If you look hard enough, you'll find something good about me and say it."

At least, Swaggart adds, he has the ability to survive.

Jimmy Lee Swaggart, born poor near the Mississippi River in Ferriday, La., started preaching on the revival circuit in 1958 with his wife, Frances. God, he says, has spoken repeatedly to him since he was 8. The Lord instructed him to begin a TV ministry in 1973.

By 1986, his TV shows reached 510 million people in 145 countries. He mailed 7 million fund-raising letters a day, raised $135 million annually in contributions and used the money to build schools, churches and his own Bible college, while providing a lavish lifestyle for his family.

His 1984 autobiography proclaimed, "There are no skeletons in the Swaggart closet," but he recounted a warning from a longtime friend: "There are men who can't stand prosperity. They can't stand fame. It goes to their head. They start to think they are God."

Swaggart seemed to ignore the advice. After pronouncing divine judgment on televangelists Jim Bakker and Marvin Gorman for sexual indiscretions, he was investigated by Gorman, who discovered Swaggart's weakness for prostitutes.

Swaggart apologized, famously: "I have sinned against you, my Lord, and I would ask that your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain until it is in the seas of God's forgetfulness, never to be remembered against me." Swaggart received as much money from that single broadcast as he did in three months.

Ten years later, that speech haunts him. Gorman won $1.85 million from Swaggart in a defamation suit. In 1991, Swaggart lost more followers when he was stopped with a prostitute in Indio, Calif.

A lack of financial contributions forced him to close dozens of churches, schools and medical programs overseas and to lay off hundreds of staff in Baton Rouge. He liquidated other assets to pay off debts such as a $1.4 million court judgment in Dallas for failing to pay for Bibles.

Jimmy Swaggart Ministries now resembles nothing so much as a real-estate enterprise. Many of the buildings on the 200-acre campus have been leased to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality or to private businesses. Swaggart's Bible college is open, but enrollments have declined and the college recently dropped its founder's name.

Swaggart, his son says, feels vindicated by the troubles of President Clinton. "A lot of people said he should confess his sin like Jimmy Swaggart," says Donnie.

"Everyone has trouble. It's not for us to judge his personal life," says Judy Washington, a Family Worship Center member from Port Allen, La. Adds Diane Bouche, who helps teach Sunday school: "I've done things in my past that are worse. They just didn't happen on TV. And he never gave up."

And he never stopped selling. On a recent Sunday, the church bookstore stayed open during services, and volunteers distributed copies of Swaggart's magazine, the Evangelist, complete with the Swaggart gift catalog.

As he preached, ushers gave out tithe envelopes that ask for a credit-card number. Younger visitors were offered admissions materials for the Bible college.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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