It's impossible to tell Jim Bakker's story without mentioning his conspiracy theories.
The former PTL leader has always felt that people were conspiring against him -- especially journalists, politicians and judges. After the 1987 collapse of his empire, he said he had been betrayed by other televangelists.
Naturally, Bakker adds variations on these themes in his tell- all memoir, "I Was Wrong." But one of its most intriguing details is evidence of yet another conspiracy that he doesn't want to discuss. Note this angry passage in Bakker's remarks as he resigned as PTL's president.
"I sorrowfully acknowledge that seven years ago ... I was wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends and colleagues who victimized me with the aid of a female confederate," he said. "They conspired to betray me into a sexual encounter at a time of great stress in my marital life. ... I was set up as part of a scheme to co-opt me and obtain some advantage for themselves over me in connection with their hope for position in the ministry."
In other words, the first domino at PTL was a scheme that preceded Bakker's 1980 sexual liaison with Jessica Hahn, a conspiracy within his inner circle that preceded "Pearlygate." Yet Bakker has nothing new to say about these "friends and colleagues" and their scheme. In particular, he downplays the role of the bisexual evangelist John Wesley Fletcher, who arranged the tryst with Hahn, and he hardly mentions James and David Taggart, the brothers who many claim controlled Bakker in his final PTL years.
In his book, Bakker confesses many sins. He repents of his "health and wealth" theology, saying he sinfully twisted scripture. He offers 647 pages of near-stream-of-consciousness details about lessons he learned during his trial, divorce and prison years. But he continues to avoid some questions.
"For most Pentecostal and charismatic people, the most serious questions about Jim Bakker were all those allegations of moral misconduct. ... People haven't forgotten that," said historian Vinson Synan of Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. "There does appear to have been a kind of subterranean, homosexual world inside PTL that has never been fully described. That's where so many questions remain."
Many of the questions center on Fletcher. In addition to his ties to Hahn, it was Fletcher who made anonymous calls in 1983 spreading dirt about Bakker. One of those calls went to me, when I was working as a religion writer in Charlotte, N.C., and I later shared my information with reporter Charles E. Shepard, author of "Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry." Years later, Shepard confirmed that Fletcher was my mystery caller.
Fletcher mentioned Hahn by name in 1983 and also said David Taggart was Bakker's lover. Fletcher was bitter and said Bakker had failed to keep promises and had forsaken him during tough times. But Fletcher did not, during those calls, say what he later said during the "Pearlygate" media storm -- that he, too, had been sexually involved with Bakker.
"I never knew a more corrupt person in my life, period, than Jim Bakker," Fletcher told me. "Now I see him for what he is."
Today, those at the Massapequa (N.Y.) Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, where Fletcher preached in the early '90s, refuse to answer questions -- merely saying that he recently passed away. Tabloid reports said he suffered from AIDS.
The key: Did Fletcher try to manipulate Bakker to gain power at PTL, starting a chain reaction? Or did Bakker betray Fletcher?
"I Was Wrong" neither asks nor answers this question. On the homosexuality issue, Bakker does include a chapter saying that, as a teen, he was molested -- for several years -- by a young man he knew at church. This left Bakker confused about his own sexual identity and he said that while in prison he sought, and received, assurances from a counselor that he isn't gay.
And so the story continues, with Bakker attempting a comeback as a humbled counselor for those who face pain in their own lives. Yet he clearly knows that his return is threatened more by the ghosts of his complicated sexual past than by the legal demons that sent him to prison.