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Jessica Hahn, woman at center of televangelist's fall 30 years ago, confronts her past

Tim Funk, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Religious News

Looking back, Hahn said the young woman who met with Bakker that day was naive and vulnerable.

"It's like somebody walks into the room like Jim Bakker and you're in your 20s and you're watching him every day (on TV)," she said. "It's like 'Oh my God, this is like God walking into the room. I can't say no.' "

For awhile, Hahn said she kept silent about what happened.

"It was 'Just keep your mouth shut, Jess, because this is a church,' " she recalled. "Now, church was my world. ... Jim Bakker was my world. ... I knew (revealing what happened) would affect millions of people" who counted on the Bakkers and PTL, including donors, employees and faithful viewers at home.

There were also rumors and later reports about hush money paid for a time to Hahn from PTL coffers, though she insists now that "anything they think I made, I didn't."

Hahn, who said she was "being belittled and being used like a pawn for other people" behind the scenes, eventually called the Observer in December 1984. She got on the phone with investigative reporter Charles Shepard, who would anchor the Observer's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the scandals – financial and otherwise – at PTL.

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"It was like: Hide in the corner and let everybody tell my story, or have me tell it," Hahn said. "Because it was going to (get out) with or without me."

In 1987, Bakker offered his own, very different picture of what had happened. His version appeared when the sexual encounter was finally made public in Shepard's front-page Observer story about Bakker's resignation from PTL.

By then, PTL – short for "Praise the Lord" – was one of the largest Christian ministries in the United States, employing about 2,500 people and taking in as much as $158 million a year from a sprawling campus called Heritage USA. The 2,300-acre resort-theme park drew nearly 6 million visitors a year and included a water slide, a steam train, the 501-room Heritage Grand Hotel, Main Street USA, a 400-unit campground, time-sharing chalets and a TV studio/church/auditorium.

When Bakker resigned, the then-47-year-old TV host/Pentecostal minister admitted to a "sexual encounter" seven years before. He referred to Hahn not by name, but as "a female confederate" who had been part of what he said was a "scheme" to set him up.

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