Televangelists escape penalty in Senate inquiry

A senator's high-profile investigation of spending by televangelists wrapped up after more than three years Thursday with no penalties for the pastors who refused to cooperate and no definitive ...

A senator's high-profile investigation of spending by televangelists wrapped up after more than three years Thursday with no penalties for the pastors who refused to cooperate and no definitive findings of wrongdoing.

The report released by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley raises questions about the personal use of church-owned airplanes, luxury homes and credit cards by pastors and their families, and expresses concern about the lack of oversight of finances by boards often packed with the televangelists' relatives and friends.

However, the senator draws no specific conclusions about whether the ministries violated IRS rules that bar excessive compensation for leaders of religious nonprofits.

Grassley, a Republican, began the investigation in November 2007 and released the report at the end of his tenure as the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. The senator will remain on the Finance Committee, but will become the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.

The six televangelists targeted in the investigation preach some form of the prosperity gospel, which teaches that God wants to bless the faithful with earthly riches. Ministers in this tradition often hold up their own wealth as evidence that the teaching works.

Many conservative Christians condemn the prosperity gospel and consider the televangelists an embarrassment. Still, leading evangelical organizations worried that Grassley's inquiry could lead to changes in tax rules for all religious nonprofits, so the groups protested. The flagship magazine of centrist evangelicals, Christianity Today, editorialized in 2008 that the Grassley investigation amounted to an "oversight overstep" that risked delving improperly into theology.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a religious liberty legal group founded by James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other influential evangelicals, protested. The National Religious Broadcasters, a trade association, said the questions Grassley asked were too broad.

All six of the targeted televangelists insisted they comply with tax regulations for religious nonprofits. Two — Joyce Meyer Ministries based in Missouri and Benny Hinn Ministries based in Irving, Texas — told Grassley they have made changes in how they govern their ministries or set compensation.

But four of the televangelists would not provide full information to Grassley. Some pastors questioned whether Grassley had the authority to conduct the investigation. Others accused him of violating their religious freedom.

Grassley's staff said in the report that they did not issue subpoenas to further the investigation because witnesses feared retaliation if they spoke out publicly and the Finance Committee did not have the time or resources to enforce the subpoenas.

The four ministries that refused to provide full information are:

— Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas;

— Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries of College Park, Ga.;

— Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries of Tampa, Fla.

— Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Bishop Eddie Long Ministries of Lithonia, Ga.; Long was recently sued by four young men who claim he coerced them into sexual relationships. The bishop has denied the allegations.

Meyer released a statement Thursday affirming her pledge of financial transparency. Hinn said in a statement that his ministry's experience with the Finance Committee "has caused us to renew our commitment to always honor our partners' sacrificial giving." Long said he was "relieved" that the inquiry was done and said New Birth has always operated with integrity.

Representatives for the other ministries did not immediately respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Grassley said he hoped the review would lead to an update in tax rules governing religious groups so abuses don't occur. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an independent accrediting group for churches and religious nonprofits, plans to create a national commission in response to the Grassley report to lead a review on accountability and policy.

___

Online:

Senate report: http://bit.ly/evhJVQ

Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability: http://www.ecfa.org/

Benny Hinn Ministries: http://www.bennyhinn.org/

Joyce Meyer Ministries: http://www.joycemeyer.org/

Kenneth Copeland Ministries: http://www.kcm.org/

New Birth Missionary Baptist Church: http://www.newbirth.org/

Without Walls International Church: http://www.withoutwalls.org/

World Changers Church International: http://www.worldchangers.org/

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