The Preacher and The Prostitute

updated 11/20/2006 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/20/2006 01:00AM

Late last month, pastor Ted Haggard shared his thoughts about the upcoming national election from the pulpit of his 14,000-member megachurch in Colorado Springs. "Father, we pray that lies would be exposed," he preached. "We pray that deception would be exposed." Worshippers that day had little cause to suspect just how close to home some of those revelations might have been. But just three days later a male prostitute named Michael Forest Jones began speaking to the Denver press about his three-year sexual relationship with a prominent evangelical. On Nov. 5, in words that closely echoed his previous comments, the 50-year-old Haggard—who once likened gay pride celebrations to "Murderer's Pride Day"—told his followers, in a letter read aloud by another pastor, that he was "guilty of sexual immorality." "I am a deceiver and a liar," he wrote. "There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all my adult life."

Inside the New Life Church's 7,500-seat sanctuary, a full-capacity crowd passed tissue boxes and listened in silence. Haggard, an affable preacher known to his followers simply as Pastor Ted, had already stepped down from both the pulpit he had been building since 1985 and his post as president of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals. His penitent message—two days after his shocking admission that he had paid for a massage from Jones and purchased methamphetamine, a sex-enhancing drug—drew applause from his flock. But they saved their heaviest tears, and a standing ovation, for Haggard's wife, Gayle, 49, who wrote them a letter of her own. "I know your hearts are broken; mine is as well," she wrote, pledging to remain with her husband of 28 years and the father of their five children. "My test has begun; watch me. I will try to prove myself faithful."

As congregants streamed out of the $18 million church that Haggard finished building in 2004, some collapsed sobbing, but among the faithful, the strongest impulse was toward forgiveness. "It's a reality check for a whole lot of people that nobody's perfect," says Matt DeCoste. Added another 20-year congregant: "People make mistakes, and this was a big one," she says. "But we love him and his family."

Until now, the Haggards had seemed an ideal couple—a fact that Gayle acknowledged in her letter to the congregation. "For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties," she wrote, "know that this will never again be the case." From their first date as undergrads at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Gayle's gentle demeanor complemented Ted's charismatic presence. After he received a journalism degree in 1978, Gayle dropped out of school to marry him. Eight years later, while Gayle tended to their growing family, Ted opened the New Life Church in the basement of their Colorado Springs home. Gayle would write in her 2005 book, A Life Embraced: A Hopeful Guide for the Pastor's Wife, "I felt so left out of what Ted was doing." As their children, among them a disabled son, grew up, she became increasingly involved in the ministry, running women's groups and co-authoring one of Ted's more than a dozen books.

Congregants are now likely to scrutinize the pages of A Life Embraced with a different eye. In a section on sex, she wrote that "husbands usually show the greater enthusiasm," but encouraged her readers, "God designed sex as a means of unifying a husband and wife." In another passage, Gayle describes her discussions with Ted about post-wedding plans: "Ted's idea of a great honeymoon was a weeklong group camping and backpacking trip ... all with our group, with whom we would also share tents at night." Gayle chose instead to book a room at an old Victorian hotel. Ted "couldn't believe I preferred that over the group camping adventure," she wrote. "That was our first clue that maybe we weren't as much alike as we thought."

And perhaps that Ted was not quite what he seemed. In an interview with PEOPLE, Michael Jones, 49, a former personal trainer who offered sex for sale, says he first met the pastor in 2003. Identifying himself as Art from Kansas City (his middle name is Arthur), Haggard turned up at his door in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, responding, Jones believes, to ads he'd placed in a gay newspaper and on the online site Rentboy.com. Their $200 sessions, Jones says, were held "roughly once a month," and ranged from 20 minutes to an hour. Jones denies Haggard's claim, made to reporters on Nov. 3 as he drove from his $500,000, five-acre property with Gayle and three of their children, that Jones helped him buy methamphetamine. "I have never ever been a drug dealer," Jones says. As for Haggard's assertion, "I was buying it for me but never used it," Jones counters that Haggard snorted meth on several occasions to heighten their sexual encounters and says Haggard told him he had used the drug on other occasions.

Jones didn't have a clue who Art was until about six months ago, when he spotted Haggard on the History Channel. After confirming both the pastor's identity and his opposition to gay marriage—Haggard is an outspoken supporter of a Colorado ballot initiative banning gay marriage—Jones decided to take their homosexual liaison public before last week's election. "My reason," he says, "was to point out the hypocrisy." Since then, Jones says he has received death threats. While he hasn't heard from his two brothers, he has spoken to his father. "He's not proud of what I've done," Jones says, "but he did say he loved me." (Jones's mother died in his arms of cancer last year.) Jones says he is broke but will never again work as a male escort because he'll "always fear a set-up."

While the Haggards wrestle privately with their marriage, the church's board of overseers continues to investigate Ted, using both polygraphs and psychological evaluations to develop what it calls "a plan of healing and restoration." Whatever his future course, Haggard's days at the church he founded are over. "Gayle and I need to be gone for a while," he wrote in his letter. "In our hearts, we will always be members of this body." Larry Stockstill, Haggard's spiritual mentor, has predicted that Haggard's rehab may take two years. After that, neither his fellow overseers nor Haggard himself have ruled out a return to the pulpit. "We believe he will," Stockstill said. "Just not here."

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