Free Falling

updated 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jimmy Swaggart's cathedral-size Family Worship Center outside Baton Rouge, can accommodate 7,000 people, but fewer than 1,000 showed up for the Oct. 20 service. Those who attended were called on to witness an unexpected confession. An hour and a half into the proceedings, a disgraced Brother Swaggart came forward, not to the pulpit, but to a leather chair and microphone onstage. There, for more than 30 minutes, he sat, not preaching but, according to a member of his security staff, "spilling his guts."

So deep was his despair over his Oct. 11 traffic bust, when he was discovered consorting with a prostitute, that he had considered suicide, said Swaggart, 56. But then the Lord had sent him a glimmer of hope. His plans now, he said, were to surround himself with "godly men" and "fight Satan" relentlessly. "I don't know what will happen in the future," he continued. "I don't know what will happen to the television ministry. I do not have any plans except to get healed."

Swaggart's affliction, as nearly everyone knows by now, is plain old biblical lust. It laid hold of him most recently when he was stopped for a traffic violation in Indio, Calif., and was discovered keeping company in his car with Rosemary Garcia, an admitted prostitute. An officer had noticed that the Jaguar Swaggart was driving was swerving through a 10-block area known as Love Street for its heavy concentration of prostitutes and rooms-by-the-hour motels.

Swaggart's latest undoing came just three years after he tearfully begged forgiveness from his Assembly of God congregation for a similar sin. In October 1987 private investigators photographed Swaggart meeting with prostitute Debra Murphree at a New Orleans motel. The investigators had been hired by fellow TV preacher Marvin Gorman—apparently in retaliation for Swaggart's attempt to ruin him by spreading nasty rumors about Gorman's alleged philandering. The attempted smear boomeranged on Swaggart last month when he was found to have defamed Gorman and ordered to pay $10 million in damages.

The judgment, combined with Swaggart's recent moral lapse, could deal his ministry a fatal blow. Swaggart's TV audience, according to Arbitral!, a TV rating service, shrank to 403,000 in July 1991, from a peak of more than 2 million six years before. With its balance sheet in disarray, the ministry is being sued by several creditors. "It's over," says University of Virginia sociologist Jeffrey Hadden, an authority on TV preachers.

Jimmy's son, Donnie, 37, opted for retrenchment. On Oct. 15 he announced that his father would "temporarily" leave the pulpit and that he would also seek "professional counseling." Donnie said that the Jimmy Swaggart crusades were canceled indefinitely and that he would assume corporate leadership on a temporary basis.

The very next evening, though, Jimmy went to his Worship Center and told his flock of his newest epiphany. He'd had trouble sleeping, Swaggart related, and he had tried to read the Bible but couldn't. "I closed it," he said, "and whimpered like a little hurt dog, 'God, if you're there, tell me what to do.' " He then slipped into a deep, despairing sleep. When he awoke, says Swaggart, "The Holy Spirit was rolling all over me."

Jimmy took this as a clear message to remain in the service of the Lord: He was not stepping down as head of the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. Nobody, not even Donnie, was about to bump him from the throne.

Surprisingly, he retains a hard core of support. Following his appearance at the Worship Center last Sunday, many in the congregation came forward, encircled Jimmy and his wife, Frances, 53, and wept as they stretched their hands toward them.

Outside the church, 19-year-old Brian Wilson might have been speaking for all of them when he described the apparently inexhaustible appeal of the tarnished cleric. "See, the thing is, Brother Swaggart's a godly man," said Wilson. "People forgive me when I do stuff, you know? So we've got to do the same for Brother Swaggart."

RON RIDENHOUR in Baton Rouge

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