How Low Can You Go?

When a Tyler masseuse accused televangelist Garner Ted Armstrong of sexual assault, no one came out smelling like a rose

"All I can say is the 'Nancy Nurse' in me came through. He was complaining of this severe pain, and he was literally begging me to do the massage."

Suerae, dressed in a purple jogging suit, shifted her gaze to the floor. "I am a classic co-dependent," she said blankly, shrugging her shoulders. "Royce has always told me I could get bit by a dog, the dog could run across the street and get hit by a car, and I'd run across the street with a bloody leg to save the dog."

As Armstrong's massage sessions with Suerae continued throughout June 1995, he grew ever bolder, according to court documents. "Armstrong would begin to fondle his genitals and try to place plaintiff's hands on his genitals while he would 'minister' to the plaintiff," the lawsuit says. "His tattoos, including that of a naked woman on his body, would greatly frighten her."

Suerae said she would abruptly end the sessions when Armstrong got aggressive. But, her lawsuit states, "Armstrong would be extremely apologetic, make reference to his similarity to King David" (with whom Suerae says Armstrong compared himself frequently, saying that his work on earth was so important that God would overlook any transgressions he might commit), and beg Suerae to continue. The massages would then conclude without further incident, and she continued booking his appointments.

By early summer, Suerae recalled, she was beginning to understand who Armstrong was. He preached and "counseled" her about her separation from Royce. He urged her to join Church of God International. She said he discussed his ministry and television show, and outlined the tenets of his sect, including a commandment that members pay a tithe of 30 percent of their income. The tithe, he told her, is required to attain salvation.

Despite his clearly sexual behavior, Suerae never stood up to Armstrong, never barred him from her business. He returned again and again.

If the boundaries of propriety at Suerae's spa seemed fuzzy to the preacher, it's because they were.

What Suerae would eventually discover--largely through Royce's research--was that Armstrong had a rather checkered past of his own.

Garner Ted Armstrong was 4 years old when in 1934 his father, Herbert W. Armstrong, secured time on a radio station in Eugene, Oregon, and founded the Radio Church of God. The elder Armstrong spent much of his broadcast time engaging in prophecy, predicting the imminent--and gruesome--end of the world to be followed by Christ's Second Coming. He also started a hugely successful magazine, The Plain Truth, to help spread his faith's unique, unorthodox beliefs. The church, for instance, deviated from most Christian denominations in its observation of a Saturday Sabbath--and its denunciation of Christmas and Easter as pagan holidays, which should not be celebrated. Church members also observed Kosher dietary laws.

Herbert Armstrong, who died in 1986 at the age of 93, also believed in British-Israelism--the notion that modern Anglo-Saxons are the lineal descendants of the lost 10 tribes of Israel. His church also denied the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity--thereby setting it apart from traditional Christianity.

Garner Ted had just graduated from high school when his father moved the church's headquarters to Pasadena, California. He was--according to various biographies--slow to accept his father's beliefs. In 1948, Garner Ted joined the Navy and served for four years. Afterward, he enrolled in the school his father had founded--Ambassador College, in Pasadena (the school is now Ambassador University, and is located just north of Tyler in Big Sandy, Texas), and was finally baptized into the church. He married Shirley Hammer in 1953, and they became the parents of three sons: Matthew, Mark, and David.

In 1968, Herbert changed the name of his organization to Worldwide Church of God. He had also extended his evangelistic reach internationally through a popular television broadcast, The World Tomorrow, which fascinated viewers with gloom-and-doom predictions of the Apocalypse. At the apex of its growth in the early '70s, Worldwide counted 105,000 members, and The Plain Truth magazine boasted a circulation of 2.6 million.

Throughout the '60s, Garner Ted labored under his father's tutelage. He rose to executive vice president of Worldwide, and was lauded for his charismatic on-air presence as host of The World Tomorrow. But in 1972, a rift between Herbert and Garner Ted led to the younger Armstrong's exile from the church for several months. Though a repentant Garner Ted later returned to the fold, by 1974 the word was out among Worldwide ministers: Garner Ted was alleged to have squandered church money, openly disputed his father's teachings, and engaged in sexual misconduct with women church members during a period of several years. Former ministers and church members have maintained the allegations for years in news articles and also in affidavits for Suerae Robertson's lawsuit.

The revelations led to a mass defection of disenchanted ministers, many of whom started offshoots of Worldwide Church of God. Garner Ted himself was excommunicated in 1978. Shortly afterward, he moved to Tyler, and started Church of God International. A handful of Worldwide members went with him, and have remained his loyal friends and board members for years, including vice president Charles Groce and business manager Benny Sharp.

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