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

When the news of Suerae Robertson's lawsuit broke last year, some 36 ministers in CGI either left the church of their own accord or were disfellowshipped for criticizing Armstrong's role in the scandal, says Lin Stuhlman, founder of the Exit and Support Network in Hamden, Connecticut. The network, says ex-CGI member Stuhlman, offers support for people who are trying to leave "Bible-based organizations that are deceptive," and also investigates those groups. Stuhlman stresses she is not a "cult deprogrammer," and that her organization doesn't "go sneaking around trying to pull people out of cults. Everything we do is aboveboard."

Network members--most of whom have been associated with the 80 or so splinter groups of what Stuhlman calls the "Church of God conglomerate"--communicate largely via the Internet. For the last several months, much of the online buzz has focused on Armstrong and his sexual indiscretions. Several ministers who have left CGI contacted John Osborne, Suerae's attorney, and offered affidavits against Armstrong, swearing to their knowledge of his long history of sexual misconduct. None of these ministers returned phone calls from the Observer.

In February of this year, Fred Coulter of Hollister, California, filed an affidavit in state District Court in Smith County stating that while working as a minister in the Worldwide Church of God from 1965 to 1979, he had "personal knowledge that while Armstrong was a minister with Worldwide Church of God, Armstrong had a reputation for repeated sexual indiscretions with female members of the church. It was well known by many in the ministry [of the church] that Armstrong had a reputation for visiting massage parlors. I had personal knowledge that Armstrong was disfellowshipped from the church as a result of his sexual indiscretions." Coulter is no longer a member of the church, according to his affidavit.

Another affidavit, filed by North Carolina resident John Tuit, a former member of both Worldwide Church and Church of God International, states that "Church of God International condoned [Armstrong's] sexual indiscretions by consciously ignoring Armstrong's repeated indiscretions.

"In fact, I had a conversation with an agent for the Church of God International, Benny L. Sharp," the affidavit continues. "Mr. Sharp stated directly to me that 'so what if Ted screwed some girls.'"

Members of the Exit and Support Network see the Robertson lawsuit as their first real opportunity to determine the extent of Armstrong and his church's wealth. Because the church is tax-exempt, little public information is available about its finances. Armstrong operates what he calls a dual ministry--the church itself, and the Garner Ted Armstrong Evangelistic Association, his TV ministry, which airs in 40 markets nationally.

CGI business manager Sharp declined to discuss the church's finances for this story, but says, "There's no question this lawsuit has hurt our donations. I can't give you a figure." Likewise, Armstrong's attorney, Tom Buchanan, refused to discuss the church's income.

But real-estate records show the church and its various high-ranking members have outright or partial ownership in several prime pieces of property in East Texas. Armstrong's main residence is in the private, gated community of Emerald Bay on Lake Palestine. The home, at 175 S. Bay Drive, is modest by Dallas standards--a tan brick contemporary on a hill overlooking the bay, appraised in 1996 at $159,600. The Church of God International headquarters, consisting of a few brick buildings, some small wood dormitories, and a vast, prefabricated building that serves as a church, sits on a tranquil and shaded chunk of property on State Highway 155 in Flint, also on Lake Palestine. Smith County records show the land is assessed at $585,000.

On November 23, 1995, the day Osborne filed Suerae Robertson's suit, Armstrong faxed a signed, two-paragraph statement to local media. "The allegations of sexual assault are totally false," he wrote. "The people making these accusations against me are under investigation by federal, state, and local authorities."

Attorney Tom Buchanan says that "Mr. Armstrong is an easy target because of his fame and ability to be recognized. But Mr. Armstrong just doesn't have a whole lot of money. The plaintiff is under the impression that he has millions. And they've tried to come after the church, too. Unfortunately, churches have been fair game for this kind of thing for a long time now. The Catholic Church, the YMCA have been sued for the alleged actions of their priests and employees.

"In this case, it is an absolute setup."
Business had been good throughout the early summer of 1995 at the Victorian Hospitality Spa, but Suerae was planning for some "dead time" from the Fourth of July onward. So it surprised her to get an early-morning phone call from Garner Ted Armstrong on Independence Day.

He said he had just finished a long driving trip, and was complaining of the usual pain in his back and groin. He asked if he could come by for a massage. His speech, she says, was slurred.

"I told him we were closed for the holiday, and that everyone was off. I told him Arvilla was the only one who could legally do massage, and she was off for the holiday," Suerae says. But Armstrong persisted, and once again, "Nancy Nurse" surfaced. "I just can't stand to see people suffer," she says.

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