The Cult of Ole

Ole Anthony anointed himself the watchdog of America's televangelists. But who was watching Ole Anthony?

"They don't know we're a bunch of boobs," Anthony says. "The only thing we offer is persistence."

Talking about that day in 1991 brings a wry smile to Anthony's craggy face. His small office is sparsely furnished and imbued with the scent of pipe smoke; a dog lies behind his desk, and a bird chirps in a large wooden cage above his head. Still handsome at 67, he sits behind his desk surrounded by books, his feet up on a pillow, a cane nearby. He grimaces in agony from time to time.

For years, Anthony has suffered the kind of pain that sent desperate people to Tilton's church seeking healing. In 1979, Anthony's left foot made contact with an exposed wire in a steam room at a health spa, searing nerves all the way up to his brain. Prayer hasn't been enough in Anthony's case. For years he's relied on heavy doses of painkillers.

Anthony's idiosyncratic Bible teachings and brilliantly sharp mind captivated many young, idealistic Christians. They saw Anthony's efforts to draw homeless people into the fold as "faith in action."
Anthony's idiosyncratic Bible teachings and brilliantly sharp mind captivated many young, idealistic Christians. They saw Anthony's efforts to draw homeless people into the fold as "faith in action."
Anthony's idiosyncratic Bible teachings and brilliantly sharp mind captivated many young, idealistic Christians. They saw Anthony's efforts to draw homeless people into the fold as "faith in action."
Anthony's idiosyncratic Bible teachings and brilliantly sharp mind captivated many young, idealistic Christians. They saw Anthony's efforts to draw homeless people into the fold as "faith in action."

Tears come to Anthony's blue eyes as he tells about the Tilton victim who impacted him the most: a 14-year-old girl suffering from multiple sclerosis. After hearing Tilton's promise that she could be healed if she made a $1,000 vow of faith, the girl got a job and paid off the pledge. But healing didn't come. When the teenager called Tilton's prayer line to find out why, she was told she must have secret sin in her life. The girl went to her backyard, doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire. The anguish fills Anthony's face as he wipes moisture from his eyes.

There could be another impetus for the tears. Last month, former Trinity member Wendy Duncan, now Doug Duncan's wife, published a book called I Can't Hear God Anymore. Doug, who was once Anthony's roommate, married Wendy and left the group in 2000. Her book calls Trinity a cult. She claims that Anthony subjected his followers to "hot seats," scathing verbal attacks that were supposed to be cleansing but brought them under his control and scarred some so deeply that they will no longer pick up a Bible.

Anthony says he hasn't read the book and brushes off Wendy's criticism, pointing out that the hot seats ended in the early 1990s. A member of Trinity's board of directors, Rutledge, issued a written response noting that Trinity has been accused of being a cult before--by Robert Tilton.

But allegations that Trinity is a cult began as early as the late '70s and have surfaced numerous times since, often by members' families, sometimes by the media. In 1989, Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News wrote, "there are times when even to its members the foundation looks like a cult of personality."

More than a dozen former Trinity members interviewed by the Dallas Observer agree that Trinity bears many cult-like traits:

Zealous commitment to a domineering leader not accountable to any authority.

Discouragement or punishment of dissent and doubt.

Use of mind-altering techniques such as denunciation sessions--the infamous hot seats.

Dictation by leadership of how followers should act, sometimes in great detail.

Breakdown of personal boundaries, such as denying members permission to marry.

Encouraging a sense of elitism or special status for the group.

Fostering an "us vs. them" mentality.

They claim that Wendy Duncan's book is accurate and that Anthony's influence caused enormous damage to their lives. "Ole uses intimidation to get his way," says Rick "Beamer" Robertson, a Dallas radio DJ and voice actor who belonged to Trinity off and on starting in the '70s. "It's his will in the guise of the group's."

Some former members blame Trinity for the breakup of marriages. Several members, they say, have had nervous breakdowns. Three members have killed themselves; two died on the Block. Perhaps that's not extraordinary. Many of the men and women attracted to Trinity are people who've come to the end of their abilities and want to throw everything at the feet of God.

What is startling is that the media have largely given Trinity a pass. Though Anthony's theology bears little resemblance to mainstream Christianity, and he's prone to making outrageous statements such as "God hates you" and "Your mind is the Antichrist," journalists rarely delve below the surface. The "media whores," as Anthony calls them, are too busy begging him for incriminating documents or B-roll of the televangelists' shows, which are taped 24/7 at Trinity.

Several former members say the investigation of Tilton was not only a personal vendetta but an attempt to get Anthony a national forum. One of the key members involved in the Tilton investigation now says he is ashamed of it and believes that much of it was not true.

Tilton lost a libel suit against Anthony, Trinity and ABC; it's difficult for a public figure to win such a case. Though back on the air, he hasn't managed to rebuild his reputation or ministry to its former heights.

But an examination of thousands of pages of court documents in lawsuits triggered by the ABC exposé shows numerous misrepresentations by Anthony and his cohorts at ABC, who employed deceptive journalistic techniques that ended up embarrassing Diane Sawyer. Tilton's lawyers proved that the prayer requests discovered by Trinity could not have been found as claimed: Thus, the most memorable part of the Primetime Live story was bogus.

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