Less than 24 hours after he was fired from the pulpit of the evangelical megachurch he founded, the Rev Ted Haggard confessed to his followers Sunday that he was guilty of sexual immorality.
In a letter that was read to the congregation of the New Life Church by another clergyman, Haggard apologized for his acts and requested forgiveness.
"I am so sorry for the circumstances that have caused shame and embarrassment for all of you," he said, adding that he had confused the situation by giving inconsistent remarks to reporters denying the scandal.
"The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality. And I take responsibility for the entire problem. I am a deceiver and a liar. There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life," he said. Click to read full letter
The church crisis erupted after a man claimed to have had drug-fueled homosexual trysts with him. Haggard was dismissed as senior pastor of the church on Saturday.
In his letter to congregants, Haggard said, "The accusations made against me are not all true but enough of them are that I was appropriately removed from his church leadership position."
He did not give details on which accusations were true but talked about a "dark side" of his life.
The letter was read to the church by the Rev. Larry Stockstill, senior pastor of Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, La., and a member of the board that fired Haggard. Read Haggard's letter
Before the letter was read, members of the congregation sang and cheered during their Sunday, singing refrain after refrain of "I will bless the lord at all times."
Youngsters were sent out of the room before elders began speaking about the church crisis.
As the letter from Haggard and another from his wife were read, some people in the standing-room only crowd in the 8,000-seat auditorium wiped away tears and put their arms around each other. Gayle Haggard promised to remain with her husband, and the audience laughed when she said they no longer had to worry about her marriage being so perfect she couldn't relate to them.
"Worshippers are always challenged by crisis. And when tragedy and crisis strikes it is at that moment that you truly decide if you are a worshipper of the most high god. And today as the worship pastor of this church I am very proud of you," said the Rev. Ross Parsley, who has replaced Haggard.
"I am so grateful for the government system in place here at this church. The speed with which things were dealt with this week has been a testimony to the godliness, to the integrity and authority of the overseers of the board of this church," he said.
"Our church policy is something that makes us safe and secure," Parsley added.
Haggard had resigned two days earlier as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, where he held sway in Washington and condemned homosexuality, after a man claimed to have had drug-fueled trysts with him. He also placed himself on administrative leave from the New Life Church, which has 14,000 members, but its independent Overseer Board took the stronger action Saturday.
"We, the Overseer Board of New Life Church, have concluded our deliberations concerning the moral failings of Pastor Ted Haggard," a statement from the church said. "Our investigation and Pastor Haggard's public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct," the statement issued Saturday said. Read the full statement
The board said Haggard agreed with the decision and that the search for a replacement would begin immediately.
Mike Jones, describing himself as a gay escort, told news media this week that Haggard, who also has resigned as president of the influential National Association of Evangelicals, had been paying him for sex for three years.
Haggard, 50, immediately denied the allegations, but later acknowledged having paid the man for a massage and to provide methamphetamine.
The church statement said the investigation would continue to determine how extensive Haggard's misconduct was.
The Rev. Ross Parsley will lead the church pending the selection of a replacement for Haggard, which will be completed by the end of the year. A letter explaining Haggard's removal and an apology from Haggard will be read at Sunday services.
"The language of our church bylaws state that as overseers we must decide in cases where the senior pastor has demonstrated immoral conduct whether we must remove the pastor from his position or discipline him in anyway we deem necessary," the statement said.
"In consultation with leading evangelical and experts familiar with the type of behavior Pastor Haggard has demonstrated, we have decided that the most positive and productive direction for our church is his dismissal and removal."
A church elder, James Groesbeck, said he was glad the investigative board acted quickly.
"I'm saddened by what came out, but I think they've done their job," Groesbeck said by telephone. He said right now, church members are drawing strength from each other and are caught up in the activity, but that likely will change. "I think it's going to be really difficult in a week or two," Groesbeck said.
At least one national evangelical leader saw the confession as a possible opening for better relations between gay activists and evangelicals. "There is something good, believe it or not, that could come out of this. My hope and prayer is that this whole tawdry affair will lessen some of the vitriol that has gone on between gay rights activists and evangelicals," said Rich Cizik, vice president of the NEA.
"I had always expected him to do the right thing. God bless him," Cizik added.
Ryan Price and his finance, Karen Geyer, of Colorado Springs, also were impressed. "It seemed genuine -- from the heart. It's unfortunate but it happens," said Geyer. "He's reaching out and asking for forgiveness," said Price.
Jessa Schreiber, a Christian therapist from Hamilton, Ohio, who also attended the service, said the timing was good because the whole world was watching because of the Tuesday elections. "I think God ordained this time to show the love of Christians for one another and above all his love for us and the need for the savior," she said.
Haggard started New Life Church with meetings in his unfinished basement 20 years ago.
Jones, 49, stunned the evangelical Christian community this week by claiming Haggard paid him for drug-fueled sex for three years at his Denver apartment. Jones, who said he is gay, said he was upset when he discovered Haggard and the New Life Church had publicly opposed same-sex marriage, a key issue in Colorado with a pair of issues on Tuesday's ballot.
"It made me angry that here's someone preaching about gay marriage and going behind the scenes having gay sex," Jones said.
Jones also said Haggard snorted methamphetamine before their sexual encounters to heighten his experience.
Haggard told reporters he bought meth but threw it away; he said he received a massage from Jones after being referred to him by a Denver hotel. Jones said he only advertised in gay newspapers and on the Internet and no reputable hotel would have referred massage work to him.
Jones said the relationship began when a man identifying himself as "Art" -- who said he was a married man from Kansas City, Missouri -- sought his services. He said he didn't know "Art" as Haggard until he saw him recently on The History Channel and learned about his religious background.
"It was not emotional. It was physical, just strictly physical," Jones said.
Jones said he has voice mail messages from Haggard, as well as an envelope he said Haggard used to mail him cash.
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