Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tales from Todd

[The third story in The Report newsmagazine on Todd Bentley. From the October 7,2002 issue, pages 56-57]

Tales from Todd

A B.C. evangelist continues to struggle with explanations about his criminal past

By Rick Hiebert

Christian preacher Todd Bentley has always had the gift of gab. “When I was born again, I had nothing. I didn’t have one natural gift but speaking,” he says in a sermon audio tape he sells as part of a three-tape, $15 package. His speaking talent has rocketed the 26-year-old B.C. man into international prominence as an evangelist and faith-healer. But the charismatic preacher’s easy way with words has also led to questions about his like of forthrightness when he talks of his youthful criminal record.

Mr. Bentley’s past is well known to readers of The Report. In an interview for a March 2001 story on his growing ministry, the Abbotsford resident white-washed his pre-Christian “bad-body” days, saying he was imprisoned for “crimes of an assault nature.” The whole truth, as explained in a follow-up article a month later, is that Mr. Bentley was convicted at the age of 15, in March 1991, of sexually molesting a seven-year old boy the previous October. ‘They were sexual crimes,” Mr. Bentley eventually admitted to The Report, waiving his right to anonymity as a young offender. ‘I was involved in a sexual-assault ring. I turned around and did what happened to me. I was assaulted too.”

He continued. “I don’t like to talk about it in public because it would hurt [my ministry]. I don’t whip it out in the newspapers or on TV because people will go, ‘Whaaa?’ I’ll say ‘I was in prison, period. Let’s move on.’” Summing up his earlier interview with the magazine, Mr. Bentley admitted, “I beat around the bush and was evasive with you.”

He did it again last month, this time with the magazine Charisma, a U.S. based publication whose 200,000-plus circulation makes it North America’s biggest charismatic Christian magazine. Inside its September 2002 issue is a full-page ad bought by Mr. Bentley’s ministry and seven pages of editorial contest devoted to the “impish-looking” evangelist. Near the end of the main article is this sentence: “By the time he was 14, he was behind bars, arrested for assault.”

The author of the story is freelancer Gail Wood of Olympia, Washington. Mr. Wood tells The Report that, in reporting the story, he was naturally curious to get the details of Mr. Bentley’s imprisonment. ‘I know a little bit,” he says. ‘Todd asked me not to mention it [in the article] because he didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. I didn’t think it was pertinent.”

But what facts had Mr. Wood withheld on Mr. Bentley’s behalf? “He told me that he had hit his [now-deceased] mother, who was deaf, and that was the reason he was put in jail,” Mr. Wood declares. Mr. Bentley did not mention this alleged assault to The Report last year. When informed of Mr. Bentley’s earlier admission to The Report of a sex crime, Mr. Wood responds “I am totally surprised.”

Mr. Bentley refused requests for an interview to answer questions about why he withheld information from Mr. Wood. However, an unnamed official at Fresh Fire Ministries, Mr. Bentley’s business, said in a September 17 e-mail, “Mr. Bentley generalized his past criminal behavior and upfront told Mr. Wood there were some things he would not publicly talk about. Todd never stated what he was in prison for. He only made reference to doing prison time.” The e-mail continues “It was a misprint in Charisma that Todd was in prison for assault along with two other misprints.” The communication did not specify what other errors the story may have contained.

The e-mail message continues, “Todd does not want to be misleading but at the same time does not feel the need to publicly bring up an over twelve year old juvenile record.”

Nevertheless, Courtenay B.C. sexual abuse expert Linda Halliday-Sumner says Mr. Bentley should be more open about his conviction, especially since he is playing on his criminal record as a way of gaining credibility as a reformed law-breaker. “He’s contravening everything that the treatment tells you to do,” she says. “The sex-offender programs stress that you must let people know that you are a child molester or a sex offender, especially if you are asked a direct question such as ‘Why were you imprisoned?’ That’s the only way that you are going to stop it from continuing, stop putting people at risk.” At the very least, she says, Mr. Bentley should tell the pastors and elders of churches that he ministers in about his offense, to prevent legal liability problems.

Mrs. Halliday-Sumner believes Mr. Bentley tried to manipulate his past for his own benefit, and now it has backfired. “there was no reason in the beginning to tell anyone that he had been in prison [for any matter], as [his young-offender record] was sealed,” she points out. “He knows it’s advantageous to him to bring up the jail thing because otherwise how does he become a ‘good evangelist’ if he’s never experienced any rough times? Say his biggest problem has been not getting the car for the prom, people are going to look at him and say ‘What do you know about life?’ So he has to tell this story.”

Follow the money [sidebar story]

While Todd Bentley’s less-than-forthright approach to his criminal record has cast a shadow over his ministry, it was his apparent truthfulness on a related matter that has sparked a probe by the B.C. Ministry of Human Resources.

In one of his audio tapes, Mr. Bentley tells a sermon audience that, as a teen, he collected welfare while also working. “By the time I was 17 years old, I had two jobs and I was collecting welfare so that I could support my drug habit,” Mr. Bentley says. “It’s not that I didn’t want to work. It was that I wanted to more money for drugs.” Mr. Bentley goes on to say that he was delivered instantly from drug addictions immediately upon conversion, which happened around the time he turned 18.

If his admission is true, his actions appear to constitute a case of welfare fraud. He does not say on the tape whether he confessed the apparent fraud to authorities, or whether he repaid the money. However, in answer to questions raised by The Report, an unnamed official at Fresh Fire Ministries said in an e-mail, “Our only statement about the provincial government money is: yes, Mr. Bentley had made full repayment. Fresh Fire has no further comment.”

The message did not say when Mr. Bentley had repaid the money, or how much it totaled. It seems clear, however, that he now has the financial resources to repay old debts. He drives a three year old van, and his family lives ina three bedroom house. Mr. Bentley employs 18 workers, and he says his ministry sells between 10,000 and 30,000 “tapes” a month. If those are all audio tapes (which sell for $5 apiece), his business would gross, at worst $50,000 a month. If, on the other hand, they are all videotapes (which sell for $15), sales would reach at best, $450,000 a month.

Earlier, the B.C. Ministry of Human Resources had said it would investigate Mr. Bentley’s fraud admission. “We take these case very seriously, because they take funds from those who really need it,” media spokesman mike Long said. If found guilty of welfare fraud under $5,000, Mr. Bentley could have been sentenced to up to two years in prison. If the fraud totaled more than $5,000, the penalty is up to 10 years in jail.