TBN Supports Abusive Leader's Attack Against Christians

The Christian Sentinel, 1995
By Bill and Jackie Alnor

Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) founder Paul Crouch had some strange advice for the leader of a cult-like group he had as a guest on his show in October 1994. "Sue the bastards!" Crouch instructed on his prime time Praise the Lord show.

Crouch was giving his blessing to what pastor Phil Aguilar eventually did. Aguilar, leader of the notorious and scandalized Set Free Christian Fellowship, filed a frivolous lawsuit against Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Calvary Chapel of Lake Elsinore and others for libel and defamation on February 8, 1995 in the Superior Court of Orange County, California . The attorney filing the suit? The nephew of Jan Crouch, Paul Crouch's wife.

According to the Praise the Lord show (which marked the first time Crouch had Aguilar on the telecast after a long absence), Crouch and Aguilar were upset over community opposition to Aguilar's recent bid to establish a headquarters in the Lake Elsinore section of California. They were reading from flyers passed out to the community, one of which said in part:

We, the undersigned ministers of the community, feel it is our responsibility to express our concern to the public regarding what we believe to be a potentially dangerous threat to all of those in the area, and especially the youth....we believe it is necessary to make the public aware of some of the accusations...against Phil Aguilar and "Set Free." These allegations include sexual misconduct and adultery within the leadership, financial improprieties, and a form of control over the members that is very abusive, physically as well as emotionally and spiritually.

But Paul Crouch said that anyone putting out such materials were obviously not Christian, so therefore Aguilar had the right to sue them all. Those signing the flyer, and/or follow up ones, Crouch declared them all unchristian (although he never contacted any of them). These people were the previously mentioned churches, along with the pastors of the following churches in the Lake Elsinore area: the First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, Lakeland Christian Fellowship, Lake Elsinore Church of the Nazarene, Elsinore Christian Center, New Song Community Church, Shepherd of Life Lutheran Church, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, Grace Church, Calvary Chapel of Canyon Lake, Calvary Chapel of Murietta, Calvary Chapel of Temecula, and Free Indeed Christian Fellowship in Perris, Calif.

"I have been disturbed by a bunch of , oh, I'm just gonna say it," Crouch said, reviewing the flyers passed out to the community, "a bunch of crap." Later he barked, "Go ahead and tape it. Put it on your slime-ball radio broadcast. You'll have to pray it through Pastor Phil, but this old German, I'd say sue the bastards!"

It is a mystery at this point why TBN continues to protect Aguilar. Not only have there been scathing stories against Set Free in the Orange County Register, Christianity Today and Newsweek magazines (not to mention several exposes written by Eastern Christian Outreach president Bill Alnor for the Religious News Service), but a large portion of Dr. Ron Enroth's book "Churches that Abuse" is devoted to Set Free. And there have been television exposes as well in such shows as "Inside Edition," not to mention dozens of transcribed testimonies from former Set-Free members that have been distributed to church leaders nation wide.

In fact, Aguilar and TBN themselves were sued in February 1992 by the parents of an 18-year-old man who alleged that Mario Ruiz, a Set Free overseer appointed by Aguilar, made their son perform sex acts in exchange for crack cocaine while they were living on TBN-owned property in Coleyville, Texas (which is also the site of the Crouch's country estate). That suit accused Set free and TBN of fraud, negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

At the time Crouch declared TBN's innocence, called it extortion and announced that the plaintiffs would not receive a dime. But in fact, TBN's attorneys reached a secret out-of-court settlement with the plaintiffs. While the Christian Sentinel has learned that the amount paid out by TBN was a half million dollars, TBN and the plaintiff's attorney would not confirm that.

And it was Aguilar who helped get TBN into big trouble with the Federal Communications Commission. (See related story).

Also named as individuals in Aguilar's recent suit are Oden Fong who is a church leader and outreach fellowships director at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, John Duncan, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel of Lake Elsinore, and Set Free ex-members Steve Schinhofen and Eileen Jackson. In the opinion of Eastern Christian Outreach all these individuals courageously fought this dangerous group, and they deserve our support.

A defense fund has been established on behalf of the two ex-Set Free members.

The current dispute came into focus when the "gang-banging" ministry [Set Free] tried to "invade" (using Set Free's terms) the Lake Elsinore, California area, and were met by opposition. Aguilar was attempting to set up shop in their town after his main church in Anaheim, Calif. was dismantled amid accusations of pastoral and physical abuse as well as sexual misconduct on the part of some of Set Free's high ranking officers. Thanks to the community efforts led by Duncan, Set Free abandoned efforts to invade Lake Elsinore and at press time Aguilar was trying to make a come-back in Orange County.

What is "Set Free" all about? Sometimes called "the biker church," Set Free used to be a rapidly growing religious movement that spun off a number of affiliated churches. Aguilar's testimony was a key to the church's growth. He was a former child molester and drug abuser who spent some time in prison for these offenses who allegedly found the Lord while in jail. Following his release he became involved in church work and founded Set Free with a specific goal of reaching the homeless, gang members, bikers, drug abusers, prostitutes, and other so-called throwaway members of society. Services often consisted of "rap music" and dancing, or secular music interspersed with Christian lyrics, along with a time of preaching. Many members at one time were living communally, sometimes in TBN-owned homes in Anaheim.

The sect began to unravel in 1991 after Christian Sentinel publisher Bill Alnor and cult expert/author Dr. Ron Enroth began seriously looking into multiple accounts of wrongdoing and abuse leveled at his flock by Aguilar and other Set Free leaders. They were aided by Fong, whose staff was well into an investigation of Aguilar's church, and had taken biblical steps to confront Aguilar. Not only were these attempts to no avail, but Fong and his staff who had patiently counseled many ex-Set Free members, found themselves the targets of merciless attacks, smear campaigns, and threats coming from Aguilar's church (that were sometimes directed personally by Aguilar or his secretary, Lois Trader.) At one point more than 100 members of Set Free showed up at Fong's Bible study at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, which had an intimidating effect on some of the worshippers.

The City of Anaheim eventually forced Set Free out of town.

A continuing accusation against Set Free is that the group deliberately teaches "shepherding" -- strict obedience (cult-like control) to Aguilar, along with a lethal dose of an absence of holiness and biblical accountability to its members. Aguilar, for example, continues to promote the gang lifestyle with Jesus tacked on as he shows off his latest "Christian" tattoos. Area pastors who have counseled some ex-Set Free members have reported that some of them are living together outside of marriage and when told it was unbiblical were completely surprised not having heard that before. Perhaps that is why Set Free runs into so much trouble when sanctification is not emphasized.

Despite the lurid headlines of the past several four years, Aguilar's lawsuit describes the former convict as a "well-respected minister," and claims that statements made by the defendants on local television and written on posters that were distributed, caused Aguilar to suffer "humiliation, mental anguish and emotional and physical distress." It also claims that he "experienced sleepless nights, cannot function in a normal day to day capacity, has nervousness, as well as other physical symptoms."

In a recent interview with Aguilar's attorney, John B. Casoria, he said that his client was justified in suing other pastors.

"They [Set Free] have tried to resolve this matter informally for the past three years," Casoria said. "My client felt this was over with [the Matthew 18 process]. We tried to resolve this matter by letter back in November 1994, but it was ignored. We waited 90 days before filing action because we never heard back from them."

He explained that back in 1991 Aguilar attempted through Christian Conciliation Service (CCS) to resolve the dispute with Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa and Oden Fong but that his efforts were ignored.

But Casoria was dead wrong with these statements. The November letter from the Crouch's nephew was a demand to Oden Fong of Calvary Chapel to turn over all documentation they had in file regarding Set Free. It was not, according to Fong's office, an attempt at dialoguing or making peace. And, the invitation to reconcile differences back in 1991 through CCS was spurned by Fong and others addressed at that time which included Churches that Abuse author Ronald Enroth and the Christian Sentinel's own Bill Alnor because Aguilar continued to ignore (and still does to this day) the fact that the principal parties in the dispute are Set Free's ex-members, not writers and pastors who have been contacted by the ex-members to talk about how they were allegedly abused by Aguilar. Dr. Enroth told the CCS in a letter that he didn't have problems or differences to reconcile with Set Free and he suggested that the ex Set Free members should work out their differences with Set Free through CCS. That was also Bill Alnor's position. By the way, the CCS (which is really a fine organization), instructed Alnor and Enroth to pay them $250 (which they did not).

It appeared to all those involved then and now that Aguilar is not interested in making things right with those he has hurt but is only interested in silencing those who disseminate the information supplied by Set Free's spiritually abused victims. That is why two of the ex-members are being sued although no serious attempt at making peace with them or the dozens of others who have spoken out was ever made by Set Free.

Set Free and TBN are using this lawsuit to intimidate the plaintiffs into silence. It is a harassment suit. Since they have no plans to see it come to court, the whole scheme will backfire on them. Plans are already underway to file a counter-suit which will not be easily dismissed and they could lose more in this case than they did in the Texas incident. If cult experts and ex-Set Free members are called on to testify, not only will a scandal against the church and TBN result, but any doubt as to Aguilar's lack of qualifications as a pastor will be completely eradicated.

Historically, TBN has always been the power-base for Set Free's activities. Besides providing Aguilar with homes and television exposure (even giving Aguilar his own television show, called "24/7" that fizzled several years ago following intense media scrutiny of Aguilar), TBN's attorney Norman Juggert, has written intimidating letters on Set Free's behalf to various ex-members. In 1991 Juggert's office threatened the parents of Geronimo Aguilar's wife, Stacee, with legal action if they attempted to contact their daughter ever again. (Geronimo is the son of Phil Aguilar.)

"Do not contact her," Juggert's July 10 letter read, "or her husband or children...or attempt[ing] to observe them personally." Stacee later verified that it was Phil Aguilar who had forbidden her from seeing her own parents or allowing them to visit their two grandchildren because they were outspoken about Set Free. Interestingly, after she divorced Aguilar's son after she said she caught him in the act of adultery with a minor, she renamed her children who had been given unusual names at the time of their births by their controlling grandfather, "Pastor Phil."

Ironically, on the October 1994 broadcast of Praise the Lord Aguilar did admit that he was not squeaky clean, but that these people should just forgive him even if he never apologized for specifics. He said that even a dog will lick its owner after being kicked and that kind of Christianity, "dog-Christianity" is what he expects from these ex-members. So he revealed his attitude toward other Christians. They are like dogs to him and he should be free to kick them and abuse them without consequence.

Crouch lamented that he tried to help Aguilar resolve the problem by asking Calvary leader Chuck Smith to intervene. "There's some folks over at Calvary Chapel that should clean their acts up too," He said. "I got Pastor Chuck Smith and Pastor Phil Aguilar together and they had a beautiful time of prayer...I thought everything was just settled and peace had been reached there but apparently it had not...But I tell you, and you know who you are, you better watch it! You're treading on dangerous spiritual ground!"

Crouch was wrong with his account of events, and Chuck Smith knew it. He removed his Calvary Chapel program from TBN, which was a good move considering all the false teachers regularly on the network.

What did Paul Crouch say about using coarse language on his Christian network following a firestorm of criticism? In February Crouch admitted to losing his temper during the October program with Aguilar and gave a cloaked apology if he offended anybody. Aguilar made no mention of filing a lawsuit and gave the impression that he was at peace with all his enemies and was excited about a proposed joint ministry effort involving TBN regular Tommy Barnett of Phoenix, something requiring the ability to function on a day to day basis.


Editor's note: If you were outraged by Paul Crouch's language reported in this story, or over the way he and his wife, Jan, continue to support this dangerous religious leader, write Paul Crouch at his home address. It's Paul and Jan Crouch, 1973 Port Chelsea Place, Newport Beach, CA 92660.

Parents of Young Children: would you invite 40 Bikers to a Slumber Party?

Jan Crouch, who calls Phil Aguilar, "the closest thing to Jesus" she ever saw, and who declared several years ago that those who didn't give money to Set Free were going to Hell, also defended Aguilar during the October 1994 show.

She claimed that the Lake Elsinore pastors were not trying to minister to the needy and down and outers in that region.

"Have you, pastor, that's criticized this man," Crouch asked, addressing the Christian leaders who have challenged Aguilar, "taken 40 Hell's Angels and let them sleep in your home with your children in that home asleep?"

There are two obvious problems with that rebuke. First, it would be a case of child endangerment and neglect to put one's children in that sort of jeopardy, and second, Pastor John Duncan of Calvary Chapel of Lake Elsinore has taken people off the streets and allowed them to stay in his home before he had any children and his church continues to minister to the unlovely of Lake Elsinore society.


To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.