Televangelists settle $40 million plagiarism suit

Sum undisclosed in case brought by author who claimed TBN movie 'The Omega Code' was based on her book.

The Orange County Register/January 1, 2002
By Teri Sforza

The $40 million fight over the true genesis of end-times thriller "The Omega Code" has reached an end time of its own.

Orange County-based televangelists Jan and Paul Crouch have settled the plagiarism lawsuit filed against them by West Virginia minister Sylvia Fleener, who alleged that the Crouches stole liberally from Fleener's 1997 doomsday novel, "The Omega Syndrome," for their successful 1999 film, "The Omega Code."

The terms of the settlement are confidential, but Fleener is pleased, her attorney said.

"Even though they didn't copy word for word, and it isn't the same exact story, things are very, very close -- so close that experts said this couldn't have happened by chance," said Fleener's attorney, Daniel J. Quisenberry.

A trial was slated to begin Wednesday. In settling the case, the Crouches did not admit wrongdoing. Calls seeking comment from the Crouches, their attorneys, their Trinity Broadcasting Network and their son's production company, which produced the film, were not returned.

When the suit was filed in July 2000, Crouch attorney Colby May said, "Be clear that 'The Omega Code' was an original work, which Trinity had separately commissioned.

Challenging the independent development of 'The Omega Code' is flat wrong." Both works are based on the Bible and the Book of Revelation, which describes a fiery end of the world, and set them in "a millennial tale of international intrigue."

Fleener, a devout Christian who said she frequently contributed money to the Trinity Broadcasting Network over the years, started working on her apocalyptic "The Omega Syndrome" in 1978.

She updated Revelation with a powerful antihero who lives in a luxurious, art-filled estate in Rome, speaks multiple languages, pushes a one-world-government, one- world-religion agenda and ends up being the anti-Christ. Her hero, orphaned young when both parents were killed in a drunken-driving accident, starts out admiring the antihero and winds up in jail.

Fleener sent copies of her manuscript to the Crouches through friends and acquaintances between 1994 and 1996, the suit says.

Fleener copyrighted her book in 1996, and it was published by Hope Manor Publishing in 1997. She never heard back from the Crouches, she said. In 1999, Fleener was curious about the title of the movie "The Omega Code," which was produced by the Crouches' son, Matthew, and TBN. The suit says she went to see it and was aghast at the similarities: She saw her anti-hero, living in a luxurious, art-filled estate in Rome and speaking multiple languages. She saw her hero losing both parents in a drunken-driving accident, initially admiring the anti-hero and winding up in jail.

There were many more similarities involving other characters, plot elements and publicity artwork, the suit contends.

The Crouches' film was shot on a budget of about $8 million and generated more than $13 million at theaters, making it the third-highest grossing independent film of 1999. More than 1 million "Omega Code" videos have been sold.

The Crouches launched TBN in rented studios in Santa Ana in 1973 and have shaped it into a $100 million- a-year enterprise. They live in a $5 million ocean-view home in Newport Beach and run the world's largest Christian television network, which TBN says is carried on more than 2,500 television stations, 17 satellites, the Internet and thousands of cable systems around the world. Its multimillion-dollar headquarters is located alongside the San Diego (I-405) Freeway in Costa Mesa.

TBN and Matt Crouch's company, Gener8Xion Entertainment, released an apocalyptic sequel, "Megiddo: The Omega Code 2," shortly after the events of Sept. 11, even as the rest of Hollywood was holding back tales of destruction. Fleener's background is in business, and she said she's worked in oil, gas, real estate, land development, management, promotions and advertising.

She helps preserve historically significant structures in her home state and hopes to complete a second Bible- based novel. Fleener has an auto-immune disease known as systemic scleroderma, or hardening of the skin, and is very ill. She wanted to see justice done, her attorney said.

"There's some question whether she would have made it through a whole trial," said Quisenberry.

Register news researcher Gayle Carter contributed to this report.

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