God Only Knows What to Make of This Copyright Lawsuit

Los Angeles Times/December 17, 2001
Steve Lopez

When last we visited the Costa Mesa-based televangelists Jan and Paul Crouch, they were purchasing a $5-million Newport Beach estate in the name of Jesus, who lived like a pauper.

Now there's news on another front.

The colorful Crouches, who preside over those hair circus praise-a-thons on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, have been sued for $40 million in a battle over artistic interpretation of the end of time. They are indeed a gift from God, these people.

Also sued were the Crouches' son Matthew, TBN and a host of associates. The whole crew has a Jan. 2 trial date in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

The story goes like this:

A West Virginia Christian author named Sylvia Fleener, who is on her deathbed and wants justice served before she passes, says the Crouches seem to have forgotten one of the Ten Commandments. Namely, Thou Shalt Not Steal.

Fleener, who wrote a 1996 novel called "The Omega Syndrome," worked several connections in an attempt to get an early manuscript--encased in a white binder--into the hands of the Crouches. She was certain it would make a terrific film, but no one associated with Trinity ever got back to her.

Three years later, in 1999, she went to see a movie with a rather curious title. Produced by Matthew Crouch, with Papa Paul as executive producer, it was called "The Omega Code."

Despite getting panned, "The Omega Code" was one of the top 10 grossing films in its first weekend, thanks to true believers who flocked to theaters.

It was so successful that a $25-million sequel was released just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. At the time, Matthew Crouch suggested the timing was perhaps orchestrated from on high.

"God . . . positioned this film to be the answer for a question we didn't even know would be asked."

Perhaps so, but God unfortunately tanked as a film marketing and distribution Guy. The film went down in flames.

But forgive me, for I digress. Let's get back to the first movie. It's 1999, Sylvia Fleener is in the theater watching "The Omega Code," and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say she almost choked on her popcorn.

"I was literally devastated by the similarities," Fleener says in court records.

What made it all the more hurtful was that she had been a fan of the Crouches.

"I struggled to understand how this could have been done by those people, who had convinced me of their 'Christian' principles on their broadcasts."

Rebecca Holden of Nashville says her good friend Fleener has internal scleroderma. But despite her grim prognosis, Fleener wants to see her copyright infringement case through to the end.

"She wants [the Crouches] to be exposed, so people aren't duped by them," says Holden. "They're the ones who give Christians a bad name."

This is all utter nonsense, says Colby May, the Crouches' Washington, D.C., attorney.

"These works are so different, eschatology is the only thing that puts them in the same universe," he argues. "It's the story of the Second Coming of Christ, and a work-up to Armageddon itself."

If the works are indeed so different, you have to wonder why John Rawls, a TBN attorney in Los Angeles, had this to say on Friday:

"There have been some settlement discussions."

Why would TBN and the Crouches settle out of court with Fleener?

"Because we have a very good case, and they know it," says Daniel Quisenberry, Fleener's attorney.

A writer hired by Quisenberry read Fleener's "The Omega Syndrome," and then read a book called "The Omega Code," which was based on the movie and written by none other than Paul Crouch.

In court records, the man who compared the books says he was "convinced that there was copying between the works." He found striking similarities in characters, mood, pace and setting.

And then there's the smoking gun.

Kelly Whitmore, a former assistant to Jan Crouch, says in court records that she used to pack Jan's bags for trips. (If you've watched any of the TBN hootenannies, Jan is the one who makes Tammy Faye Bakker look like Plain Jane. One can only hope Jan's cosmetics bag had wheels).

Whitmore says that in the mid-1990s, Crouch requested that she pack a white binder that contained a manuscript Crouch referred to as the "End Times" movie project. It was a manuscript Whitmore now believes was a copy of Sylvia Fleener's "The Omega Syndrome."

Colby May calls Whitmore an ex-employee with an ax to grind. But if so, it's a pretty sharp ax.

"I recall Paul Crouch complaining about the title of the project several times," Whitmore says in court records, "and he would usually refer to it as 'The Omega' because he said he did not care for the working title, especially the word 'Syndrome.' "

I believe we're beginning to understand why settlement discussions are underway. But if settling means admitting sin, can the Crouches and their $100-million enterprise continue selling tickets to God's kingdom?

I believe God positioned this lawsuit to be the answer to that question. If we know nothing else, we know this, courtesy of the Crouches:

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

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