Seventeen years after a federal court ruled that his church used undue influence to obtain more than $6 million from a donor, a Baltimore-based evangelist faces a new controversy in a different venue - the Internet.
In recent months, former and current members of Baltimore's Greater Grace World Outreach have used an Internet bulletin board to air criticism and charges against the church's leadership and its aging founder, Pastor Carl H. Stevens Jr.
The bulletin board, which has drawn more than 3,100 postings from as far away as India and Argentina, is among hundreds of Internet sites set up by dissident former church members to discredit or reform religious groups founded in recent decades, scholars say.
Jean-Francois Mayer, author of six books on new religious movements, said the Web sites have made it increasingly difficult for leaders to quiet internal critics or control their public image. "Damage control is made nearly impossible," he said.
In the case of Greater Grace, critics have accused church leaders of paying off an angry husband to cover up an adulterous affair by a prominent clergy member. Bulletin board participants also say that Stevens, 74, has suffered in the past year from an addiction to prescription pain-killers that at times, they say, affected his ability to preach.
"Gait problems, slurred speech, increased confusion, short-term memory loss, thoughts and stories focused on the long ago past," wrote Jeannie Byrne, who joined Stevens' ministry in the 1970s, listing symptoms she said she had observed. "This was very apparent to even the congregation."
In a sign that Greater Grace is concerned about the Internet site, Stevens recently acknowledged on his weekday radio program, The Grace Hour, that he had taken pain medication but insisted he had not abused it.
"I had 10 pills since last October by an internist when I had phenomenal pain in my disc and hips," said Stevens, whose Sunday morning services draw as many as 2,000 people to his church in the old Frankford Plaza shopping center on the city's eastern edge.
Church leaders did not directly address the charge that Greater Grace paid off a husband after he posted a lengthy account on the Internet in 1999 detailing an affair between his wife and a clergy member.
Instead, Pastor Michael E. Marr, a Baltimore attorney who serves as the church's director of public relations, read the following statement:
"The parties agreed if they were asked about this particular matter or any related matter that they shall decline to answer and respond only that: 'The matter has been satisfactorily resolved in the interest of all parties, in the spirit of Jesus Christ and that no controversy exists between the parties.'"
"I believe you will find that that matter was removed from the Internet," added Marr, who is also an elder in the church. "That is a powerful statement that one should draw a very favorable inference from."
Marr insisted, "No money has ever been used to buy people's silence, period!"
Stevens declined to speak for this article, according to Marr.
In recent years, critics have taken advantage of the freedom, low cost and anonymity of the Internet to target many groups, among them the Church of Scientology, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.
Mayer, a lecturer in religious studies at Switzerland's University of Fribourg, estimates that hundreds of critical Web sites in various languages have emerged since the late 1990s to press for greater openness and accountability from religious groups.
"The Internet is creating an increasing pressure for transparency," said Mayer, in a phone interview from Geneva. "Any group getting in trouble won't be able to escape by just moving physically, and leaders of groups will realize it more and more."
The Internet debate over Greater Grace began with an anonymous posting in September 2002 on FACTnet, a Web site that says it is designed "to promote independent investigation and public debate ... on cult and mind control issues."
What began as a trickle of postings turned into a torrent this spring after someone mailed 600 postcards to current and former Greater Grace members telling them about the forum. In early postings, people criticized the ministry and called for reform.
"It seems that many people who have attended GGWO [Greater Grace World Outreach] have been paralyzed in the area of critical thinking when it comes to the church," wrote Chris Brown of Parkville, who joined Stevens' ministry in 1975 in Maine and quit a year and a half ago.
"I remember the difficult time I had just thinking certain thoughts that were 'forbidden' because they didn't go along with [the] church. We had been taught not to question anything, not to think, and to receive everything from the pulpit as from God."
In recent weeks, some Greater Grace supporters have returned fire. Pastor R.W. Wood, who runs a Greater Grace mission church in Argentina, wrote April 30:
"I finally figured out what this forum is all about. It's about people who got their feelings hurt or their toes stepped on in one way or another, and now [they are] looking for someone to blame it on.
"You say, we're not interested in silencing Pastor, yet speak about 'bringing him down.' Has it entered your mind that some child in West Baltimore might not have the opportunity to hear that God loves him as a result or that a struggling pastor in Africa or South America may not receive a tape or booklet that has the ability to turn his whole church around?"
Marr dismissed many of the postings on the Greater Grace bulletin board - at http://www.factnet.org/discus/messages/3/3.html - as "anonymous nonsense."
Asked what he thought was driving the Web site, Marr mentioned two couples who have identified themselves and who, he said, are unhappy with the ministry for personal reasons.
Marr added that the church is concerned about any members it might have caused pain.
"If there are people who are hurting, we are going to go reach them," he said.
The sheer number of postings suggests that the forum has struck a nerve. On a typical day, the site logs 75 messages, pro and con.
Carl Stevens and his ministry have had that kind of polarizing effect in the past.
Stevens, a former appliance salesman and bakery truck driver, originally founded his church as "The Bible Speaks" in Maine in 1973. According to The Bible Speaks Book of Miracles, an official church publication, God called Stevens into the woods near a lake one day.
"There the Lord Jesus baptized him with what Pastor describes as liquid waves of love," a copy of the book says. "First and foremost, God promised an anointing upon every message he would preach from then on."
By the 1980s, the church had moved to Massachusetts and drawn criticism. Members said Stevens insisted they submit to him personally as "God's man," according to a 1983 report by the Christian Research Institute (CRI), a California-based evangelical study group. Stevens' teachings also led some members to fear divine retribution for leaving the ministry or criticizing him, the report said.
"There are currents within the organization that are quite orthodox and evangelical, and there are other currents that have definite cultic tendencies," the CRI said.
In 1987, Elizabeth Dovydenas, heir to the Dayton Hudson retail chain fortune, won a $6.5 million lawsuit against the church. A federal judge found that The Bible Speaks had used undue influence and misled Dovydenas into believing that her donations had special powers.
In one instance, according to court documents, Stevens encouraged her belief that donating $5 million would help free a church minister held in Romania who had already been released.
U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge James F. Queenan Jr. ordered the church to return the money. He said the case "revealed an astonishing saga of clerical deceit, avarice and subjugation on the part of the church's founder."
The judgment was reduced to $5.5 million on appeal.
Marr, who said he read transcripts of the proceedings, blamed the defeat on poor lawyering. He said the church's attorney failed to properly defend Stevens against multiple charges of undue influence.
"He was hung out to dry," Marr said of Stevens.
Move to Baltimore
After The Bible Speaks declared bankruptcy, Stevens moved to the Baltimore area with hundreds of followers and started another ministry with the same teachings under a new name, Greater Grace World Outreach. Since then, Greater Grace has managed to keep a low profile while rebuilding.
Today, Greater Grace operates out of a former strip shopping center just off Interstate 895. Services, which feature a 12-piece band and rousing musical numbers, are held in a sprawling space once occupied by a supermarket and broadcast live on the Internet.
The shopping center, now sheathed in gray metal siding, is also home to Greater Grace's other ventures, including the Maryland Bible College & Seminary, which has 350 to 400 students, and the Greater Grace Christian Academy, a pre-kindergarten to 12th grade school that is located in the basement and has 425 students, according to Marr.
Since Stevens' arrival in the late 1980s, Marr says, Greater Grace has developed 145 community initiatives, including a program that sends 400 volunteers each Saturday into the homes of poor families to teach children about God.
All told, Greater Grace now claims more than 50 affiliated churches nationally, hundreds overseas and at least 20,000 members worldwide, according to Marr.
Why so many appear so willing to follow Stevens and his teachings is not immediately obvious. Stevens certainly preaches an attractive message: Belief in Christ guarantees eternal life and all sins - past, present and future - are already paid for by Christ's crucifixion.
He is not, however, charismatic in any conventional sense.
Wearing a dark suit and a blond toupee, he moves gingerly about the church's carpeted stage, speaking in a flat, nasal accent from his native Maine.
"You got that?" he says to punctuate points.
On a recent Sunday, Stevens appeared in full control, speaking about the importance of unconditional love and citing Scripture off the top of his head. The sermon, though, seemed repetitive and intellectually thin.
Nonetheless, the audience appeared enthusiastic. Scores of members took down his words on note pads, even a laptop computer. At the end, they showered Stevens with a standing ovation.
After the service, many spoke of "Pastor" - as he is universally called - with great reverence. Bruce E. Johnson joined Stevens' ministry in 1975 and came here in the early 1990s to attend Bible college. He says Stevens shows people how to live a pure life and dislikes adulation.
"Before God, I think he's the most humble man I've ever met," said Johnson, 52, who runs a home improvement company. Like other members, Johnson said he refuses to read the Internet bulletin board.
"Why would I want to poison my heart with negative thoughts about a person I view as my father?" Johnson said.
It is difficult to gauge what impact the bulletin board will have on Greater Grace. Marr, however, predicts the church will come out of this controversy stronger than ever.
"There is going to be a furthering of the Gospel as a result of this type of criticism," said Marr. Whenever a church such as Greater Grace "has been persecuted in church history," he said, "it grows."