Benny Hinn has millions of believers and millions in donations NBC News Dec. 27, 2002 - Maybe you spotted him while you were channel surfing one night or maybe you were already tuned in. Either way, he's hard to ignore. Benny Hinn - televangelist, faith healer, and appointment viewing for millions of believers. His popularity and his wealth are matched only by the devotion he 's shown by his followers, many of them desperate for help. Their stories and his ministry play out almost every night in made-for-TV mini-dramas. But there are other stories, other scenes that reveal much more about Pastor Benny, caught on Dateline's hidden cameras. Correspondent Bob McKeown reports. HE ALWAYS ARRIVES onstage when they begin to sing the hymn, "How Great Thou Art." And whether you measure success in his TV ratings, attendance at his live services or crusades around the world, or the money he raises, he is unquestionably one of the most popular and successful televangelists in the world today. His television show is available around the globe. He attracts capacity crowds at arenas and stadiums at home and abroad. And scenes like this one in his TV studio are a big reason why: Benny Hinn: "Yes Lord. A lower back is being healed. Thank you Lord. Emphysema is being healed. We rebuke it in Jesus' name. Somebody's legs have just been healed." On television or at his crusades, Benny Hinn promises that wherever he goes, miraculous healing will follow. Benny Hinn: "In the name of Jesus, I rebuke the allergies out of you. Touch! - The glory of God is in the studio. We are having a visitation in the studio today as we have been taping these TV programs." Those miracles, Hinn says, can cure injury and illness - even terminal disease. Benny Hinn: "The healing may happen instantly, and may happen gradually but surely as God is God, your legs will work again, and your body will be healed again." And according to Benny Hinn, it gets even more miraculous than that. Benny Hinn: "On the program today, you are going to see a clip of this man who was raised from the dead." Those dramatic claims - and his dynamic preaching style - have attracted millions of devoted followers, like Carlotta Moore. "When I go to a crusade, I'm going because I need to be refreshed. I need to be renewed. I need to be revived in my spirit," says Carlotta Moore. Moore says she also watches Benny Hinn's TV show everyday. "The Bible speaks of spiritual fathers," says Moore. "That is my spiritual father. He's a leader. And he is a mentor." EVANGELIST AND FUNDRAISER And he is a master fund raiser as well, so along with that devotion comes money - a lot of it. Though pastor Benny denies it, estimates of total ministry revenue exceed $100 million a year. Benny Hinn insists his only mission is to preach the gospel, save souls, and heal the sick. But is there more than that to the man they call pastor Benny? "Dateline" looked at the ministry of pastor Benny Hinn, who claims miraculous power flows from God through him. We'll take a closer look at all his healings and at all the money that goes into his collection buckets. Hinn was born in the Middle East, raised in Canada, and modelled himself after a faith healer, the legendary Katherine Kuhlman. Hinn started a church in Orlando, almost two decades ago. By 1999, he'd left Florida, building his ministry's administrative headquarters in Dallas and his TV studio in southern California where he now lives. Hinn's claims of miracles have made him immensely popular, but those healings, combined with his ministry's enormous wealth, have also triggered scrutiny of a different kind. "I say he's in the business of raising money and spreading his own celebrity," says Ole Anthony, who heads the Trinity Foundation - a Christian watch-dog group that examines the workings of television ministries. The organization operates on donations, grants, and sales of its magazine and tapes. Ole Anthony himself has been highly critical of television preachers who don't divulge the details of how they raise and spend their money - especially Benny Hinn. "We've gotten most of the complaints lately from Benny's organization and Benny's followers," says Anthony. "That became our focus, we've been following him intently since 1993." "Dateline" asked the Trinity Foundation to provide access to, among other things, documents and videotape it's collected about the Hinn Ministry. We reimbursed the foundation for its costs. And we also went looking for some answers ourselves. For almost two years, "Dateline" sought permission to videotape Benny Hinn's crusades, to see how this affluent television ministry really works. Eventually we were allowed to bring our cameras to a crusade in Atlanta. But the ministry made it clear we were only permitted to tape the first hour or so. Then after Hinn's entrance, a few hymns and some saving of souls, we were told to stop. VIEW FROM A HIDDEN CAMERA So, in order to try to find out what really goes on behind the scenes of the Benny Hinn Ministry, we attended a number of other crusades and walked in right though the front door with everybody else. Only this time, the cameras were hidden. At least once a month, somewhere in the U.S, 50,000 or 60,000 people attend one of Benny Hinn's two-day crusades. Over the past two years, we followed pastor Benny around the country to Hampton, Virginia; Las Vegas; Buffalo, and a few cities in between. At each of the crusades we attended, the faithful began to arrive hours before the service. And so did we with our hidden cameras. But even when you get there early, the best sections are already taken - reserved for major donors, church VIPs and, at the back, for the disabled and those in wheelchairs. In Buffalo, we found our seats high up in the bleachers and we began recording the service in the middle of that noisy crowd with a hidden microphone and camera. What brings the faithful out to see Benny Hinn is the healing. The expectation that sometime tonight they're going to see, or perhaps even be - one of those people who arrive desperately ill and leave miraculously cured. What brings the faithful out to see Benny Hinn is the healing. The expectation that sometime tonight they're going to see, or perhaps even be - one of those people who arrive desperately ill and leave miraculously cured. The script - Benny Hinn's tried-and-true formula - was always the same. And it always started with the music. There's an orchestra, a heavenly host of local church choirs, and an all-star cast of Christian headliners. The crowd's emotional temperature seems to rise, as they anxiously wait for pastor Benny. "It's organized more closely than a political convention," says Ole Anthony, of the Trinity Foundation. "There's the repetitive music, there's the mood lighting, there's this whole arrangement of waiting and waiting and waiting until he comes on stage. The band is playing, "How Great Thou Art" and then the process starts." Once he arrives onstage, pastor Benny preaches, prays and spiritually tends his flock. Benny Hinn: "If you mean business with God, he means business with you." At a Benny Hinn crusade, you can't help but notice the faith of his followers and how much they appear to believe in him and his healing message. The impression one gets being among that crowd is that whatever's happening down there on the stage, however it may or may not be choreographed, these people have come because they truly believe. "There's no question that the people that are there have strong belief or a strong want-to-belief," says Anthony, "and so they respond." THE TENSION BUILDS In fact, all evening, throughout the arena, the tension keeps building because everyone here knows what's going to happen next. Benny Hinn: "There's power here, people. Lift your hands and receive it." According to pastor Benny, that "power" will soon lead to miracles: Benny Hinn: "By moving those legs that have been crippled for all those years." This is from a highlights tape we bought from the ministry's Web site. Benny Hinn: "You're tired of all the pills you've taken, and all the needles they put in your body and all the pain you felt. Well, I'm here to tell you, you will be healed tonight!" After the preaching, there's the passing of the collection buckets. And then comes the moment when Benny Hinn makes his much-anticipated announcement - God is speaking to him, he says, revealing a multitude of miracles, actual healings now taking place throughout the arena, some of them very specific. Benny Hinn: "There is a young man named George. George has HIV. But my brother George, the holy ghost is burning it out of your body!" At all of the evening crusades we attended, it was about 10 p.m. when Hinn announced God was speaking to him. Benny Hinn: "Another arthritis has been healed." Benny Hinn's ministry says that in order to verify the miraculous healings that have taken place, it screens those who claim they've been healed before they get up on stage. First, Hinn staff members talk to the people who get in line. This screener is even a doctor and he evidently thinks this woman is a good candidate to announce her healing up on the platform with pastor Benny. Doctor: "No pain? Great job. You couldn't do that before? (As she moves her head around.) That is neat. Yeah, take her up there." The people selected by the screeners are then introduced to Benny Hinn and the capacity crowd. Those who've been healed, and others who attend each service, are given a blessing by pastor Benny with his own personal touch. And whether he blows or flicks or waves his hand, the faithful are strewn across the floor like bowling pins. So what exactly is at work here? RELIGION OR HYPNOSIS? "They'd fall down," says Michael Cohen. "They'd fall backwards. He'd blow on them. They'd fall over. And I thought these were actors that came in and they paid them so much. And they had a string and they pulled them down." Even some who were skeptics at first soon became believers, like Michael Cohen. "And when I finally went up there, I ended up falling down," says Cohen. "I closed my eyes but I knew that Benny didn't push me. I knew I wasn 't pulled or tugged. I knew that was God touching me." But Ole Anthony says he thinks it's a phenomenon that has much more to do with mass hypnosis than religion. "And they watch him on television over and over and over for years," says Anthony. "And they see it, they expect it, they see other people upstage are falling over right and left. Sometimes Benny falls over the place. It's a circus. It's like professional wrestling." Bob McKeown: "But in fact he's been on the record time and time again saying he is not a healer." Ole Anthony: "Of course." Bob McKeown: "It's God who heals." Ole Anthony: "Of course." Bob McKeown: "He's just the vessel that's been chosen." Ole Anthony: "What's the reason that people come to the crusades? What's the main thing that happens onstage? That's his attraction. He promotes himself as a healer, as a healing ministry." But according to former Hinn insiders, there's a great deal more to Benny Hinn's crusades than what you see on television - and what we've found supports that. A woman who worked at crusades said she was instructed to look particularly for those standing in front of their wheelchairs. Benny Hinn: "Look at all the empty wheelchairs here in Las Vegas, people!" Empty wheelchairs apparently imply there's been a lot of healing going on. But for every one of the people declared healed by pastor Benny on stage and on TV, many more leave the arena still sick or disabled. "Desperate people, the really desperate ones, the ones that break your heart are at the back on the crusade, they won't let them up in the lines," says Anthony. The broadcasts of Benny Hinn's crusade in Buffalo did not include what our hidden camera captured. This man was escorted from his seat by security guards after crying out for pastor Benny to touch his apparently ill son. "I wanted to take my son up there and get prayed. That's all I wanted," he said. So not everyone who wants to get up on stage is allowed to. But what happens to those who are called up on the platform to be touched by pastor Benny? To try to find out, we attended a crusade in Las Vegas, and we did our best to keep track of each and every one of the miracles Benny Hinn proclaimed. By our count, there were 56 of them in all - many of which ended up on this videotape we purchased through the ministry. This little boy said his damaged vision was cured: "And as soon as God healed me, I could see better." According to one woman, her cancer was gone. Hinn said God told him a demon had caused the cancer, and he cast it out. Benny Hinn: "Go out of her! It's gone!" One woman said she had a diseased lung. Benny Hinn: "The lord is asking me now to ask him to give you a new lung." According to pastor Benny, she got that new lung, right there on stage. Benny Hinn: "That's why she's coughing... that's why she's coughing." And there was this woman, who said she was cured of lung cancer. She says: "She had cancer in the lungs. She don't have it now!" HEAVYWEIGHT HEALING In his 25 years of healing, there have been thousands of similar stories from Hinn's followers - none of them more famous than this one. At a crusade in 1994, Benny Hinn came to the aid of the former heavyweight champion of the world. Evander Holyfield had lost his boxing license because a medical test had revealed a serious heart ailment. Benny Hinn (at a crusade): "The Lord is telling me right now he is repairing Holyfield's heart completely." Reportedly, Holyfield promised Hinn a check for $265,000, and before long, he got a clean bill of health, and won the world title back. But Benny Hinn doesn't only minister to the rich and famous. Bob McKeown: "And you needed a miracle." Belva Ventura: "Oh, did I." Bob McKeown: "You and your son." Belva Ventura: "Yes." We met Belva Ventura at a crusade in Worcester, Massachusetts. She and her son had both been diagnosed with cancer. Both had been told it was terminal. Before long, she and her son were on stage in front of 14,000 people, right next to pastor Benny. Bob McKeown: "And what did Pastor Hinn say to you?" Belva Ventura: "Oh, he hugged us. And he put his arm around me. And he couldn't believe all the cancer in one family. And he said we're gonna get this cancer out of this house right now. It's not gonna bother you no more. And we came home, we were happy. I was healed. I know I was." The question is, despite all the claims, how does anyone really know if Belva Ventura or any of the others was indeed miraculously healed at one of Benny Hinn's crusades? So we asked pastor Benny to help us follow up on some of the people we saw on his stage. Then we did some following up of our own. Bob McKeown: "As far as you know, the ministry has no idea whether your cancer is still there or not." Belva Ventura: "No." Bob McKeown: "Whether you're alive or not." Belva Ventura: "No. No. they don't." Benny Hinn: "But as surely as God is God - your legs will work again, and your body will be healed again, and your lungs will breathe again, and your eyes will see again!" PROOF OF HEALING? At all of his live crusades, Benny Hinn proclaims a breath-taking litany of miraculous healing. Pastor Benny has said that everyone who gets up on his platform has been checked by a doctor. His ministry also claims it has a follow up process with people afterwards that it describes as "exhaustive" and "thorough," and that medical information it collects is reviewed first by a nurse, then by a doctor. So we wanted to find out how that process works and which of those claims of miracles actually can be verified. We thought a good place to start would be with the ministry itself. Last year, we asked Benny Hinn to help us confirm the 56 healings we counted at just one of his crusades - the one in Las Vegas. By the time we asked, dozens of those "miracles" had already been broadcast around the world on his TV show, including the woman who Benny Hinn said had grown a new lung right there on stage. Woman: "Feels like something in there, like someone was reaching in my heart, in my lung." Benny Hinn: "I want you to go back to your earthly doctor, have him give you an X-ray. I want to hear about it. I want a full story." But if Hinn knows the full story about who was healed in Las Vegas, he's not sharing it with us. In a letter from its lawyer, the ministry refused to provide proof of any of those healings to "Dateline." So since the ministry wouldn't give us any information, we did some checking of our own about Las Vegas, and other reported healings. Remember the woman we met in Las Vegas who said she'd been cured of lung cancer? With our hidden camera, we were able to go back stage to her follow-up interview. Hinn staffer: "Now, what happened tonight that makes you feel God touched you?" She did speak to a Hinn staff member, but it's hard to know how from this conversation alone he could have known whether she was cured of cancer, or even if she had it in the first place. Staffer: "That primary tumor can be one cell." She was asked a few questions, but it didn't appear to us that there was any medical examination. Staffer: "Keep trusting God. Follow it up with your physicians. Thank you so much. The Lord bless you all." Unfortunately, there's one thing we were able to determine about this woman without the ministry's help. She died two and a half months after the crusade. The cause was lung cancer. And then there was Evander Holyfield's heart ailment - which seemed to disappear after that crusade in 1994 - touted as one of pastor Benny's greatest healing successes. When Holyfield then won his world title back, it seemed a storybook ending - except for one problem. According to the Nevada Athletic Commission, two different clinics determined that Holyfield had been misdiagnosed. His doctor had been given incomplete information about his condition. In other words, there was nothing seriously wrong with Holyfield' s heart in the first place. But three years later, pastor Benny was still claiming credit for the champ's miraculous healing. On the "Larry King" show with Pastor Benny, he was aksed: "Evander Holyfield credits you with curing his heart problem, although doctors said that maybe it was misread in the first place." Hinn: "God healed him in one of our crusades, yeah." Evander Holyfield had no comment through his lawyer. STILL DYING OF CANCER And remember Belva Ventura, who said Benny Hinn cast out cancer from her and her son? A few weeks after that crusade in Worcester, Massachusetts, Belva's son died of cancer. When we visited several months later, she said she hadn' t had a follow-up call from anyone in the Hinn organization. Bob McKeown: "As far as you know, the ministry has no idea whether your cancer is still there or not." Belva Ventura: "No." Bob McKeown: "Whether you're alive or not." Belva Ventura: "No. No. they don't. Otherwise, they would have got hold of me. Nobody did." Her physicians evidently were not convinced of her claims of healing. Bob McKeown: "What do your doctors say?" Belva Ventura: "They laugh. They look at me and they laugh. They don' t believe me." Belva still believed apparently until the end. A month after our visit, she died. The cause, her doctor told us, was cancer. Bob McKeown: "If Benny Hinn, by whatever means, can give people like that hope, is that not a good thing?" Ole Anthony: "Then why don't we just - why doesn't the FDA approve snake oil? And we could have snake oil salesmen run around offering and saying, "This little tube of water here, cost you $1,000. And if you take it, you'll be cured of cancer." It's the same thing except he's doing it in God's name, which makes it terrible, terrible. He's lying. False hope has to always be exposed. It must be exposed." Benny Hinn says it's possible for someone to be healed at one of his crusades only to have the illness or injury return later. Here's how he explains it: Benny Hinn: "This is your Day Vegas... My Friend, hear this well. The reason people lose their healing, is because they begin questioning if God really did it." That, says Ole Anthony, only makes matters even worse for those who are desperately ill. "Now they're twice as bad off as they were before because now, according to Benny, they've done something wrong," says Anthony. After repeated requests to verify healings - specifically the 56 we saw at the crusade in Las Vegas - Benny Hinn's ministry sent us details of what it said were five irrefutable and medically proven miracles, but none was from the Las Vegas crusade we were asking about. The cases they gave us ranged from a herniated disc, to heart problems, cancer and Lou Gehrig's disease. When we called them, all five people insisted they had been healed, but four of them wouldn't or couldn't provide their medical records, and we could not speak to their doctors. As for the woman who said she'd been healed of Lou Gehrig's disease, for which there is no known cure, we did speak to her neurologist, who said he suspected she didn't have Lou Gehrig's disease in the first place. Though the ministry says publicly that the medical information it collects is reviewed by a nurse and a doctor, in a letter to us from its lawyer, the ministry acknowledged to us that it is "... Impossible to investigate and substantiate each and every one" of the healings proclaimed at pastor Benny's crusades. But with our without absolute proof of the miracles, millions of followers keep coming to the crusades, and continue to donate millions to his ministry. But now, people who've worked inside the Hinn organization are raising questions about where some of that money has gone. Part two: Former insiders question what happened to some of the church money Benny Hinn (at his crusade): "Only those who have been giving to God's work will be spared." The money starts pouring in at Benny Hinn's crusades, thousands of people filling hundreds of pastor Benny's collection buckets at every service we attended. Chris Hinn: "One side cash, one side checks." A 1994 security tape shows Hinn staffers and volunteers counting the collection money at a crusade. For three years in the mid-1990s, Mike Estrella says he was one of those responsible for counting crusade collections in his capacity as Benny Hinn's head usher. At the time, Estrella says, he was a devoted follower, and still credits pastor Benny with curing his heart condition. Bob McKeown: "In cash, what was the biggest night you counted?" Mike Estrella: "In cash? Well, one night I counted $420,000." Steve Brock: "A dollar a day. Everybody say it with me - a dollar a day." It may sound like they start out small, but the numbers soon get very big. According to documents provided by the Trinity Foundation, and published reports - Benny Hinn has more than 100,000 people who promise to give him a dollar-a-day. If they keep that pledge, that would add up to at least $3 million a month - $36 million a year. The people on this list seemed to be even more generous than that - it appears some of them pledged or gave more than $100,000 apiece last year. Benny Hinn: "The greatest thing you can do for your finances is to give to the work of God." On TV, and at his crusades, Hinn promises that not only will God improve your health, but your financial life as well - perhaps by getting you out of debt with an unexpected financial windfall. But first, you have to give money to his ministry. Hinn calls it "sowing the seed." Benny Hinn: "Amen. So expect a financial harvest but you have to sow a seed to see it happen... you may want to call your seed in today. Our 800 number is on the screen." Hinn follower Carlotta Moore told us she sows a seed of $12,000 a year with pastor Benny, and that she expects to be financially rewarded. Carlotta Moore: "Because the Bible say [sic] what you sow, you gonna reap. Now if you sow good things, you gonna reap good." Bob McKeown: "But might that mean that if you give money, you get money back?" Carlotta Moore: "Oh yes, you will get money back. You will get money back. Out of the clear blue sky, checks will come from somewhere. You go to put on a dress or something, or take out a pocketbook up there in the closet. There is $50 or $60 laying up in there. You'll be like, 'Woah, woah, woah. Thank you, Lord.' You understand?" And the money Benny Hinn's ministry gets is not only in the form of donations. "He sells his books, he sells his tapes, he sells everything, and is just a money machine, and money pours in," says Ole Anothony. "He's one of the most successful money raisers in history." In recent years, the Hinn ministry's total annual income has increased dramatically from $50 million in 1997 to the latest estimates - that the ministry says are inaccurate - of more than $100 million a year. And because the ministry is registered as a church, all that money is tax-free and Benny Hinn is under no legal obligation to make his finances public. Bob McKeown: "Is there any way to know how much Benny Hinn makes? Whether he's personally benefiting or not, and where the money goes?" Paul Nelson: "There really isn't, and that's why an organization like ECFA has been formed." Paul Nelson is president of ECFA, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and the Salvation Army are among its 1,000-plus members who voluntarily disclose to potential donors more financial information than the law requires. "We believe that most people would like to know that the charities that they give to are governed responsibly, that they practice disclosure of their finances and other activities, they willingly answer questions, and that they raise funds with integrity," says Nelson. Members release audited financial statements, including the salaries of their ministers. Benny Hinn is not an ECFA member. He wouldn't tell us his annual salary, but five years ago he acknowledged it was then between $500,000 and $1 million a year. And Hinn won't specify how his ministry's money is spent, except to say he doesn't personally benefit from any of it. Benny Hinn: "Every dollar you give this morning is going to the work of the Lord." What Benny Hinn does tell his followers is that all their donations are spent on God's work - for example, the expenses of his TV show and crusades, the salaries of his staff, supporting churches and orphanages around the world and more importantly. Benny Hinn: "So everything you give this morning is going for souls. Is going for what?" The crowd repeats: "Souls." And many of his faithful, like Carlotta Moore, say they have no doubt that's true. "We're not giving it to Pastor Benny, we're giving it to the ministry to do the work the Pastor Benny has been entrusted to do," says Moore. But this former Hinn ministry staff member says he has reason to question pastor Benny's sincerity. "And Benny was laughing and joking and saying, 'Hey guys watch how much money I make tonight,'" says Michael Cohen. For years, Michael Cohen and his wife were church members. He also belonged to Hinn's security detail, traveling the world with him. Cohen recalls an incident after a service at the church where he says pastor Benny bragged about his financial conquests. "Like one little grandmother one time came up and cried, I think she said, this is my last $5. And we got back in the Green Room and he said, 'Ha, I got her last $5, guys,'" says Cohen. The ministry says the incident never happened. As for his lifestyle, pastor Hinn has explained that some of the perks he has enjoyed like custom-made suits and expensive cars have been paid for by his personal income, including the royalties from his many books. While that may be true and legal, it's only part of the story. According to the Trinity Foundation, the biggest customer for pastor Benny's books is pastor Benny's own ministry. Trinity says the Hinn ministry buys thousands of the books for which Hinn apparently collects the royalties. The ministry then offers them for sale at crusades and on its Web site, and gives them away to donors. According to Paul Nelson of ECFA, that kind of business deal is too close for comfort, and wouldn't be allowed if Hinn belonged to his organization. "Our standards prohibit the royalty in that case going to the individual," says Nelson. "The royalty must go for the benefit of the ministry." The Hinn ministry also spends a great deal on pastor Benny's lifestyle when he's on the road. These records show hotel suites for well over a thousand dollars a night and transatlantic flights on the Concorde - at more than $8,000 round trip. That is, before pastor Benny began flying in a multi-million-dollar private jet. But Hinn contributor Carlotta Moore says that use of money given to Hinn's church for God's work is just fine with her. "I'm pretty sure NBC's man that owns NBC probably got his own jet and multimillion dollars," says Carlotta Moore. "Probably got houses here, houses there, and this that and the other. And I believe that the preachers of the gospel, I believe they should live better than even NBC's president." But Benny Hinn's followers may not know about how all of their donations are spent. For example there's Hinn's palatial new home, now being built for $3.5 million in an exclusive gated community overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The plans call for more than 6,000 square feet - 7 bedrooms, 8 bathrooms and a basement garage with enough space for ten cars. Who's paying for that? Not pastor Benny. That mansion on the Pacific is considered the Hinn ministry's church residence or "parsonage," and the ministry is picking up all the expenses for land, construction, even property taxes. The ministry says the house is a good investment, but Paul Nelson of ECFA says Benny Hinn should be concerned about the perception of that house deal. He says the expenditure of millions of dollars of church money on a house for it's leader, is almost unprecedented. Bob McKeown: "Are you aware among your membership of any church residence, parsonage, that is worth $3 million?" Paul Nelson: "I am not aware of that." Bob McKeown: "Not Billy Graham's..." Paul Nelson: "I don't believe so. No." Bob McKeown: "...residence? Pat Robertson's?" Paul Nelson: "I don't believe so." However it managed to pay for his house. Benny Ninn's ministry has apparently had problems finishing other special projects. Since February of 2001, the Hinn Web site has been soliciting donations for a new orphanage to be built in this little town outside Mexico City saying it would be finished "soon." But when we checked in Mexico, more than a year-and-a-half later, we could find no sign of any construction. But the Hinn web site kept promising that construction would be finished in, "a few short months." That was news to the local official in charge of construction in the town, who told us the Hinn ministry hadn't even been issued a building permit yet. What we did find, however, was this sign - curiously not in Spanish, but English - attached to a house the ministry called it's 'temporary orphanage,' which appeared to be empty. The Hinn Web site continued to solicit donations. And then there was pastor Benny's most ambitious project - his $25 million healing center to be built in Texas. Benny Hinn: "And the Lord said to me to build a healing center that people can come to 24-hours a day, any day of the week to be prayed for and get healed." That was Benny Hinn raising funds for the project in 1999, but this was Benny Hinn on a Christian telethon a year later: "Many of our wonderful friends have called and said, 'What's with the healing center?' and basically what the Lord has said to me is to wait for his voice." Hinn announced that God had told him to postpone construction, so he said he was going to spend that money on other things. Benny Hinn: "I am putting all the money we have in the ministry to get out there and preach." According to ECFA's Paul Nelson, that kind of unilateral diversion of funds would simply be unacceptable. "They're creating a backlog of funds and they're not really released to spend those funds on anything else," says Nelson. But now apparently, pastor Benny has changed his mind again and says the money raised for the healing center is being held in special ministry accounts until the time is right. Benny Hinn: "The day will come, I am in no hurry, neither is God. The day will come I will fulfill that vision." Remember Mike Estrella, who was the head usher at Hinn crusades? He says one night, the ministry's chief executive officer offered him a wad of cash taken from the collection. How much money? Mike Estrella says thousands. According to Estrella, the man who took that money from the collection buckets was pastor Benny's righthand man, CEO Gene Polino. "I just push it back," says Estrella. "One day he told me these words, he says 'Mike, if you follow me and listen to me, I guarantee one thing, you never have to work again.'" After that Mike Estrella says, he began to watch Gene Polino more closely. Estrella: "One time, Polino says give me all the hundreds and all the fifties. And I did that. And many of them went to his pockets." Now how does he know that? "Because I saw him doing it," says Estrella. In a telephone interview, Gene Polino, now retired as Hinn's CEO, denied those claims. Gene Polino told "Dateline" he has "no problem" with Mike Estrella, but that the former head usher sometimes got "confused." But two years ago, in a deposition given under oath, Benny Hinn's 's brother Christopher, who worked in a crusade counting room, testified he too saw Gene Polino regularly stuff $50 and $100 bills into a bag. Christopher Hinn also testified that the ministry CEO told him "...don't worry about it." Hinn and Estrella both say they don't know if Polino kept the money they described seeing him take. But Gene Polino told us none of it happened, insisting he never took any money from the collections. Bob McKeown: "You categorically deny that?" Gene Polino: "Surely." Polino was never charged with any crime and the ministry says he did not engage in any wrongdoing while employed by the church. Christopher Hinn and Mike Estrella both say they told Benny Hinn what they saw, and we wanted to ask him about it. Through his lawyers and spokesmen, Hinn repeatedly turned down our request for an interview. We finally approached him outside his hotel after a crusade in Buffalo last year. Bob McKeown: "Pastor Hinn, I'm Bob McKeown from 'Dateline, NBC.' Could we have a word with you? We would like to arrange an interview. As you know, we've been trying to contact you." Benny Hinn: "I'm so tired right now. I'm worn out." Bob McKeown: "Well, we would be pleased to do it at any time you'd be available." Benny Hinn: "Alright." Bob McKeown: "In the near future. But as you know, we've been trying to do this for several months now." Benny Hinn: "I know, I've been so busy." Bob McKeown: "And we haven't had much luck with you." Benny Hinn: "No, no, no, no, hey, hey, hey, gentlemen, please." Bob McKeown: "We seem to be having a bit of a problem with your security detail here." Benny Hinn: "I know, I'm sorry about that." We did eventually get a final answer from Benny Hinn to our interview request - it was still "no." Benny Hinn's brother Christopher has left the ministry after a dispute with his brother, and the church says it has had no further dealings with him. As for those other former Hinn insiders, head usher Mike Estrella and security man Michael Cohen, they say that when they tried to complain to pastor Benny about abuses in his organization, they were fired. In another letter from its lawyer, the ministry says Mike Estrella's allegations are "unfounded and unsubstantiated," and that he was "... Acting irresponsibly, maliciously or suffered from some impairment when making the charges." As for Michael Cohen, the ministry says, "he is motivated by a misguided personal vendetta against pastor Hinn and the church..." and called him an "...unstable and unreliable source." Bob McKeown: "What would he say about you now, and the things you're saying about him?" Michael Cohen: "He may tell people that haven't been around for years, that I'm a disgruntled employee. The fact is, when I first started working for him, for two years, I wouldn't even take a paycheck." Bob McKeown: "Do you believe that he has healed people? " Michael Cohen: "No." Bob McKeown: "Or that people are healed because of him?" Michael Cohen: "No. I don't. I believe that people have been healed. It's God's power, it's not Benny's. Benny, in the last couple of years, wields this power around likes it's his power." Cohen and Estrella maintain they were true believers, who put their faith in a man they thought could bring hope and healing to millions. "What I saw was a big business rolling millions of dollars every year, many people getting rich," says Mike Estrella. "And the rich getting richer, and the poor getting worse." But then, there's Carlotta Moore, a pastor herself, who like millions of others says she still believes in Benny Hinn. She says, "Pastor Benny's job is the work that God has called him to do, to be that mediator, that channel for that anointing that God has placed on his life, the work that God has called him to do, to carry that work out here on Earth." Benny Hinn (at a crusade): "Stand up, lift your hands, and receive from heaven, in the name of Jesus!"
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