Ted Haggard
Erik Stenbakken  /  New Life Church via AP
This photo made available by New Life Church shows the Rev. Ted Haggard in September 2005, in Colorado Springs, Colo.
updated 11/6/2006 10:34:15 AM ET 2006-11-06T15:34:15

Members of the New Life Church were stunned and brought to tears by the Rev. Ted Haggard’s confessions of “sexual immorality,” then accepted his plea for forgiveness with open arms.

Haggard, who had been a leading evangelist and vocal opponent of gay marriage, apologized Sunday in a letter read from the pulpit of the 14,000-member church he founded.

Some in the standing-room-only crowd wiped away tears and embraced each other as they heard Haggard’s words read by a member of the board that fired him a day earlier.

“The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality. And I take responsibility for the entire problem,” Haggard wrote. “I am a deceiver and a liar. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”

After services, Patty Erwin kneeled near the back of the 8,000-seat auditorium and said a prayer for Haggard.

“We all love him because he’s a part of our family. You don’t just throw away a sister or a brother,” said Erwin, who’s been coming to the church for 15 years. “Desperately, we love him, and we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.”

Haggard, 50, resigned last week as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 30 million evangelical Christians, after a man claimed to have had drug-fueled trysts with him.

‘The accusations ... are not all true’
He also placed himself on administrative leave from New Life, which he founded in the 1980s. Its independent Overseer Board fired him Saturday.

In his letter, Haggard said “the accusations that have been leveled against me are not all true, but enough of them are true that I have been appropriately and lovingly removed from the ministry.”

He did not specify which accusations were true. Haggard had acknowledged Friday that he paid Mike Jones of Denver for a massage and for methamphetamine, but said he did not have sex with him and did not take the drug.

Video: Evangelical leader steps down The letter was read to the church by the Rev. Larry Stockstill, senior pastor of Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, La., and a member of the board that fired him. Haggard asked for forgiveness for himself and for his accuser.

‘Worshippers are always challenged’
In a separate letter, Haggard’s wife drew laughter when she promised to remain with her husband and said church members no longer had to worry about her marriage being so perfect she couldn’t relate to them.

Neither Haggard nor his wife, Gayle, attended.

Youngsters were sent from the room before elders began discussing the church crisis.

“Worshippers are always challenged by crisis. And when tragedy and crisis strikes it is at that moment that you truly decide if you are a worshipper of the most high God. And today as the worship pastor of this church I am very proud of you,” said the Rev. Ross Parsley, who has replaced Haggard.

Ryan Price and his fiancee, Karen Geyer, were impressed. “It seemed genuine — from the heart. It’s unfortunate, but it happens,” said Geyer.

“He’s reaching out and asking for forgiveness,” said Price.

‘I wish him well’
Jones, who said he is gay, said he came forward because he was upset when he discovered who Haggard was and that New Life opposed same-sex marriage — a key issue in Colorado, with a pair of issues on Tuesday’s ballot.

“I wish him well. I wish his family well,” Jones said Sunday. “My intent was never to destroy his family. My intent was to expose a hypocrite.”

The scandal has disappointed Christian conservatives, whom President Bush and other Republicans are courting heavily in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.

Many were already disheartened with the president and the Republican-controlled Congress over their failure to deliver big gains on social issues even before the congressional page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley.

Haggard, who had been NAE president since 2003, has participated in conference calls with White House staffers and lobbied Congress last year on Supreme Court nominees.

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