18.05.2022

Trump-supporting evangelical leader resigns from university amid scandal

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Jerry Falwell Jr, a beleaguered evangelical Christian university president and prominent Donald Trump supporter, has resigned from the university founded by his father.

Mr Falwell has been on a leave of absence from the presidency of Liberty University while embroiled in several controversies. Reports of his resignation on Monday followed the publication of allegations that Mr Falwell and his wife had engaged in a years-long sexual relationship with another man.

In a statement to Politico, he initially claimed that he did not resign, but later said he had.

He claimed in a lengthy statement that the man had tried to blackmail the family and accused him of threatening to reveal the relationship “to deliberately embarrass my wife, family, and Liberty University unless we agreed to pay him substantial monies.”

“Over the course of the last few months this person’s behaviour has reached a level that we have decided the only way to stop this predatory behaviour is to go public,” he said in a statement to conservative newspaper and website The Washington Examiner.

Giancarlo Granda, who shared messages with Reuters as part of the outlet’s investigation into his relationship with the couple, has denied the allegations against him.

“Any allegation of extortion is false, defamatory and belied by clear documentary evidence,” Mr Granda told The Examiner. “The Falwells’ attempt to sandbag me, and The Examiner, with a last-minute story without providing The Examiner clear evidence that this was not simply an ‘affair’ with concocted allegations of extortion reeks of desperation.”

The university president was placed on indefinite leave from his post after sharing, then deleting, a provocative Instagram photo in which Mr Falwell has his arm around a woman while they both have their zippers down, revealing their bare midriffs.

Last week, Virginia pastor Colby Garman, a Liberty graduate, issued a letter signed by 50 other Liberty alumni to the university and its Board of Trustees demanding Mr Falwell’s replacement with a figure that “represents the heart of Liberty University’s mission”.

“It is because of our deep love for Liberty University and our great optimism for its future that we write to you today to urge you, the Board of Trustees, to permanently remove Mr Falwell as president and chancellor and replace him with a new leader,” the letter reads.

Liberty is among the largest private Christian universities in the US. Mr Falwell has been at the helm since the 2007 death of his father, a massively influential figure within America’s modern right-wing Christian movement.

Mr Falwell had shocked the evangelical world and Republican establishment with his 2016 endorsement of then-candidate Trump.

Mr Granda said he was in his early 20s when he first met Mr Falwell and his wife Becki while working as a pool attendant at a Florida hotel. He reportedly began a sexual relationship with Ms Falwell in 2012, which continued through 2018, during which Mr Falwell would watch, according to Reuters.

The Falwells had meanwhile financed a Miami beach hostel, in which Mr Granda also had invested. The Falwells filed a lawsuit over its ownership in 2015, which was dismissed, and they refiled in 2017.

Reuters and The New York Times reported in 2019 that in 2015 Mr Falwell sought Mr Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen – who at the time had arranged for hush-money payments on the president’s behalf to pay for the silence of women who alleged affairs with the president – to get rid of photos that Mr Cohen allegedly claimed should be kept “between husband and wife”.

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