Jerry Falwell Jr, a powerful Christian leader and close ally of Donald Trump, resigned as president and chancellor of evangelical Liberty University late on Monday amid several personal scandals.
“The board put me on leave, took away my duties as prez, and that’s not permitted by my contract,” Falwell told the Wall Street Journal, confirming his resignation. “And they put me on leave because of pressure from self-righteous people.”
Falwell had earlier claimed reports of his resignation were false, telling Politico: “I have not resigned. How did those reports get out? I don’t know. I have not resigned. I will be on indefinite leave.”
A Liberty University spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The resignation followed the publication of news stories about Falwell’s wife’s sexual encounters with a business partner.
Falwell has said that his wife’s ex-lover tried to blackmail them by contacting the media with “false claims” about their relationship.
Falwell’s statement about his wife to the Washington Examiner on Sunday took place during his indefinite suspension as head of the conservative university, which came several days after he shared a photo of himself with his pants unzipped onboard a yacht.
Falwell has led the university since 2007, but opposition to his presidency has been rising, the Washington Post reported.
It is the latest revelation in the increasingly colorful and scandal-plagued life and career of Falwell, who is a prominent advocate for the US president and widely seen as one of the influential voices on the American religious right.
Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr, founded Liberty University. The younger Falwell had headed the institution since his father’s death in 2007.
In the 1,200-word statement, Falwell opened up about the impact of the scandal on his life. “It was like living on a roller coaster,” Falwell said, calling the alleged blackmail attempt a “‘fatal attraction’ type situation”.
Two days before his statement to the Washington Examiner, Liberty University announced: “The decision whether or not to retain Falwell as President has not yet been made, and the Board requested prayer and patience as they seek the Lord’s will and also seek additional information for assessment.”
The statement said the university and board had “decided to not publicly comment on the various rumors and claims about Falwell at this time”.
The photo in question shows Falwell sporting a black T-shirt and dark trousers, unzipped at the fly and lowered enough to expose Falwell’s navel, stomach and upper groin.
Falwell’s underwear can be seen. His manner of dress in the photo appears to conflict with Liberty University’s strict dress code, which forbids skirts shorter than 2in above the knees and bars male students from wearing shorts in class.
In his statement, Falwell described the evolution of his wife’s affair and emotional aftermath – which came to a breaking point amid alleged blackmail threats. Falwell said that he and his wife, Becki, met “an ambitious young man who was working at our hotel and was saving up his money to go to school” during a vacation about eight years ago.
They urged him to pursue an education and career and were “impressed by his initiative in suggesting a local real estate opportunity”. Falwell said his family members invested in a property and included the man in the transaction, believing that he could manage it. Falwell’s family grew close to the man and his family, he claimed.
“Shortly thereafter, Becki had an inappropriate personal relationship with this person, something in which I was not involved – it was nonetheless very upsetting to learn about,” Falwell said.
He added: “After I learned this, I lost 80 pounds and people who saw me regularly thought that I was physically unwell, when in reality I was just balancing how to be most supportive of Becki, who I love, while also reflecting and praying about whether there were ways I could have been more supportive of her and given her proper attention.”
Falwell said that he and Becki had forgiven each other. Her ex-lover, on the other hand, had become “increasingly angry and aggressive” when they tried to distance themselves from him. The man had started threatening to publicly expose their affair unless Falwell and his wife paid him off. Falwell and Becki, at the advice of their attorney, had stayed in contact and tried to placate him.
When they had tried to fully cut ties, Falwell said, the man ramped up his threats to disclose “more outrageous and fabricated claims about us” and contacted the media. “Over the course of the last few months this person’s behavior has reached a level that we have decided the only way to stop this predatory behavior is to go public,” Falwell claimed.
Falwell did not name his wife’s lover. But on Monday a former business partner, Giancarlo Granda, gave an interview to Reuters in which he said that he had an affair with Becki Falwell, which involved Jerry Falwell watching them have sex.
Granda denied any attempt at blackmail. “Becki and I developed an intimate relationship and Jerry enjoyed watching from the corner of the room,” Granda said in the interview.
Granda told Reuters that his friendship with the Falwells eventually soured in part because he wanted to dissolve his ties with the couple and fell into a business dispute with them.
Sam Levin contributed reporting