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Church forces out Haggard for 'sexually immoral conduct'

Story Highlights

• Haggard agrees to resign as pastor of New Life Church
• Denver police will look into "crimes that may have been committed"
• White House downplays Rev. Ted Haggard's influence
• Evangelist admits he called male escort to buy drugs and get a massage
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (CNN) -- The Rev. Ted Haggard agreed Saturday to resign as leader of the megachurch he started in his basement more than 20 years ago after its independent investigative board said he was guilty of "sexually immoral conduct."

On Friday, Haggard admitted he had received a massage from a Denver man who claimed the prominent pastor had paid him for sex over three years. Haggard also admitted he had bought methamphetamine.

Haggard, in an interview with CNN affiliate KUSA, denied having sex with Mike Jones and said he did not use the drug and threw it away.

After the allegations were made public, Haggard resigned as president of the influential National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing more than 45,000 churches with 30 million members.

He also temporarily stepped aside as pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church. (Parishioners stand by Haggard)

But on Saturday overseers of the church recommended he be permanently removed.

"We, the Overseer Board of New Life Church, have concluded our deliberations concerning the moral failings of Pastor Ted Haggard," a statement from the church said.

"Our investigation and Pastor Haggard's public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct."

Haggard, 50, and his wife were informed of the decision, the statement said, and "they have agreed as well that he should be dismissed and that a new pastor for New Life Church should be selected according to the rules of replacement in the bylaws."

The statement said "a letter of explanation and apology" from Haggard and "a word of encouragement" from his wife, Gayle, would be read at Sunday morning services.

The couple has five children.

The church's statement said the investigation would continue to determine the extent of Haggard's misconduct.

The Rev. Ross Parsley will lead the New Life Church until a permanent replacement for Haggard is chosen, something that should happen by the end of the year, the statement said.

"Please continue to pray for Pastor Ted and his family, and let's all continue to stand strong together for the kingdom of God," Parsley's note to church members said. "We will get through this together. Remember, New Life Church has never been a man, a building or anything else -- we are a family."

Although Haggard initially denied even knowing Jones, the pastor admitted on camera Friday to a Denver CNN affiliate that he sought a massage from him. Haggard also admitted buying methamphetamine but said he did not use it.

"I was buying it for me, but I never used it," said Haggard, sitting in the driver's seat of a car with his wife, Gayle, at his side during an impromptu interview with KUSA-TV.

"I never kept it very long because it was wrong. I was tempted. I bought it. But I never used it." Haggard also acknowledged contacting Jones but has denied Jones' accusation that the two men regularly had sex over three years. (Watch how the scandal has quickly unfolded -- 3:35 Video)

Haggard's admissions resonated among America's evangelicals and Christian leaders.

Haggard was one of a group of religious leaders who regularly participated in conference calls with White House aides, Time magazine reported.

On Friday, the White House sought to downplay Haggard's influence within the administration.

Spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters Friday that it was inaccurate to portray him as being close to the White House, insisting Haggard was only an occasional participant in weekly conference calls between West Wing staff and leading evangelicals.

"He has been on a couple of calls," Fratto said. "He's been to the White House one or two times."

Last year, Time -- citing Haggard's White House access -- put him on its list of the nation's 25 most influential evangelicals. ( articleexternal link)

Many religious leaders had rallied to the pastor's defense when the allegations broke earlier in the week.

Dobson: He's still my friend

But Focus on the Family founder James Dobson -- who had castigated the media Thursday for reporting Jones' allegations -- issued a statement Friday saying he was "heartsick" upon learning of Haggard's admissions.

"The possibility that an illicit relationship has occurred is alarming to us and to millions of others," Dobson said.

"He will continue to be my friend, even if the worst allegations prove accurate," he continued. "Nevertheless, sexual sin, whether homosexual or heterosexual, has serious consequences."

Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based conservative policy group, said he was "saddened to learn of these allegations of reprehensible behavior."

"In his position as a leader of the evangelical community, this personal tragedy has public ramifications, so we urge that a full accounting of the facts be swift and complete," he said in a statement.

In an interview Friday with CNN, Jones said he went public with his allegations because of Haggard's support for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that is on the ballot next week in Colorado.

"For someone who is up there preaching that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, and he's going behind his wife's back and seeing a gay man for sex -- I felt like I owed it to the gay community to expose the hypocrisy," Jones said.( Watch Jones describe how he and Haggard "hooked up" -- 7:26 Video)

Unclear polygraph test

Jones' account of events also came under scrutiny Friday after he voluntarily took a polygraph test for Denver's KHOW radio, where he originally made his allegations Wednesday.

The polygraph examiner concluded Jones showed some "deception."

However, the examiner said because Jones was exhausted at the time the test was administered it would need to be redone after he slept and ate to get more reliable results.

Jones told CNN that the part of the test he failed was on the question of whether he and Haggard had sex. "I don't understand why I did fail the part about when they asked me if I had sex with Ted Haggard," he said. "That's the reason he contacted me to begin with." (Watch Jones' take on Haggard's denial -- 1:20)

Haggard told KUSA that he was "grateful that [Jones] failed the polygraph test."

The Denver Police Department issued a statement saying it was "watching this situation unfold" and planned "on reaching out to the involved parties for information on crimes that may have been committed in Denver."

Haggard on Friday said a Denver hotel where he was staying referred him to Jones for a massage, and Jones "told him about" the methamphetamine. (Watch Haggard's response to whether he knows gay men in Denver -- 2:07 Video)

He did not identify the hotel. Jones told CNN he did not sell methamphetamine to Haggard, but he said he gave Haggard a contact to obtain the drug and saw him use it on multiple occasions. He also said he was "not listed with any concierge" at a Denver hotel.

Asked about Haggard's continued denials of a sexual relationship, Jones noted that Haggard had denied even knowing him until he released voice mails he said he had kept from Haggard.

"The more denial he gives, the messier he looks," Jones said.

An expert hired by KUSA concluded the voice on the messages was probably Haggard, and a more detailed analysis was under way. The pastor admitted Friday that he did call Jones "to buy some meth, but I threw it away." (Watch what Haggard said about the drugs he bought -- 1:59)

Jones has said he met Haggard three years ago when the pastor answered his escort ad, pretending to be a man from Kansas City named "Art." He said their sexual encounters continued monthly until August.

Haggard's middle name is Arthur.

Jones, who has said he no longer works as a prostitute, told CNN he only learned Art's identity several months ago, when he recognized Haggard on TV.

"You can't put yourself in the position he was in and want respect and people to follow your words when you're actually doing the opposite behind their backs," Jones said.

CNN's Delia Gallagher contributed to this report.

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