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Fleece the sheep

Tuesday, November 23, 1999

By Tony Norman

It would be the Mother of all Celebrity Death Matches, a battle the ratings-starved religious channels would be crazy not to carry, especially during pledge drives.

Imagine the apocalyptic frenzy of it all: in this corner, Richard Rossi, the guitar-playing former pastor of First Love Church of Cranberry.

Rossi -- or his evil twin, we can never be sure -- is fighting with his Long Beach, Calif., church over his unprecedented access to congregational money. Rossi is accused of withholding information from Immanuel Baptist Community Church about his notoriety in Pittsburgh, as if he weren't proud of every moment of the 96 days he spent in jail for beating his wife six years ago.

In the other corner, weighed down with the shame of being the prime suspect in the disappearance of $1 million from the coffers of Grace Christian Ministries, is pastor Michael Altman. A personable man who seems to be hanging around when a felony is going down, Altman could be played by actor Dennis Farina if his sad, sordid drama ever makes it to the big screen.

Given the cloud of accusations surrounding them, it's nothing short of miraculous that Rossi and Altman have held on to their respective pulpits. Last weekend, Rossi successfully fought off a move by the congregation to oust him from Immanuel Baptist. He even consolidated his hold on the dwindling, now thoroughly embarrassed congregation.

Two weeks ago, Altman was rehired as pastor of Grace Christian Ministries when its board of directors was reconstituted after a schism shook out the anti-Altman dissidents. Altman was given a clean bill of health, but no salary by the new board and still faces two civil lawsuits and separate investigations by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and the state Securities Commission.

Despite making what many in the outside world naively regard as career-debilitating moves, Rossi and Altman remain untouchable. Because they operate in a realm where faith in "exonerating evidence not seen" is at least a possibility, Rossi and Altman are able to cover a multitude of sins through sheer charisma.

That's why a Celebrity Death Match between these scoundrels would be a ratings bonanza on par with "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

If you made the stakes high enough, say, winner takes the souls of two, count 'em, two gullible congregations, a couple of roving gamblers like Rossi and Altman would fall over themselves trying to "do unto each other" what they did to their churches.

You could even bring Jumpin' Joe Waldholtz, another former Pittsburgh-based con man into the match as a special referee. It would be West Coast vs. East Coast in a battle for world supremacy over the gullible.

With Rossi back in town this week for Thanksgiving break, there's no reason why he couldn't wander over to Altman's church in West Mifflin and challenge him to a duel for the souls of his flock, double or nothing.

Imagine the wholesale belief in the impossible that would result from the merger of two such supernaturally forgiving congregations.

Their long-suffering wives would seek each other out and become best friends, making it possible for the wily mavericks to bury their rivalry and team up. They could face the world of skeptical outsiders with their combined cleverness, just like the Anti-Christ and the False Prophet in the Book of Revelations.

The mind boggles.

Tony Norman's e-mail is: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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