When it first hit the newsstands a year ago today, The Washington Times was dubbed the "Moonie paper" because it was bankrolled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his highly controversial Unification Church.

The stated purpose of the five-day-a-week paper was to bring a conservative voice to the nation's capital and to fill a void left by the folding of The Washington Star. Job-hungry but self-conscious professionals were thrown together with inexperienced church members in makeshift quarters to produce what many suspected would be little more than a propaganda sheet for Moon and his church.

Today, considerable skepticism persists, largely because of the massive infusion of funds by Moon's organization and a virtual embargo by the city's large advertisers. Yet, Times executives say they have achieved a degree of acceptance among Washington readers (The Times claims a circulation of 126,582) and among Reagan administration officials and conservatives on Capitol Hill.

"We're exceedingly pleased with our visible, palpable influence," says James R. Whelan, the beefy, bedrock-conservative editor and publisher of The Times. "We know that not only are we one of the papers that the president reads regularly . . . but a great number of our friends have told us that we're the first paper that he reads."

News World Communications Inc., a New York-based media conglomerate owned by the Unification Church, has spent $40 million to $50 million to start up the paper, according to Times executives.

About 1,000 people are employed by The Times, including 205 reporters and editors--a large news staff, compared with newspapers of similar size. With little in the way of advertising revenue, the paper is expected to suffer operating losses this year totaling $10 million to $15 million, according to a source.

By comparison, Time Inc. purchased The Washington Star in March 1978 for $20 million and invested a total of $85 million before closing the financially ailing paper three years later, in August 1981.

The Washington Times spent about $20 million alone to convert an old warehouse at 3600 New York Ave. NE, on the outskirts of town, to a printing plant and palatial new offices trimmed with marble and bronze. Eighteen-foot-high cathedral windows in the paper's sleek, computerized newsroom look out on a wooded hillside of the National Arboretum. Chandeliers hang from the cafeteria ceiling. Magazine racks were installed in the restroom stalls.

Moon himself has visited the newspaper twice--both times during weekends, when few employes were around--to inspect the new offices.

"It's almost a spirtual experience to stand in the newsroom," said one reporter. "Nothing is too good for this building."

Bo Hi Pak, Moon's right-hand man and the chairman of News World Communications, designed the lavish newsroom. Monumental Construction & Moulding Co., a local firm also run by Pak, served as the general contractor for the project. "I've never really seen a newsroom before, but that was what I imagined it must look like," Pak told newspaper executives at a recent party.

The massive amount of money that the church pumped into The Times, virtually creating a major metropolitan newspaper overnight, has troubled critics of the paper. Some perceive The Times primarily as an expensive tool in Moon's international crusade to win acceptance and legitimacy for his evangelical church and his conservative, strongly anticommunist views.

"Obviously the fact the church is controversial hangs over the paper and won't go away," said John Morton, a newspaper analyst with the Lynch, Jones & Ryan brokerage firm.

The Times has moved swiftly to establish a relatively "strong editorial presence in the market," Morton said. But he said he doubts the paper can build sufficient circulation to attract the necessary advertising revenue--a view strongly disputed by Times executives.

"There are a lot of ways to measure a paper, but in the final analysis, it's measured in dollars," Morton said.

News World Communications also owns The New York Tribune (formerly The News World), which it has published for 6 1/2 years with little advertising, and the Spanish-language Noticias del Mundo, both in New York City. It also owns the Middle East Times in Cyprus. Another Moon organization has sponsored international media conferences during the past five years. Washington Times executives will take part in this year's conference, Sept. 5-10, in Cartagena, Colombia.

Times executives at one point considered a national edition of the newspaper, but abandoned the idea.

"No business that Moon owns is ever independent from Moon," said Warren Adler, an author and an owner of Dossier magazine. "To me, it's a myth that The Times is independent . . . They the church are establishing a powerful beachhead in the nation's capital that reaches right into the White House."

Adler and his wife were among 50 people who picketed a gala Times celebration at the Corcoran Gallery of Art a year ago. The Adlers' son, David Adler, chief operating officer of Dossier, briefly belonged to the church. His parents alleged that he had been brainwashed during a 1978 vacation trip to California.

Ann Lindgren, national board member of Citizens Freedom Foundation, which was created to warn parents of the recruitment tactics of cults, believes the Unification Church created The Times "in an effort for them to gain credibility.

"Reverend Moon wouldn't be pouring thousands and thousands of dollars into this paper every day . . . unless it served his purpose," Lindgren said. "The end goal of the church is to have a theocracy in the United States."

Times editors often hold up the 75-year-old Christian Science Monitor in arguing that a newspaper affiliated with a church can develop a highly respected national reputation.

Brad Knickerbocker, the Monitor's Washington bureau manager, conceded yesterday that The Times "probably has gained some legitimacy here." But he said the comparison between The Times and other church-related papers is tenuous, because of the controversial recruiting tactics of the Unification Church.

"It's not a real clear-cut issue," Knickerbocker said. "On the other hand, if they're that great a church , why are so many people trying to get their kids out of there?"

Since the church emerged in the United States in the early 1970s, questions have been raised about its finances, its suspected ties to the South Korean CIA and its alleged brainwashing of young recruits. It is now an international business empire encompassing entertainment, real estate, fishing, food retailing and publishing.

Moon, 63, who lives on an estate in Irvington, N.Y., was sentenced last July to 18 months in prison after being found guilty of conspiracy and tax fraud. He is appealing the conviction.

Whelan, 49, a former editor of The Sacramento Union who was coaxed into taking the Washington Times job by a persistent Pak, discounts most of the criticisms of Moon as "religious persecution." He said he negotiated a contract that gives him a free hand to run the paper.

"They church officials understand the only way The Washington Times can become anything is to keep their hands off of it," he said.

About 40 church members were recruited in February 1982 to work on a prototype of the paper, but most of them were reassigned to noneditorial positions or fired after Whelan arrived. Today, 10 church members are reporters and two others, Ted Agres, assistant managing editor, and Josette Sheeran, Capital Life and Magazine editor, hold high-ranking editorial posts.

Smith Hempstone, a former associate editor of The Washington Star, is executive editor; Coit Hendley Jr., former executive editor of the Passaic, N.J., Herald-News, is the managing editor; Philip Evans, former managing editor of The Philadelphia Bulletin and The Washington Star, is assistant managing editor; and Anne Crutcher, a former editorial writer and columnist for The Star, is the editorial page editor.

The Times is a colorful, well-illustrated newspaper that offers largely strait-laced national reporting, a lively feature section called Capital Life, modest efforts at metropolitan coverage, scattershot foreign coverage and a zealous, uncompromising commitment to conservative principles on the editorial and commentary pages.

The paper has reported several news exclusives, some of which have yet to be borne out. Ron Cordray reported wrote on March 10 that Reagan intends to seek reelection and will announce his decision in June. Jeremiah O'Leary, a highly regarded White House correspondent who formerly worked for The Star, reported on April 18 that Reagan does not intend to nominate Paul A. Volcker for a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

"I read it every morning without fail, and I think a lot of other people do, because it's a good source of information," said Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. "It has some impact because it does have stories that nobody else has, and they have some damn good reporters."

Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Post, said, "I read it from time to time. It doesn't seem to me I have to read it to keep up. I read it more out of curiosity--never out of necessity."

Times reporters and editors interviewed for this story, including many veteran journalists who have worked at other papers, agree with Whelan that church officials have not interfered with production of the paper.

"I've rarely had such freedom, and it's a delight not to be leaned on by editors who want to write your story for you," said Gene Goltz, a veteran investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner.

"But sure I would always feel it would be much better if the paper had enough revenue" to be self-sufficient, Goltz added. "You never feel comfortable depending on the good will and limitless pocketbook of the owner of the paper."

Nancy Ball Halsey, 37, a church member who was hired as a metropolitan reporter, said she encountered considerable skepticism when she first began reporting, but said that's no longer a problem.

"Basically, I found people were willing to talk to me and wait and see the kind of product we produced," said Halsey, who was among the 4,148 church members who took part in a mass wedding that Moon presided over in Madison Square Garden last July.

The Times "is very different from what people feared in the beginning," Halsey said. "People feared it would be a brainwashing tool, but that's not the purpose."

Even those reporters who disagree with the paper's strident conservative tone say it reflects the views not of the church but of Whelan and his top editors and columnists, including Crutcher, Hempstone, John Lofton, Patrick Buchanan and Fred Reed.

"It's not the Moonies I'm worried about," said one Times reporter. "It's the conservatives."

Several reporters on the national staff griped last January when they were ordered to write an uncritical summary of the conservative Heritage Foundation's "Agenda '83," a lengthy wish list for presidential action that took up two full pages of the newspaper's Commentary section, according to one of those reporters.

"The Times is basically an overgrown small paper . . . that's not as interested in competition as in creating a vehicle to give voice to conservatives who previously were confined to the Manchester Union Leader," the reporter said. "The polemics have outweighed the news breaks."

Times executives have made a virtue of their contacts with President Reagan and high-ranking federal and local officials.

The paper is proud of O'Leary's exclusive interview with Reagan last August. It is pleased that its stories are included in the White House's daily news summary. It pushed hard for permission to place 11 bright-orange newspaper vending machines in Capitol Hill offices, to match those of The Washington Post, but had to settle for four.

And the paper has hosted scores of luncheons and breakfasts with top government officials, including presidential aides Edwin Meese and James Baker, Interior Secretary James Watt, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, former president Nixon, and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.

"If a measure of acceptance is who accepts your invitation to dine," the paper said in a new, 80-page promotional booklet, "The Times is doing quite well."

Diana McLellan, who wrote the highly popular Ear gossip column for The Washington Star and then The Washington Post, jumped to The Times in September 1982 to write a column called "Diana Hears."

McLellan said some of her sources dried up after she began writing for The Times, but they were replaced by others who felt more comfortable confiding in her now that she no longer is with The Post.

"I think people are frightened or intimidated by the Post, so it balances out," she said.

McLellan, who prefers working out of her home to the remote Times offices, said she's not troubled by her paper's connection with Moon's church.

"I'm like Smith Hempstone , who says that a lot of the publishers he worked for thought they were god," she said.

In a recent issue of The Columbia Journalism Review, C.T. Hanson wrote that The Times is a polished product that, in terms of its editing and the amount of news it conveys, may already rank among the top 15 or 20 papers in the country.

"It is also eccentric and often exasperating, loaded with New Right commentary, news reports on the utterances of conservative think tanks, and bizarre touches that appear aimed at military readers, local 'rednecks' and those to the right of Genghis Khan," Hanson wrote.

Fred Barnes, writing in the Washington Journalism Review, described the paper as a throwback to a journalistic style of "objective reporting" without embellishment or interpretation.

"Times reporters do not second-guess President Ronald Reagan in their news stories or point out flaws and ironies in his pronouncements or conduct," Barnes wrote. "The result is old-fashioned coverage of Reagan that is generally favorable."

The Times appears to have made an impression on some conservative politicians. At a dinner that Reagan held at the White House recently for some of his early "core" supporters, there was some discussion about The Times and about how more such "conservative" outlets could be formed. One congressman reportedly suggested that perhaps they could get a group of wealthy Republicans together to buy the Chicago Sun-Times.

Also, when presidential assistant Richard G. Darman, a White House moderate, began fretting about conservative criticism of his handling of legislative matters, it was The Times he turned to last week, in an exclusive interview, to argue that he was just carrying out Reagan's instructions.

Paul M. Weyrich, director of the conservative Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, said The Times has had some influence within the Reagan administration, but doubts it carries much weight on Capitol Hill.

"I don't know if it's making things happen like the larger papers do, but I think it's on the way to making it happen," Weyrich said.

Christopher J. Matthews, press secretary to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and a critic of the paper's news coverage, contends that The Washington Times has virtually no political significance on the Hill.

"An ideological sliver of House members reads it," Matthews said. "You almost never see any House members reading it . . . . I use the paper to find out what the White House line is. It's almost like a press release. If there's criticism of the Hill, I know where it's coming from."

An aide to conservative Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said Hatch "was a little leery at first about The Times because of who's behind it.

"But now he thinks the Times is doing a pretty good job, and he likes the columns," said Paul Smith, a spokesman for Hatch. "He feels there's a need for another voice in Washington besides The Post."

Whelan says his paper's staunch conservative outlook has won favor at the White House, but denies the paper is a "propaganda agent" for Reagan. "There are people at the White House who view us as very, very dangerous," he said.

O'Leary, 63, who worked briefly as an aide to national security adviser William Clark before joining The Times, said reporters on his paper do not receive special treatment from the White House because of the paper's conservative views.

"Do you think Jim Baker Reagan's chief of staff is conservative?" O'Leary said. "Half the White House is in the moderate range. I don't think that makes any difference. What counts is if they know you and trust you."

"If I picked up the phone right now and called one of the Big Four Reagan's top aides , I'd have as much chance of getting through as Lou Cannon of The Post ."

Sensitive to the criticism of The Times' close link to the Unification Church, Whelan said in a recent interview that his paper would achieve financial self-sufficiency "in a matter of just a few years."

However, The Times operated for the first four months without soliciting advertising, and since then, the paper has found little demand for Times ad lineage. Part of the problem is uncertainty about the paper's actual circulation.

The Times' latest circulation figures were audited by a private accounting firm, Fox & Co., but most advertisers insist that figures be certified by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), the bible of national advertisers. Whelan said that ABC would audit The Times' circulation in September, but for the time being there is considerable skepticism.

"We have not been heavily approached by The Times , but in the few conversations I've had I haven't seen a single actual fact to support what they say," said Milton C. Beaver, director of advertising for Woodward & Lothrop. "You'd like to know how many papers are going in and out of the market."

John Hechinger, president of the Hechinger Co., conceded that his firm doesn't advertise in The Times in part because of the paper's relationship with the Unification Church.

"It's on my mind," Hechinger said. "There's some caution because of that."

A spokesman for Riggs National Bank, the largest bank in Washington, declined to say why his bank doesn't advertise in The Times. "I think that's one subject we'd prefer not to get involved in," he said.

The Times' circulation, according to company figures, is about one-sixth of The Post's daily circulation of 747,676 and slightly less than the Journal newspapers' circulation of 136,002. Richard Simmons, president of The Washington Post Co., said at an annual stockholders' meeting last Friday that publication of The Times has had no negative impact on The Post's circulation.

Of the 126,582 papers The Times said it sold as of March 31, 95,000 were carrier-delivered to subscribers in the metropolitan area, 17,848 were mailed and 13,734 were sold at newsstands.

A study conducted for the paper by Belden Associates, a prominent consulting firm based in Dallas, found that 26 percent of the subscribers read The Times exclusively, that 55 percent do not read The Post, that the median income of subscribers is $30,000 a year and that one in every five subscribers earns $50,000.

Times executives say the advent of USA Today, the Gannett Corp.'s national daily newspaper, has had no impact on Times circulation

Whelan said his paper is shooting for a circulation of about 250,000 generally "upscale" conservative readers--a sort of "Washingtonian Magazine-type market"--to attract sizable advertising.

"What we're aiming at is skimming the market," he said. "We're not interested in competing with The Post in raw numbers."

Richard Viguerie, the conservative whiz of direct-mail fund-raising, was retained to help find conservative readers, although the paper has had more success with mass advertising and promotional activities.

Staff members were upset by one novel promotional campaign, designed by a Baltimore ad agency, that showed a Times reader with a bag over his head. While it grabbed a lot of attention, reporters were upset because it suggested that people were embarrassed to be seen reading The Times.

"It certainly was a good move in attention getting, because everyone noticed it," Whelan said. "Now what did it do for our image? That's subjective, harder to measure. And you will get very strong, impassioned opinions of it."