BATON ROUGE, LA., FEB. 21 -- Weeping, his voice a rasp, Jimmy Swaggart, the televangelist who built a $156 million global TV empire preaching fiery sermons against sin, today confessed to his own.

Before an overflow crowd of more than 6,000 at his ministry's Family Worship Center here, Swaggart begged forgiveness and said he would step down from his pulpit for an "indeterminate period of time."

"I do not plan in any way to whitewash my sin," he said, alluding without elaboration to reports that he had been guilty of sexual misconduct. "No one is to blame but Jimmy Swaggart.

"I take the responsibility. I take the blame. I take the fall."

It was an unlikely twist in a year of evangelical scandal that has tested the faith of America's 70 million born-again Christians and has financially wounded a number of prominent religious broadcasters.

Last March, PTL founder Jim Bakker stepped down from his pulpit after confessing adultery. Swaggart, who like Bakker was ordained by the Assemblies of God charismatic church, had helped initiate the investigation that led to Bakker's fall.

Today, Forrest Hall, secretary-treasurer of the Louisiana District of the Assemblies of God, said Swaggart was admitting "specific incidents of a moral failure." He declared that Swaggart had "shown true humility and repentance" in submitting to denomination rules governing wayward preachers.

Declining to provide details, Hall said: "No spiritual purpose would be served. There has been a detailed confession to those wronged and to established church authority. This is a church matter."

The Swaggart investigation was reportedly instigated by another former Assemblies evangelist, Marvin Gorman of New Orleans, who in 1986 was defrocked by the denomination after Swaggart accused him of sexual dalliances.

Gorman was reported to have provided photographs to Assemblies officials in Springfield, Mo., showing Swaggart entering a motel room with a prostitute. "I know they exist and they're very relevant," said Gorman's attorney Hunter Lundy, of the photos. But ABC News quoted an unidentified source saying the photos were open to interpretation.

A teary-eyed William Treeby, Swaggart's attorney, today declined to comment on specifics. "The Louisiana district has asked us not to say anything," he said.

However, a source who spoke to a Jimmy Swaggart World Ministries board member said yesterday that the evangelist had confessed that he has been plagued by a fascination with pornography and pornographic literature -- a compulsion that dates back to his boyhood. In the case of the alleged incident with the prostitute, the source said, Swaggart said he had not engaged in sexual intercourse with the woman but admitted that "he paid her to perform pornographic acts."

Swaggart reportedly told ministry board members that he has been anguished and emotionally distraught over the matter, and had kept it hidden from his wife Frances.

On ABC's "Nightline" Friday, columnist Cal Thomas, who once worked for televangelist Jerry Falwell and has written extensively on the evangelical movement, said he understood from sources inside Swaggart's ministry that the incident was not sexual but "pornographic."

Asked for comment, a Swaggart confidant said, "You'd love to let people know the real story, but I have to abide by church orders not to comment." The confidant added that the Swaggarts had a "very strong marriage. It's a very trying time. People are weary. But we believe when you do the right thing, everything works out for the best."

Ministry officials hope Swaggart's penalty will be light, perhaps limited to a three-month probation, the source said. Copastor Jim Rentz will assume pastoral duties while Swaggart undergoes an undetermined period of rehabilitation and reflection, in accordance with church bylaws.

Sources said district officials were expected to meet as early as Monday in Alexandria, La., to weigh Swaggart's fate. But ministry officials here doubted Swaggart, who ranks as the largest single donor to the Assemblies, would face a severe exile from his pulpit. "Justice can sometimes be best served with mercy," said Hall.

Swaggart's ministry reaches 3.6 million American viewers and perhaps hundreds of millions in 145 foreign countries. In 1986, Swaggart gave $12 million to the Assemblies of God's foreign missions program -- far more than any other single source. By comparison, PTL's donation that year was less than $200,000.

With almost 3 million members in the United States, the Assemblies is among the largest Protestant bodies and one of the fastest growing.

Yesterday, Swaggart embraced Hall, then strode to the pulpit and let the applause roll over him. Head bowed, he began: "I will pray that you will somehow feel the anguish, the pain and the love of my heart."

Swaggart pleaded for mercy from God, his wife Frances, his son Donnie, denomination ministers and the millions he has tried to reach in televised crusades.

"Why?" he asked, his voice breaking. "I have asked myself that 10,000 times through 10,000 tears. Maybe Jimmy Swaggart has tried to live his entire life as though he was not human . . . {But} this Gospel is flawless, even though it is ministered by flawed men."

A hush fell over the sanctuary as stunned onlookers, some speaking in tongues, wept and then shouted support. Men bowed their heads and cried, and women dabbed at running mascara with tissues from boxes thoughtfully scattered about. "It takes a big man to do that," said a woman as tears rolled down her husband's face.

At times, Swaggart's voice sank to a whisper. He broke into sobs. It seemed as if he might be unable to preach, but he did, vowing his ministry would go on.

"Will the ministry continue?" he asked. "Yes, the ministry will continue."

The Rev. Joseph Flower, executive vice president for the national Assemblies of God organization, said it is unclear at this point what will happen to Swaggart's ministry. "Things are up in the air," he said. He declined to comment further.

Swaggart's crusade director, Jerald Ogg Sr., said that two scheduled crusades to Barbados and Trinidad have been scrapped. "It's just part of a process," he said.

When he began his public contrition, Swaggart turned to face his wife, seated onstage in a pink dress.

"I have sinned against you," he said, as if gasping for breath, "and I beg your forgiveness."

He begged God for another chance. "I would ask that your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain until it is in the seas of God's forgetfulness never to be remembered again."

When it was over, his wife threw her arms around his neck and held on. Board members onstage flocked to embrace him. Volunteer ushers in red blazers and worshipers poured down the aisle to form a giant huddle of hugging that lasted almost 20 minutes.

Afterward, Swaggart devotees appeared shocked, filing out slowly. A few appeared elated that he had confessed. "He's practicing what he preaches," declared Emile Weber, 65, a Baton Rouge attorney with a white flat-top haircut. "He asked God to forgive him, that's all anyone can do."

Outside, one woman sat on the steps and wept as she waited for a taxi. "I really felt for his wife and family, but I think it was very courageous what he did today," said Jean Jacobson, 53, a retired legal secretary from New Jersey. "When we make mistakes and stumble, we just ask the Lord's forgiveness. That's what it's all about."

Coming less than a year after Bakker was defrocked, Swaggart's confession was seen by University of Virginia sociologist Jeffrey Hadden as "a terrible blow" to television evangelism.

Hadden said he was "shocked" at the revelations about Swaggart, particularly because Swaggart has been so critical of sinners from the pulpit. But he said he had no doubt Swaggart would return to preaching. "He may come back even stronger," Hadden said, given the allure of the biblical concepts of sin, forgiveness and redemption.

"You saw a man confess to the world," said copastor Rentz. "He did what he felt he must do."

Staff writers Michael Isikoff and Laura Sessions Stepp contributed to this report.