Ex-members say church uses power, lies to keep grip on kids
SPINDALE, North Carolina — As a court-appointed advocate for two foster boys, it was Nancy Burnette’s job to ensure they were in good hands. So as part of her casework, she visited Word of Faith Fellowship, the evangelical church they attended with the couple seeking to adopt them.
What happened next haunts her: In the middle of the service, the chanting and singing suddenly stopped, Burnette said, and the fiery pastor pointed at Burnette, accusing her of being “wicked.” “You are here to cause strife!” she recalled Jane Whaley shouting, as she sensed congregants begin to converge upon her. “You don’t think these kids are supposed to be here!”
Terrified, Burnette left, but not before promising the boys, ages 4 and almost 2, that she would return — a promise she ultimately could not keep.
“What I didn’t know was how hard Word of Faith would fight — and the tactics they would use — to keep the kids,” Burnette told The Associated Press.
That was not the only time Word of Faith Fellowship’s leaders and members have used positions of authority, intimidation or deception to bring children into the church’s folds or keep them from leaving — often at Whaley’s behest, according to dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of court records, police reports and social services documents obtained by the AP.
As a result, children have been introduced to sometimes violent church practices that run counter to the North Carolina laws designed to protect them, the AP found.
The state promotes “family preservation,” designed to prevent the “unnecessary placement of children away from their families.” But the AP found that some young congregants have been separated from their parents for up to a decade — bounced from family to family — as leaders strive to keep them in the church.
In addition, three single mothers told the AP that a longtime Word of Faith Fellowship member who was a county court clerk bypassed the foster system and eventually won permanent custody of their children, even though a judge called the clerk’s conduct inappropriate. Two of the mothers said the clerk approached them and offered to temporarily keep the children while they served their jail time.
The AP interviewed a dozen former congregants who said they had personally witnessed the three children living with the clerk being subjected to intense screaming sessions called “blasting” aimed at casting out demons, or being held down, shaken or beaten.
Even as she battled desperately for her young son, one of the three women had told a judge that, if she could not have him, the boy would be better off in foster care due to the church’s abusive nature.
A lawyer for Whaley, Noell Tin, disputed the AP’S conclusions.
“The notion that church members separate children from their parents at Ms. Whaley’s urging is preposterous,” he said. “The idea that a thriving and diverse church like the Word of Faith Fellowship functions in this manner is an insult to its members.”
Under Whaley’s leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship has grown to about 750 congregants in North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 members in its churches in Brazil and Ghana and through affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.
As part of an ongoing investigation into the church, the AP already has cited dozens of former members as saying congregants were regularly punched and choked in an effort to “purify” sinners. Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers, they said — even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken and sometimes smacked to banish devils.
Now, the AP has uncovered numerous instances in which Word of Faith leaders turned children against their parents, with the children then taken in or adopted by other church families. Ex-members told the AP of at least two dozen such cases, which they attributed to the church trying to keep minors from leaving the congregation.
AP PHOTO BY CHUCK BURTON Nancy Burnette talks about her experience as a child advocate during an interview in Spindale, N.C., on Sept. 27. As a court-appointed advocate for two foster boys, she visited the Word of Faith Fellowship, the evangelical church they attended with the couple seeking to adopt them. Arriving in the middle of a service, the chanting and singing suddenly stopped, Burnette said, and the fiery pastor pointed at Burnette, accusing her of being “wicked.” “You are here to cause strife!” she recalled Jane Whaley shouting. “You don’t think these kids are supposed to be here!”