Ex-mem­bers say church uses power, lies to keep grip on kids

Porterville Recorder - - THE RECORD - By MITCH WEISS and HOL­BROOK MOHR

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...

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