Ex-con­gre­gants re­veal un­godly abuse

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - NATION & WORLD -

SPIN­DALE, N.C.— From all over the world, they flocked to this tiny town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Moun­tains, lured by prom­ises of in­ner peace and eter­nal life.

What many found years of ter­ror waged in God’s name.

Con­gre­gants of theWord of Faith Fel­low­ship were reg­u­larly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a vi­o­lent form of de­liv­er­ance meant to “pu­rify” sin­ners by beat­ing out devils, 43 for­mer mem­bers said in sep­a­rate, ex­clu­sive in­ter­views.

Vic­tims of the violence in­cluded pre-teens and tod­dlers — even cry­ing ba­bies, who were vig­or­ously shaken, screamed at and some­times smacked to ban­ish demons.

“I saw so many peo­ple beaten over the years. Lit­tle kids punched in the face, called Satanists,” said Kather­ine Fe­tachu, 27, who spent nearly 17 years in the church.

Word of Faith also sub­jected mem­bers to a prac­tice called “blast­ing” — an ear-pierc­ing ver­bal on­slaught often con­ducted in hours-long ses­sions meant to cast out devils.

As part of its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­viewed­hun­dreds of pages of law en­force­ment, court and child wel­fare doc­u­ments, along with hours of con­ver­sa­tions with Jane Wha­ley, the evan­gel­i­cal church’s con­trol­ling leader, se­cretly recorded by fol­low­ers.

The AP also spent more than a year track­ing down dozens of for­mer dis­ci­ples who scat­tered af­ter leav­ing the church.

Those in­ter­viewed — most of them raised in the in­stead: — church— sayWord of Faith lead­ers waged a decades­long cover-up to thwart in­ves­ti­ga­tions by law en­force­ment and so­cial ser­vices of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing strong-arm­ing young vic­tims and their par­ents to lie.

They said mem­ber­swere for­bid­den to seek out­side med­i­cal at­ten­tion for their in­juries, which in­cluded cuts, sprains and cracked ribs.

Sev­eral for­mer fol­low­ers said some con­gre­gants were sex­u­ally abused, in­clud­ing mi­nors.

The for­mer mem­bers said they­were speak­ing out now­be­cause of guilt for not do­ing more to stop the abuse and be­cause they fear for the safety of the chil­dren still in the church, thought to num­ber about 100.

In the past, Wha­ley has strongly de­nied that she or other church lead­ers have ever abused Word of Faith mem­bers and con­tended that any dis­ci­plinewould be pro­tected by the First Amend­ment’s free­dom of re­li­gion tenets.

She and church at­tor­ney Josh Farmer turned down re­peated re­quests for in­ter­views to dis­cuss the fresh al­le­ga­tions from the dozens of for­mer con­gre­gants.

The ex-mem­bers said the vi­o­lence­was ever-present.

Mi­nors were taken from their par­ents and placed in min­is­ters’ homes, where they were beaten and blasted and some­times com­pletely cut off from their fam­i­lies for up to a decade.

For sev­eral years, males per­ceived as the worst sin­ners were kept in a four­room­former stor­age fa­cil­ity in the compound called the Lower Build­ing.

They were cut off from their fam­i­lies for up to a year, never knew when­they would be re­leased, and en­dured es­pe­cially vi­o­lent, pro­longed beat­ings and blast­ings, ac­cord­ing to­more than a dozen of those in­ter­viewed.

Teach­ers in the church’s K-12 school en­cour­aged stu­dents to beat their class­mates for day­dream­ing, smil­ing and other be­hav­ior that lead­ers said proved they­w­ere­pos­sessedby devils, the for­mer fol­low­ers said.

“It wasn’t enough to yell and scream at the devils. You lit­er­ally had to beat the devils out of peo­ple,” said Rick Cooper, 61, a U.S. Navy vet­eran who spent more than 20 years as a con­gre­gant and raised nine chil­dren in the church.

Word ofFaithFel­low­ship has been scru­ti­nized on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions by law en­force­ment, so­cial ser­vices agen­cies and the news me­dia since the early 1990s — all with­out sig­nif­i­cant im­pact, mostly be­cause fol­low­ers re­fused to co­op­er­ate.

Some for­mer mem­bers of­fered a more doc­tri­nal ex­pla­na­tion for their decades of si­lence: Fre­quent warn­ings by Wha­ley that God would strike them dead if they be­trayed her or her church.

Word ofFaithFel­low­ship was founded in 1979 by Wha­ley, a pe­tite for­mer math teacher, Sam, a car sales­man.

They are listed as co­pas­tors but all of those in­ter­viewed said it is Jane Wha­ley — a fiery, 77-yearold Chris­tian Charis­matic preacher — who main­tains dic­ta­to­rial con­trol of the flock and also ad­min­is­ters some of the beat­ings her­self.

She has scores of strict rules to con­trol con­gre­gants’ lives, in­clud­ing whether they can marry or have chil­dren. At the top of the list: No one can com­plain about her or ques­tion her author­ity. Fail­ure to com­ply often trig­gers a hu­mil­i­at­ing re­buke from the pul­pit or, worse, phys­i­cal pun­ish­ment, ac­cord­ing to most of those in­ter­viewed.

Un­der Jane Wha­ley’s lead­er­ship, Word of Faith grew from a hand­ful of fol­low­ers to a 750-mem­ber sect, con­cen­trated in a 35acre com­plex pro­tected by tight se­cu­rity and a thick line of trees.

The group and her hus­band, for­mer used also has nearly 2,000 mem­bers in churches in Brazil and Ghana, and af­fil­i­a­tions in other coun­tries.

Those at­tend­ing the church’s twice-a-year in­ter­na­tional Bi­ble sem­i­nars were en­cour­aged to move to Spin­dale, a com­mu­nity of 4,300 mid­way be­tween Char­lotte and Asheville. It wasn’t un­til they sold their homes and set­tled in North Carolina that the church’s “dark side” grad­u­ally emerged, for­mer mem­bers said.

By then — iso­lated from their fam­i­lies and friends, and be­liev­ing Wha­ley­was a prophet — they were afraid to leave or speak out, they said.

Given what they char­ac­ter­ize as Wha­ley’s record for ret­ri­bu­tion against those she sees as traitors, the for­mer mem­bers said they hope there is strength and pro­tec­tion in speak­ing out in num­bers.

“For most of my life, I lived in fear. I’m not scared any­more,” said John Cooper, one of Rick Cooper’s sons.

Still, many for­mer church mem­bers say the mem­o­ries — and the night­mares— never seem to fade, andthey live in­fear for their fam­ily mem­bers still in­side.

Danielle Cordes, now 22, said she has deep psy­cho­log­i­cal scars from spend­ing more than three-quar­ters of her life in Wha­ley’sworld.

Three years ago, the last time she tried to visit her par­ents’ house, her fa­ther slammed the door in her face with­out say­ing a word. To this day, when­ever she calls, fam­ily mem­bers hang up.

“I need my fam­ily they’re gone,” she said.

Said Rick Cooper: “You’re cut off from ev­ery­one in the world. The church — and Jane — is the only thing you know. You be­lieve she’s a prophet — she has a pipe­line to God. So you stand by while she rips your fam­ily apart. I’m not sure how you ever get over that.” and


John Cooper, shown at age 12, grew up in theWord of Faith Fel­low­ship church. “For most of my life, I lived in fear,” he says.

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