Jane Whaley, 77, above, who runs the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, with her husband Sam, stands accused in AP investigative report of running the church like a sadistic dictator.
Congregants, according to the AP’s Mitch Weiss, 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.
The AP also spent more than a year tracking down dozens of former disciples who scattered after leaving the church. Many initially were reluctant to break their silence because they had hidden their pasts from new friends and colleagues – and because they remain afraid of Whaley.
Those interviewed – most of them raised in the church – say Word of Faith leaders waged a decades-long cover-up to thwart investigations by law enforcement and social services officials, including strong-arming young victims and their parents to lie. They said members were forbidden to seek outside medical attention for their injuries, which included cuts, sprains and cracked ribs.
Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers – even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken, screamed at and sometimes smacked to banish demons.
Said Katherine Fetachu, 27, who spent nearly 17 years in the church.
I saw so many people beaten over the years. Little kids punched in the face, called Satanists.
The church responded yesterday by calling victims liars.
In a press release it said:
We are shocked and saddened to learn of the false allegations made against our church and its pastors by certain former members and reported in a recent Associated Press article authored by Mitch Weiss.
We do not condone or allow abuse – in any form – at our church. Period.
These false allegations were predominantly made by members of an extended family, with one of its members currently facing several legal battles, both civil and criminal.
We believe these allegations are carefully targeted and timed to prejudice the jury pool, put pressure on the judges and elected officials, and otherwise influence the public in an attempt to gain advantage in these legal cases …
False allegations have been made against our church in the past. Investigations at several levels of government have been conducted. We have been exonerated at every point … We remain hopeful that the public will see through these fabrications and see them for what they are.
Word of Faith Fellowship, an evangelical church with hundreds of members in North Carolina and branches in other countries, also subjected members to a practice called “blasting” – an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.
The former members said they were speaking out now due to guilt for not doing more to stop the abuse and because they fear for the safety of the children still in the church, believed to number about 100.
Several former followers said some congregants were sexually abused, including minors. In one recorded conversation, Whaley admits to being aware of the sexual assault of three boys but not reporting it to authorities.
Ex-members said the violence was 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. Some male congregants were separated from their families and other followers for up to a year and subjected to the same brutal treatment.
Teachers in the church’s K-12 school encouraged students to beat their classmates for daydreaming, smiling and other behavior that leaders said proved they were possessed by devils.
Said Rick Cooper, 61, a US Navy veteran who spent more than 20 years as a congregant and raised nine children in the church.
It wasn’t enough to yell and scream at the devils. You literally had to beat the devils out of people.
Word of Faith was founded in 1979 by Whaley, a petite former math teacher with a thick Southern accent, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman.
They are listed as co-pastors but all of those interviewed said it is Jane Whaley – a fiery 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 35-acre complex protected by tight security and a thick line of trees.
The group also has nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana, and affiliations with branches in other countries.
Looking back, some former members told the AP they that consider Word of Faith a cult.
The church’s obsession with controlling sexual thoughts and “ungodly” carnal pleasure – especially lengthy interrogations of pre-teens and teens about masturbation – spilled into every aspect of congregants’ lives, the former members say.
And, they say, when allegations of sexual abuse arose within the church, Whaley not only didn’t report it but tried to hide it.
In 2012, in a three-hour conversation with a former congregant recorded without her knowledge, Whaley acknowledged she was aware of several instances of sexual abuse at Word of Faith.
In one case involving two boys, she said she failed to report the incident:
Because it had all stopped, and they were serving Jesus, and I found out about it way later.
She also said that:
One of the former members interviewed by the AP said he was sexually assaulted by a church member in 2009, when he was 15. The man, whose name is not being used because the AP does not identify victims of sexual assault, said Whaley convinced him not to go to the authorities by telling him he would be forced to relive the terrible details in court.
Because of ministerial confidentiality, I don’t have to.
Another former member said he was molested by a male church leader but was “too ashamed” and scared how Whaley would react to tell anyone. He said he saw the same leader inappropriately touch several male teens living in the minister’s house, but did not report those incidents for the same reasons.
According to court records, a church leader was convicted in 1995 of molesting a 13-year-old girl placed in his home. Of that victim, Whaley said on the 2012 recording
She was 13, but she looked 20.
Whaley recounted telling the local district attorney that the girl was partially responsible for the abuse because she previously had been sexually assaulted by a family member and others.
For several years, men and boys perceived as the worst sinners were kept in a four-room former storage facility in the compound called the Lower Building. They were cut off from their families for up to a year, never knew when they would be released, and endured especially violent, prolonged beatings and blastings, according to more than a dozen of those interviewed.
Two former members said a 20-year-old woman was repeatedly smacked and punched by a church leader who blamed her late menstrual cycle on pregnancy, when she hadn’t obtained church permission to have a child. In fact, the victim said she’d never had sex with her husband; they’d only kissed – once.
Said Rachael Bryant, 28, who left the church last year:
That was one of the worst beatings. She started punching her in the chest, punching her in the stomach, slapping her in the face. It went on and on.
Sixteen of the former members said they were hit or beaten by Whaley, including two who said she banged their heads against a wall repeatedly. Another 14 said they saw her smack or assault others – including grabbing crying babies at services and aggressively shaking them to drive away the demons.
Tim Cornelius, 44, a nurse who left in 2013 after more than 20 years in the church, said that in the eyes of Word of Faith leaders:
The baby isn’t hungry or needs to be changed. The baby is crying because they’re possessed by a devil.
Hat tip: BarrieJohn