Former Followers Felt Hard Pressure To Give

They tell of donating thousands, making loans

The New London Day, Eastern Connecticut, May 30, 1999
By Kyn Tolson and Paul Choiniere

Money for Ralph Lauren shirts. Funds to build an orphanage in Honduras. Donations for a prophet’s vacation to Disney World. Christmas gifts for people in England. Support for pastor Sam Wibberley’s private tire business in Danielson. Renovations at pastors’ homes in Jewett City. A covered, in-ground pool in England for Syro, the prophet.

There are so many reasons to give.

For the believers at The King’s Chapel in Norwich, regular tithing, special pledges and free labor seem a way of life. Some have taken out loans against their homes and turned the money over to the church. One woman sold her rings in order to give more.

Their faith was exacting, but where their money went over the years may be impossible to track. Pastors would not release any financial information connected with King’s Chapel or Bethel Church in England. In a group interview, they would not talk about any finances, but Wibberley said that pastors here get minimal stipends. They would not discuss their ex-parishioners.

King’s Chapel has a tax-exempt status granted in 1981 to Dayspring Church of God.

Churches with this exemption are not required to file any records with state and federal governments, but some do. King’s Chapel, which merged with Dayspring in the 1980s, files nothing.

Bethel Church operates a tax-exempt charity called Hope International, which states its primary purpose as helping Hondurans and other needy people in the world. From 1995 through 1997, about $290,000 was raised, according to British government documents. More than half the money for those three years went back to church members and leaders in salaries, administrative costs and lodging fees.

Sallie Bowen and her husband, Tom, who was being groomed as a leader, left King’s Chapel last spring after 17 years. They remember pastors getting angry whenever anyone asked how money was spent. Such questions, according to the Bowens and many others, were interpreted as a lack of faith, even a defiance of God’s will, which could lead to a public “rebuking” during a church service or a meeting.

Debra Lathrop said, “We were always asked every summer to give money for Syro’s family vacation. … A lot of people had problems with that. And they were criticized publicly, embarrassed if they even raised a question.”

“You just didn’t ask,” said Tom Bowen.

A sampling of what some former parishioners have given over the years follows:

  • Clenton and Teri Collier’s tax records show $61,300 in donations during four of the six years from 1982 to 1988. That amount was 33 percent of Clenton’s $186,700 earned income for the same four years.

    When Clenton’s parents in Texas paid off the mortgage on his home at 78 East Main St. in Jewett City, he re-mortgaged it at Home Owner’s Mortgage in Bridgeport for $88,000 in June 1986. He remembers giving that money to the church, but he doesn’t have documented proof.

    In 1984, the couple was audited by the IRS for claiming excessive contributions the year before. Once Clenton showed that part of their contributions came from money given to him by his parents, they were cleared.

    The former Navy officer, now 48, was once stationed in Groton. During the last few years that he belonged to King’s Chapel he was a civilian and worked at two engineering firms in Rhode Island. Now he is a logistics engineer near Dallas.

    He recalls giving $6,000 to help build an orphanage in Honduras. He saw what he thinks were building foundations during a visit to the Central American country in February 1987, but the orphanage was never completed. He remembers that pastors “praised God they got the $60,000 that was asked for.” The goal for the orphanage was reached within a month or two of the time they began asking at services and other gatherings for pledges, he says. He never heard where the money went or why the plan fizzled.

    Collier thinks he was selected as an associate pastor at King’s Chapel because of his “money and willingness.” He recalls being asked occasionally to buy “spiritual shares” in Sam Wibberley Tire, the business that pastor Sam J. Wibberley owns.

    He remembers buying several of them over the years. He, like others who gave money in that way, describes Wibberley’s openness about the purpose of the “investments.”

    “Oh, he was out-front about that,” Collier said. “They were to pay the bills.”

    In September 1988, on the day he moved out of Jewett City, Collier went to Wibberley’s house to demand the return of $2,000 he recently had given as a share. Collier was headed out to join his wife and children in Texas. Teri had been desperate to leave the church, and he had grown disenchanted.

    “I knew that money wasn’t going to the church,” Collier said. “It was going to his business, and I wanted it back. … I wanted to make a point.”

    He can still picture Wibberley yelling at him from the stoop. He didn’t get the money.

  • For John and Debra Lathrop, tax records show they gave $90,000 from 1982 to 1998.

    What those records don’t reflect is a $40,000 home equity loan from Fleet Bank that they took out six years ago. All of that money was originally intended to be their loan to King’s Chapel, but the couple ended up keeping $5,000 for septic work at their home on Fogarty Road in Jewett City.

    Debra, 43, says they took out the loan after being approached four times by a group of church elders. The exact purpose of the money, she says, was never explained.

    “We really were put on the spot,” she said. “And I believe we were coerced into it. … They tried to act like they were doing this independently of the ministry. Nobody ever does anything independently without Sam Wibberley knowing it.”

    The couple says that a promise of repayment within two years was never met. A contract written up by Priscilla Pepin, who is a secretary at Sam Wibberley Tire and treasurer of King’s Chapel, never properly reflected the verbal agreement, Debra says. She sent it back long ago for revisions but doesn’t have a new version.

    Today, about $18,300 is still outstanding. Debra figures that she and her husband are responsible for about $1,500 of it.

    “They are still paying us monthly,” said John, who goes to Pepin’s house to collect the $442. That amount is the church’s share of the $504.76 monthly payments. “I’m not complaining. … I don’t think it’s insane what we did. It’s not wise.”|

    John says he got a message in mid-May about the loan from his friend and former boss, Kevin F. Hamel, who is the church’s youth minister. Hamel, he says, left word he’s encouraged that a loan application made by the church to Eastern Savings and Loan Association will eventually be approved so that the Lathrops can be repaid outright.

  • Giving for Debra Lathrop and many other women meant months of planning, craft-making and raffle sales for the church’s annual fund-raiser before Christmas. As much as $20,000 or more might be raised, according to dozens of people.

    All the money, they say, would go to church prophet Jean Spademan — known as Syro —to buy presents. Sue Wing, once among the faithful, remembers the annual rite described as “Syro’s Big Christmas.” She says some women —- Goldie Dwyer McPhaul among them — would be invited to England to help with the wrapping.

    “Every year Jean believes God tells her to buy thousands of dollars worth of gifts, which represent to them new converts,” said Nancy Davis, an ex-church member. She, like others, was never told about the specific gifts or who they were given to.

    Spademan, according to ex-parishioners, would tell them that God would be so pleased with their giving that he would bring more people into King’s Chapel and Bethel Church.

  • Sallie and Tom Bowen document about $50,000 in cash donations from the early 1980s until 1998.

    “We were always made to feel guilty that our sins were making Syro ill,” said Sallie, 34. One way to thank the prophet for her “counseling,” she says, was to give money for her creature comforts.

    “Could we all give an offering for her to bring back (to England) a dozen Ralph Lauren polo shirts for her grandchildren?” said Sallie, recalling one of the more bizarre requests.

    In 1995 the Bowens were approached by Pastor John V. Monahan Jr., who said he and Wibberley needed seed money to start a used car business.

    “There is no one else. The Lord is choosing you,” they remembered him saying.

    The couple agreed to take out a $10,000 cash advance, which maxed out their MasterCard, and turned the money over to the pastors. They say the men agreed to repay it.

    They had no written agreement about the deal until a bank demanded they get it as a prerequisite to obtaining a mortgage on their new home. Wibberley Tire continues to make the minimum payments on the credit card bills, Sallie says.

    The car sales enterprise lasted only a few months.

    Sallie worked five years for no pay as a secretary and salesperson at Wibberley Tire from January 1987 until July 1992, according to work records. Some weeks were more than full-time, she says. In July 1992, she began earning $95 weekly after complaining to Wibberley that she and her husband could not support their two young children. She later got several pay raises and was making $7.75 an hour when she left in April 1998.

A branch of the cash trail leads to Bethel Church in Mansfield-Woodhouse, England.

That’s the home of Rev. John Hibbert, the church’s leading pastor, Spademan and many of her relatives. It is also home to Hope International, a non-profit organization associated with the church. Hibbert, Spademan and her daughter and son-in-law, Christine and Stephen Jeffs, are listed as trustees.

In a November 1998 article in the British press, Hibbert stated that, through Hope, more than 100 Honduran teen-agers have been brought to Mansfield-Woodhouse to be educated at the church’s mission school and local colleges. In the article Hibbert pledged the agency’s help for Hondurans recovering from Hurricane Mitch. Public donations were requested.

Records at the Charity Commission for England and Wales show that Hope was registered as a charity in June 1990. The agency’s function is described as “relief of poverty and sickness and the advancement of education” both nationally and internationally.

Documents for the three years 1997, 1996 and 1995 — the most recent available — show the following total income and total expenditures, which were converted from British pounds to dollars using today’s exchange rate:

  • 1997: income of $67,956 and expenditures of $67,988. Of the expenditures, $51,961 went to salaries, administration and lodging payments to hosts.
  • 1996: income of $100,322 and expenditures of $94,528. Of the expenses, $59,071 was for salaries, administration and lodging.
  • 1995: income of $120,681 and expenditures of $98,208. From the latter, $47,016 went to salaries and administration. Lodging costs were not available.

Documents sent by Hibbert to the charity commission mention only Hondurans as lodgers. However, Jessica Suprenant, now 22 and a former King’s Chapel member from Jewett City, says that during several visits to England she and other Americans signed papers stating they were lodgers connected with the charity. That, in essence, enabled her hosts to get paid, she says.

Suprenant and others say that the Honduran lodgers they saw ranged in age from their late teens to late 20s and were often kept busy with cleaning, cooking and other household chores.

In a pre-Easter Sunday service at King’s Chapel this year, Hibbert told the congregation of how his parish recently sent money to Honduras.

During the same service, other pastors asked for a “special collection” for “missionary work.” In an interview later, they would not give any details except to say that the money was going to “one person.”

Hibbert and the other pastors would not discuss church finances or the Honduran mission. Spademan, Wibberley and Hibbert each has adopted one Honduran child.

Americans who have visited England say fund-raising for Hope International is a priority.

Natasha [K], now 19, recalls that during a visit before Christmas 1996 she was told to dress as a clown and solicit donations for Hope on the street. When she complained, she says, Spademan criticized her lack of faith and sent her back out the next day. She recalls working from dawn until dark in dank weather.

“I hated it,” said [K]. “I felt so stupid.”

Many of the 36 former parishioners interviewed say that when they traveled to England for long or short visits they were asked to carry separate suitcases filled with clothing, jewelry or household goods. They gave the suitcases to Spademan, her family members and others in the Bethel parish. They avoided custom fees, they say, by telling authorities that the personal contents would be taken back to the United States.

Sallie Bowen and others remember pastors justifying the lies by saying that the church was one family and shared everything.

Some people were asked to take cash in sealed envelopes, says Bowen. One mother tells how her teen-age son was told to stuff an envelope of cash down the front of his pants.

There is no limit on how much cash a person can travel with overseas, but amounts over $10,000 must be declared on a written form, according to U.S. Customs. Hibbert says no customs laws have been violated by church members.

The association between King’s Chapel and Bethel Church is extremely costly, according to people in Jewett City.

Travel expenses to and from England are a constant consideration, say ex-members. Spademan goes back and forth often. Hibbert has traveled here at least twice this year. Wibberley, according to his son Christopher, would sometimes go over for weeks or months. “And then my mother would join him,” he said. “They were always going there for something.”

Over the last two decades, pastors and Spademan have gone to various spots around the world on trips they described as missionary work. Wibberley, when he is home, is often on the telephone with Spademan or pastors in England.

“I bet the monthly phone bills are in the thousands,” said John Lathrop, 39, a longtime member who left last summer.

Like many people in King’s Chapel and Bethel Church, he worked with pastor Kevin Hamel, who owns a construction company. George [K], 34, says workers sometimes were asked to donate their overtime pay to the church. No accounting of those donations appeared in their checks, he says.

For many at King’s Chapel, the operations of Sam Wibberley Tire and the church seemed, in many ways, one and the same. The majority of about 40 current and former members of the church interviewed have worked for free at the private business in Danielson.

The business is owned by the church’s head pastor and is managed by co-pastor John V. Monahan Jr. Wibberley, along with his father, Max, used to run the family’s first tire shop in Canterbury. That shop closed in 1991.

“It was considered (service) ‘as unto the Lord’ ” to volunteer there, said Maria [K].

Sallie Bowen worked at Wibberley Tire for 11 years. She names 27 people — all church members from Connecticut or England — who volunteered. The Day verified more than half on that list. The others could not be tracked down or they still belong to King’s Chapel. Many are in their native England.

Volunteering involved cleaning, stacking tires, helping with renovations, decorating and other activities not directly tied to sales and service, according to Bowen and others. Parish children often helped their parents, they say.

Their descriptions include English citizens staying here for months at a time working for free or for nominal wages of $50 weekly, plus room and board.

A former shop manager, who requested anonymity, says that one early morning in the mid-1980s Wibberley called him at the shop to make sure that two Englishmen would be “on the road” before labor inspectors stopped in that day. Those men did sales, road repairs, and they worked full-time, says the man, who was not a church member. He remembers them being there for months.

Clenton Collier, a former associate pastor now living in Texas, says that Englishmen working there sometimes came to the United States on regular visitors’ visas and stayed longer on student visas. “They weren’t taking classes anywhere,” he said. “They were working.”

Collier complained to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service after he left the church in 1988. The agency has no records of any violations.

Glenn Bissonette, a Danielson resident, worked nearly four years without pay at Wibberley as a service manager. He collected retroactively for a half-year’s salary after making a labor complaint. A statute of limitation prevented him from getting more.


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