A BRITISH grandmother is the head of an international cult-style sect ruled by fear, guilt and manipulation, say former followers.
The power of the church run by self-styled servant of God Jean Spademan, 75, over members is absolute, they claim.
Followers were told that even to voice doubts about the wisdom of the leaders of the Bethel Interdenominational Church in the Nottinghamshire village of Mansfield Woodhouse or its sister King's Chapel in Connecticut was a sin.
Many members have handed over thousands of pounds to the sect, even getting into debt with "love offerings", some of which have been used to allow Mrs Spademan, known as Syro - an obscure biblical reference, to live in luxury. Followers have come to believe that she is a prophet.
One American follower was beaten and locked in an empty house for three days and two young men wrongly "admitted" to sexually abusing children after being ordered to confess by church leaders.
The two men were cleared after a judge directed that not guilty verdicts should be entered. The crown court heard that one of them, a 17-year-old youth, had been brainwashed. The prosecutor said: "He had come to believe he had done things and felt impelled to go to the police and confess them. The expert advice is he may well have been brainwashed and driven to a confession."
Other former devotees claim they were persuaded into marriage or to cut themselves off from their families, including spouses.
Mrs Spademan, who claims to hear the voice of God telling her of people's thoughts and sins, oversees deliverance rituals, akin to exorcisms, to cleanse hearts of the lust and sin. The church is believed by experts to be unique because its prophet figure is female.
One former member said: "It is blasphemous and evil. It's almost as if Mrs Spademan has taken Christ's role in this church. They have torn families apart and ruined people's lives because they want total control." To outsiders it rejects the image of a happy, loving family led by pastor John Hibbert and his ministry team.
Martin Farmilo, a member for 17 years, said: "When you first join you just experience overwhelming love, being part of something special.
"But gradually they take total control of your life and you're told what they want is what God wants. They tell you to 'die to self'. You have nothing to do with anyone outside the church and I became a virtual stranger to my mother and brother."
Martin poured about £20,000 into the church by giving regular tithes as well as love offerings to pay for Mrs Spademan's trips abroad and expenses such as phone bills.
Several members recall a meeting when Mrs Spademan first bought a luxury home where members were invited to bid to buy fittings and furnishings.
One woman, Rachel, said: "There was a huge projection of the house on the wall and they were saying things like 'Who'll give £1,200 for the roof' or for the carpets." Members placed IOUs for £300 and £400 as well as jewellery in church collections which have paid for flights on Concorde, holidays and designer clothes for Mrs Spademan, the ministry team and family members.
Disciples are expected to devote their time to the church, which has included cleaning Mrs Spademan's home and helping to build a covered swimming pool at the rear.
Followers could be called at all times of the day and night to serve. Those who voiced doubts or discontent were guilty of "murmuring" and reprimanded. "You can't outgive God" is a favourite maxim.
The most heinous crime a Bethel member could commit, however, was having lustful thoughts about another member of the congregation.
Maria [K], a member of the sister church in the United States, said: "They take normal human emotions, turn them and use them to devastate you." Members were encouraged to play games such as "musical laps", a form of musical chairs where the men remained sitting and women moved around.
Later people would be accused of adulterous thoughts. The control endured by members is astonishing in light of the people involved, who would not be considered to be "vulnerable" members of society.
Most are highly intelligent professional people - teachers, nurses, even lawyers, who were drawn into the church by a simple desire to live good Christian lives.
Dr Martyn Percy, an expert in new religious movements, said the controlling nature of the church was "cult-like" and abusive.
"It is a fascinating form of religious control," he said. "If you really believe people know what you are thinking, you do not dare step out of line.
"What makes this particular church absolutely unique is that a woman is not a mere figurehead but the prophetic leader who is deferred to by the men." When interviewed by the Daily Express, Mrs Spademan and Mr Hibbert seemed confused about her role. Mrs Spademan said: "I don't believe I'm a prophet. I never said ... once I may have verged on it."
Mr Hibbert admitted Mrs Spademan had said she was a prophet but "only once as a means to an end in a particular circumstance". He said: "I would say she fits into the prophet category (of the ministry) but not in the way the press is making it out to be, but because she is behind the scenes and she communes with God a great deal."
Mr Hibbert, who was once an ordained minister in a Pentacostal church but has now resigned, refuted allegations that members had ever been asked to pay for holidays or trips on Concorde. "Certainly no pressure was ever put on anybody (to give)," he said. "You have never met a more selfless giving group of people than the people in this church and that includes this ministry."
However, he conceded that church members had been asked to contribute to the extension of Mrs Spademan's home.