From all over the world, they flocked to this tiny town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, lured by promises of inner peace and eternal life.
What many found instead: years of terror — waged in the name of the Lord.
Congregants of the Word of Faith Fellowship were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls.
It was justified as a violent form of deliverance meant to “purify” sinners by beating out devils, 43 former members told The Associated Press in separate, exclusive interviews.
Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers — even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken, screamed at and smacked to banish their ‘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.
“I’ve seen her on multiple occasions ask: ‘Did you throw her on the ground?’ And when the person says ‘Yes, we got the demon out,’ Jane will say: ‘I love it. I love it. Thank you, Jesus!’” said Sean Bryant, 29, who left the church last year.
To expose the cult, the AP reviewed hundreds 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 church — say Word of Faith leaders waged a decades-long cover-up to thwart investigations by law enforcement and social services officials, including strongarming 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.
Several former followers said congregants were sexually abused, including minors. On one recorded conversation, Whaley admits to being aware of the sexual assault of three boys but not reporting it to authorities.
“We were warned to keep the abuse to ourselves. If we didn’t, we knew we would be targeted. ... You lived in total fear,” said Liam Guy, 29, an accountant who fled in 2015 after nearly 25 years in the church.
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.
Sex was a big issue in the church. It sought to ‘control’ sexual thoughts and “ungodly” carnal pleasure — especially lengthy interrogations of pre-teens and teens about masturbation — spilt 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 “because of ministerial confidentiality, I don’t have to.”
In fact, there is no such waiver for clergy in North Carolina. Whaley is required to report even allegations of abuse.
On the recording, Whaley explained why she had kept secret the sexual abuse of “an older youth” by another church member, saying she’d asked the victim: “‘Do you want me to go to someone and report it? I’ll report it to the police.’ And he said no because it would smear his name.”
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.
He said he didn’t know then that Whaley was wrong when she warned him his “name would be in the newspapers. ... She said she was protecting me. She didn’t want me to face an investigation.”
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.
Word of Faith Fellowship was founded in 1979 by Whaley, a petite former math teacher, 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, 77-year-old 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.
Sexual thoughts and intercourse are considered “ungodly” or “unclean,” so adult members need permission to date, get married and even have sex after marriage. Ministers dole out condoms because couples are not allowed to have children without Whaley’s authorisation.
Several couples said they had to wait up to a year after their weddings before they were allowed to have sexual relations.
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.
“That was one of the worst beatings,” said Rachael Bryant, 28, who left the church last year. “She started punching her in the chest, punching her in the stomach, slapping her in the face. It went on and on.”
But one rule stood out above all others: 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 2000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana, and affiliations in other countries.
Word of Faith Fellowship has been scrutinised 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 co-operate.
Whaley’s teachings are rooted in the modern Word of Faith Movement, founded by the pastor Kenneth E. Hagin of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who preached the “prosperity gospel”: Pray loud enough and God will answer your prayers.
In the past, Whaley has strongly denied that she or other church leaders have ever abused Word of Faith members and contended that any discipline would be protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of religion tenets. She and church lawyer Josh Farmer turned down repeated AP requests for interviews to discuss the fresh allegations from the dozens of former congregants. But hours after the AP’s stories were released, the church posted a statement on its website calling the allegations false and contending they were made by “certain former members” out to target the church.
“We do not condone or allow abuse — in any form — at our church. Period,” the statement said.
But 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.
For several years, males 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.
Teachers in the church’s K-12 school encouraged students to beat their classmates for daydreaming, smiling and other behaviour that leaders said proved they were possessed by devils, the former followers said.
Natasha Cherubino and her husband, Tiago, recall a time their then-six-year-old was giggling in school when classmates surrounded her.
“They started praying for my daughter and grabbed her by the neck. They started strangling her,” Tiago Cherubino 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 US Navy veteran who spent more than 20 years as a congregant and raised nine children in the church.
Those attending the church’s twice-a-year international Bible seminars were encouraged to move to Spindale, a community of 4300 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 Whaley was a prophet — they were afraid to leave or speak out, they said. Given what they characterise 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, and they live in fear 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’s world.
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 and 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.”
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