Victory Church under fire

Former members say it's a cult; pastors leave town

Grand Forks Herald/March 31,1994
By Stephen J. Lee

A three-bean hotdish finally did it for Karlene Croy.

It was the Fourth of July 1993. She had worked late the night before and all morning to prepare food for a church dinner at the home of Renee and Ed Julison, pastors of Victory Church.

Her husband, Brad Croy, wanted the two of them to picnic at the lake.

But 12 years working for the Julisons had trained her to do what Renee said.

"I have to do what I have to do," she told Brad, and left.

Forty-five minutes later she was back, sobbing so hard she could hardly talk.

Pastor Renee had yelled at her, said the hotdish was too runny and she had to go home and cook it longer.

"She had been so verbally beat up, she had lost her sense of control," Brad said. "I said, 'Karlene, can't you see this abuse?'"

Brad had been trying for years to get her away from the church he saw as ruining their life together. Finally she was ready to hear that.

"That was the first time I heard the word 'abuse' and made a connection," Karlene said.

The Croys are at the center now of a dispute shaking the Victory Church, a congregation of more than 200 people housed on N.D. Highway 81 just north of the Grand Forks city limits.

Croys and others who have broken away tell stories of opulence on the part of the Julisons, fed by the largely cash donations of the members.

They tell of a church controlled solely by the Julisons with no board of directors and no accountablilty.

And they tell of a church they believe is destructive and a cult, at least cult-like.

Over the weekend a dozen former members sponsored a two-day seminar led by Rick Ross of Phoenix, who "deprogrammed" Karlene last October. Sixty to 70 people attended each day.

Meanwhile, the Julisons have been in Daytona Beach, Fla., since January and won't say whether they plan to live in Grand Forks again.

Ed Julison said in telephone interviews that they are beginning new ministries, including going to Cuba and Mexico. Their Grand Forks home on Olson Drive will be sold, but they will remain pastors of Victory church and return on occasion, he said.

The problems with former members have occurred largely because too many people are not willing to accept "uncompromising" teachings from the Bible, Julison said.

Other members agree.

Linda Van Dellen has been involved at Victory Church eight years.

"I like the church because I believe the pastors teach the truth from the Word of God without watering it down, without compromising it and without saying what they think people want to hear," she said.

Karlene Croy was closer than perhaps anyone else over the past 12 years to Renee Julison, who many say runs the church.

Ed Julison said Karlene Croy "was like a member of our personal family," and he can't understand why she has "turned" on them.

Renee Julison, who many former members say is the one in charge, could not be reached for comment.


With its emphasis on such ideas as "Name it, claim it," shepherding and "prosperity theology," the church has been controversial since it began, and many pastors express misgiving about it.

The Rev. Phyl Putz, pastor of Grace Baptist, for example, has his differences with Victory Church but says he doesn't think they are doctrinally aberrant enough to be labeled a cult.

Rather, Putz says he has seen "some secondary (cult) qualities that have to do with control of members, which tend to be outgrowths of cult systems but can exist in any kind of family or group relationship that is not godly of healthy."

Although he has counseled former members of Victory Church, he also has seen peoples' lives become more stable and productive through involvement in the group, Putz said. "But they don't do church like I do."

Several former members say the Julisons warned members of becoming involved or even attending of other church, reading widely outside church-approved material or mixing with outsiders, even those within their family. Several former members say the church broke up their families.

Julison denies this for the most part, but says at some point believers must separate from unbelievers, according to the Scriptures.

He characterized the criticism of the Croys and others as "slander and gossip" that has been typical of some who quit Victory Church.

"We're a good church," he said. "We've had so many people saved. I preach the word of God, and maybe people don't always agree with that."

The church has attracted little official attention.

IN 1992, a social services investigation of the church's Victory Academy, a K-12 school, found probable cause that abuse was being committed against students. A policy of regular spankings with a wooden paddle for a variety of offenses, done by Principle Karen McIntyre, was abusive, said investigator Randy Slavens in his report. Because of the investigation, McIntyre says, the school quit using corporal punishment.

Karlene's program

Karlene said it's difficult to explain how she got to the point where she needed to be "deprogrammed."

"Renee is very controlling and convincing," Karlene said. "Anything in my life, everyday decisions, where I live, where I work, things between my husband and I, everything had to be checked out with her."

Karlene struggles now to explain how she allowed herself to be controlled. She thought that any church teaching "born-again" Christianity and the Bible was a good one, so her defenses were down, she said.

"I'm a pleaser-type personality. I wanted to please God. It was my desire to know God and to know the word of God and she appeared to know it. They placed themselves in a position of authority."

Although she worked as a hairstylist, she spent most of her time working for Renee and Ed, she says. She worked until late at night, cleaning their home and offices. "I scrubbed their white deck every week and took care of all their flowers, vacuumed their house. I did their hair, washed their cars."

The money

"It was all money and power," Karlene say. Usually no one but Renee and Ed handled the money collected every Sunday during 30-minute sessions during which two or three offerings might be taken.

Karlene said she was in charge of following Renee's orders and soliciting donations from members for personal gifts for the Julison family. One time it was a $7,000 baby grand piano. Other times it was a black lacquer dining room set, a refrigerator, a microwave, a Jacuzzi. "Sometimes we would just collect cash and give them the cash."

Renee often would tell Karlene to have checks made out to herself, to cash them and give the Julisons the money.

"They always wanted cash," Karlene said.

Karlene and other former members say neither Renee nor Ed would ever answer questions about where the money was going or how much there was. "They never talked figures," Karlene said. "Nobody sees anything financial." Renee, a former hairdresser, "does the books."

Current member says the Julisons are trustworthy. Terry Duncan, who attended for several years, said that he trusts the Julisons and doesn't feel he needs to know details of how the money is spent. "I'm not the pastor," he said.

Some former members feel differently.

Ann Mostoway, 79, of Grand Forks said Julison eagerly sought her donations three years ago to help get a television ministry going. She gave $3,500 but later decided he had misrepresented what the television ministry would be.

When she repeatedly tried to contact him to ask for the money back, she was told by church staff the "he was busy," Mostoway said.

Another man, who asked not to be identified, told of giving thousands of dollars for a building program. When the money was used to buy drums, he asked Julison for the money back, but Julison refused.

Julison denies such charges and said in one case, he did return money when asked, although he did not provide the name of the person.

The emphasis on giving is spiritually healthy, said Van Dellen. "I helped me in my life. God loves a cheerful giver; he who sows sparingly, will reap sparingly. We give out of the goodness of our hearts. That doesn't bother me at all."

Members did give personal gifts to the Julison family, Van Dellen said. "We have a free-will offering for people, whoever wants to give I think that's quite common in churches, to get the pastor something for their birthday or for Christmas,: Van Dellen said.

According to several former members, the wedding last fall for the Julison's daughter, Danille, was a last straw of sorts. Karlene Croy said she planned six showers, on Renee's orders, and solicited expensive gifts from members for Danielle. Others on a radio call-in show said there were nine showers.

"There weren't nine showers, there weren't 15 showers, there were four showers," Ed Julison said in a telephone interview. "If they didn't want to give, they didn't have to."

Last fall, Danielle stood in front of the church and told members tearfully, that if they begrudged her the gifts, they could come to the house and take them back.

This week, a moving van was filled with Danielle's things, which were taken to where she is living in California, Julison said.

The church's finances are sound and honest, Julsion said.

"We belong to the International Convention of Faith Ministries," he said. "The accountability is there. All of our finances are handled by a CPA who handles them throughout the U.S. So it doesn't get out of whack. All our bills are paid, we have excellent credit. It's a nice church, comfortable, but not elaborate, but people are proud to come to church here."

The certified public accountant, David Epstein of Carmel, Ind., did not return telephone calls to the Herald. He advertises his business as certifying churches' books and helping organizations in trouble with the IRS. The Central Indiana Better Business Bureau says it has twice requested information from Epstein and gotten no response.

More than money

Former members say control extended beyond money.

Karlene says Ed and Renee advised her not to have children, on the grounds that the children would be rebels due to husband's ungodliness.

Other former members and some pastors say there appeared to be a pattern of the Julisons' encouraging some couples to divorce over loyalty to them.

Ed Julison and current members deny this, saying the pattern is one of reconciling couples.

Brad Croy said the church came between him and Karlene, "Seeing my wife drifting further and further away," Brad said. "That heartache of not being able to communicate with her and she was not allowed to listen."

Last October, Brad persuaded Karlene to go on vacation to Indiana to visit his mother. She didn't know that he had hired Ross, a well-known cult expert and "deprogrammer."

Initially angry at being tricked, Karlene said she soon listened and slowly began to rethink her experiences. She went off by herself into a room to cry and pray.

Changing her mind took four days.

"You have to remember, I had been in denial for 12 years," she said.

Ross said he has been working for eight years as a private consultant on such groups. He has deprogrammed several people from the Branch Davidian group of Waco, Texas.

He has testified as an expert in court cases and been involved in about 300 cases of deprogramming. In 1991, he deprogrammed a person in Fargo from a group called the MasterPath. He is active in two national committees of the Reform Movement of Judaism.

Ed Julison and church members criticize Ross as having no credentials, not being a Christian and being anti-church.

Ross said Karlene fit the profile of the victim of a destructive, Bible-based group when he met her. "It was impossible for Karlene to differentiate between God and the pastors," Ross said. "As far as she could see, God was speaking through their mouths.

"With Karlene, it was just to be able to separate Ed and Renee from God," Ross said. "That she could have faith in God and faith in Christ, but be able to look at Ed and Renee's leadership objectively."

Karlene says her Christian faith is stronger that ever, and the Croys are looking for a new church, one with a board of directors and checks and balances.

They now want to help others.

"It's not to bash Ed and Renee. It's to make the community aware of cults and how destructive they are," Karlene said. "That when they see family members withdraw, or always busy with the church, when they appear tired all the time, and depressed, and if they can't leave. Then begin to ask questions."

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