Ex-church members say pastor abused his power

The Sacramento Bee/November 15, 2009

The message members of Radiant Life Church said they heard was this: To receive blessings from God, they must honor, submit and give to their pastor, Tony Cunningham.

One family said it paid for the pastor's family vacation to Maui and a stay at a five-star hotel. Another said his wife was encouraged to leave him because Cunningham said he was spiritually unfit. Many purchased upscale homes in the same Elk Grove neighborhood, at his urging, they said. On his street, so many bought homes that former church members call it a "cult de sac."

Allegations about Cunningham first came to light in a lawsuit filed by one couple in Sacramento Superior Court.

Since then, more members have come forward accusing the pastor of abusing his authority as a spiritual leader. Recently, they have complained, sometimes with hurt and anger, on a Web site devoted to controversial religious movements. They have detailed in interviews how their relationship with a pastor they once revered was fractured.

"This has been devastating for us and a lot of people who have been hurt," said Daniel Plant, 45, a former member. "So many families are trying to pick up the pieces."

Plant and his wife, Callie, 43, who own an Elk Grove mortgage company, filed the suit last year against Cunningham, accusing the pastor of psychological manipulation and forcible indoctrination. They claim Cunningham used his position as their spiritual adviser to defraud them of more than $221,000.

The lawsuit reflects other former church members' contentions that Cunningham, 46, abused his position as their spiritual leader, as the lawsuit states, "to give up basic political, social and religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept Cunningham's regimented ideas."

The Bee requested an interview with Cunningham and received an e-mail from the church declining the request, citing pending litigation. Cunningham did not respond to phone calls. The five members of the church's board of elders declined to speak on the advice of legal counsel, or did not return phone calls. The church's attorney, Talia Delanoy, did not return phone calls.

However, in a deposition for the Plant lawsuit obtained by The Bee, Cunningham said he could not remember the gifts the Plants gave over the years. He was asked about a time when the couple allegedly came to his office with an envelope with $2,000 cash inside.

"I don't recall that," Cunningham said under oath. "But I don't find that difficult to believe."

Experts said spiritual abuse complaints are rare but have surfaced in other churches nationally. Also rare, experts said, are lawsuits by members seeking restitution for money they said they were misled and coerced into giving. "It's unusual to file suits because for them it would be like taking God to court," said Jeff Van Vonderen, an author and leading authority on spiritual abuse.

Radiant Life Church is an independent evangelical congregation that recently moved from Elk Grove to south Sacramento. In the deposition, Cunningham said church attendance has dropped significantly in recent years. Cunningham has led the congregation for 17 years. At a recent 8 a.m. service for about 50 members, he delivered a sermon in a conversational manner about "threats, tests and trials" facing churches today.

The dozen former members interviewed by The Bee include middle-class professionals, business owners, college students and church staff. Many purchased homes in Cunningham's neighborhood and still live there.

"We now call it a 'cult de sac,' " said former member James Carmazzi, 48.

Members paid $500,000 and up for their homes during the height of the real estate boom because, they said, Cunningham told them it would be good for the church community.

"It's like a messy family breakup and a divorced man living next to his ex-wife," said Matt Wanner, 46, who served 15 years as a church elder before leaving.

Daniel Plant stood in the living room of the 4,200-square-foot, six-bedroom home he paid $785,000 for in 2005. "We can't even go outside without being reminded," Plant said.

Critics: Obedience rewarded

According to former members, those who were obedient to Cunningham were rewarded with jewelry - typically, gold rings for the men, tennis bracelets for the women. Carmazzi said they were given the gifts in a special covenant ceremony and were allowed into what Cunningham described as his inner circle.

That group consisted of about five families, said Carmazzi and Matt Michalak, 27, another former member, who were both part of Cunningham's circle.

"It was an honor," Carmazzi said. Carmazzi said he funded several vacations for the Cunningham family, including the trip to Hawaii, while his family vacationed modestly. Carmazzi said he lost more than $1 million in his dealings with Cunningham.

Michalak, of Carmichael, still has his ring from the covenant ceremony. He said Cunningham believed gifts were the best way to show honor.

After a sermon in which Cunningham said he admired classic cars, members restored a replica 1965 red Cobra, designed by Carroll Shelby, for the pastor. The car was appraised at $65,000, according to Jesse Mancillas, the former president of the board of elders who spearheaded the restoration.

"We thought, OK, this is one way to honor him," said Mancillas, 53, who has since left the church. "He drove it up and down the street, racing it." Members said this was one of several vehicles given to the pastor over the years, but DMV records show no Cobra registered to Cunningham.

In his deposition, Cunningham was asked if he ever received honoraria from his members on Sundays. "I received a pumpkin pie last Sunday," he replied. He was asked if he received cash. "I think the most recent time that I could think of was about four months ago. Someone gave me some, like $20."

Daniel Plant said the pastor was given money after Sunday worship services. Michalak, who often met Cunningham in his office after Sunday worship services, said many gave twice. "A lot of people were asked to pay second tithes."

Seen as a prophet

Former members said they were easily swayed by Cunningham. They described him as a smart, charismatic pastor who makes instant connections with people and who comes across as deeply spiritual.

"I met him at a River Cats game and I was very impressed because he talked about helping people," said Carmazzi.

Some believed he was a prophet.

Michalak, a married father of three, said he gave nearly half his annual income to the church even though he was a student making only $18,000 a year. The Plants gave so much - nearly 41 percent of their annual income - that they were audited by the Internal Revenue Service in 2007, according to the lawsuit. The Plants, according the lawsuit, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008.

Former followers said they allowed their pastor to dictate their lives because they believed Cunningham had the answers to their spiritual questions. "And that's what we were all looking for," Carmazzi said.

The Plants said they know how difficult their actions are to comprehend.

"You have to understand, there are a bunch of smart good people in that church and you felt like, wow, they get it. What's wrong with me?" said Daniel Plant. "And you felt that if you questioned him, it was like questioning God."

In their lawsuit against Cunningham and the church, the Plants say they met Cunningham in 1998 and began regularly attending Radiant Life soon afterward. In 2001, Cunningham encouraged Daniel Plant to become his "disciple" which he defined as a "submitted, committed relationship," according to the lawsuit.

Plant said over the next few years, he began attending church almost daily as Cunningham grew more involved in his life and business decisions.

He described his business dealings with Cunningham as "completely out of character," but said he felt compelled to continue giving.

"He (Plant) had no ability to say no to any directive given by Cunningham," the suit states.

By 2007, the Plants said, they were under "tremendous financial, emotional and social stress." When Daniel Plant asked Cunningham for his money, he said he was shunned. The Plants were "in constant fear of not pleasing God by not pleasing and caring for Cunningham," according to the suit.

The Plants left the church in the fall of 2008, a break Callie Plant compared to a death in the family. "It became a nightmare," she said.

The congregation of Radiant Life Church, formerly Elk Grove Community Church, now meets on 44th Street. On the church Web site, their vision is described as "Win the Lost, Equip the Saints, Raise Up Leadership, Plant New Churches."

Cunningham has been challenged legally before. In 2003, the church sued Marvin "Buzz" Oates, alleging the church was duped in a $1.2 million deal. A letter from Cunningham, however, showed the church had agreed on the deal. It dropped the suit and publicly apologized to Oates in an ad in The Bee. Church members said Cunningham apologized to the congregation.

Stories posted on Web site

James Carmazzi and his wife, Angela, 42, Elk Grove business owners, said they joined the church in 1999. In 2003, they met with the pastor regularly for marriage counseling together and then sessions alone. Their families spent holidays together.

Those who didn't show him the proper of amount of honor - or who questioned his teachings - were publicly berated and shunned, according to Plant and Carmazzi.

"He gave the impression that he was spiritually elevated," said Michalak. "You believed he had the gift of prophecy and he told you that you could get it, too."

Michalak said that both he and his wife, Sarah, 28, stopped talking to their parents for a year at Cunningham's counsel. Michalak said he left the church after he learned the pastor was urging his wife to leave him because he wasn't spiritual enough.

Several members have written about their experiences with Cunningham and Radiant Life Church and have posted their stories on a Web site run by the Rick Ross Institute (culteducation.com), a New Jersey nonprofit organization that studies controversial religious movements and cults.

"A lot of people started leaving when they saw the blog," said Michalak. Several of the people who wrote had been among Cunningham's closest advisers. "Before, everyone wondered what was going on, but no one talked about it."

Carmazzi said Cunningham dismissed his detractors. "He has said several times that he's righteous with God and there will be other casualties along the way."

Several former church members contacted by The Bee did not want to discuss their experiences, saying they had been too painful and they were embarrassed by their involvement.

The ones who did speak say they believe they need to talk about what happened to them - even at the risk of public ridicule.

"This has been a humiliating and humbling experience," said Carmazzi. "But I would be disgusted with myself if I didn't say anything and other people got hurt."

The Carmazzis, the Plants and other once active members of Radiant Life no longer attend church anywhere. "I'm disgusted with the church right now," Carmazzi said.

Callie Plant said she and her husband are still believers. But they are now skeptical of becoming involved in a church again. Their children want nothing to do with pastors or organized religion, she said.

"I would never in my life imagine that something like this could happen," said Callie Plant. "But what I've learned is that it could happen to anyone."

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