Legal claims shed light on founder of faith group tied to Amy Coney Barrett

Examination of People of Praise comes as supreme court seems poised to reverse Roe v Wade

The Guardian, UK/June 6, 2022

By Stephanie Kirchgaessener

The founder of the People of Praise, a secretive charismatic Christian group that counts the supreme court justice Amy Coney Barrett as a member, was described in a sworn affidavit filed in the 1990s as exerting almost total control over one of the group’s female members, including making all decisions about her finances and dating relationships.

The court documents also described alleged instances of a sexualized atmosphere in the home of the founder, Kevin Ranaghan, and his wife, Dorothy Ranaghan.

The description of the Ranaghans and accusations involving their intimate behavior were contained in a 1993 proceeding in which a woman, Cynthia Carnick, said that she did not want her five minor children to have visitations with their father, John Roger Carnick, who was then a member of the People of Praise, in the Ranaghan household or in their presence, because she believed it was not in her children’s “best interest”. Cynthia Carnick also described inappropriate incidents involving the couple and the Ranaghan children. The matter was eventually settled between the parties.

Barrett, 50, lived with Dorothy and Kevin Ranaghan in their nine-bedroom South Bend, Indiana, home while she attended law school, according to public records. The justice – who was then known as Amy Coney – graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 1997 and two years later married her husband, Jesse Barrett, who also appears to have lived in the Ranaghan household. There is no indication that Amy Coney Barrett lived in the house at the time when the Carnick children were visiting or witnessed any of the alleged behavior described in the court documents.

The examination of the People of Praise’s history and attitude towards women comes as a majority of the supreme court – including Barrett – appear poised to reverse Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that made abortion legal across the US.

Cynthia Carnick stated in the documents that she had witnessed Dorothy Ranaghan tie the arms and legs of two of the Ranaghans’ daughters – who were three and five at the time the incidents were allegedly witnessed – to their crib with a necktie. She also said that the Ranaghans allegedly practiced “sexual displays” in front of their children and other adults, such as Dorothy Ranaghan lying with her clothes on and “rocking” on top of Kevin Ranaghan in their TV room.

Cynthia Carnick – who no longer uses Carnick as her last name – declined to comment but said that she stood by the statement she made at the time.

In an affidavit that supported Cynthia Carnick’s written statement, a woman named Colette Humphrey said she had lived with Kevin and Dorothy Ranaghan from 1973 to 1978, when she was a member of the People of Praise, and confirmed she had witnessed incidents of inappropriate sexual expression.

Humphrey also wrote in her statement: “When I was part of the People of Praise I was in full life submission to Kevin Ranaghan, under full obedience to him and he exercised this authority over most areas of my life. For example, we were ‘in common’ financially, which meant that I had to hand over my paycheck to Kevin Ranaghan and he would decide on how that paycheck would be used. Kevin Ranaghan controlled my dating relationships, deciding who and when I should date.”

Humphrey – who now uses a different surname – did not respond to a request for comment left at her residence.

A third woman, Susan Reynolds, said in a sworn statement that she lived in the Ranaghan household, and that she had at one point been “shocked” to hear that Kevin Ranaghan sometimes showered with two of his daughters, who were 10 or 11 at the time. She said in her statement she was later told by Dorothy Ranaghan that Kevin had “decided to quit showering with them” after Reynolds had questioned Dorothy about the practice.

The Ranaghans did not file any affidavits in connection to the 1993 proceeding, to which they were not a party.

Dorothy Ranaghan declined to comment to the Guardian. Kevin Ranaghan said: “These allegations are nearly three decades old, outlandish, and completely without merit. We have a loving and affectionate marriage of 55 years and have welcomed dozens of people into our home as part of our religious faith and commitment to service to God.”

A spokesperson representing the Ranaghans sent an emailed statement to the Guardian on behalf of the couple’s six adult children. It said they were “insulted by false and misleading statements about our childhood relationships with our parents from decades ago”. “We are part of a loving family and bringing these preposterous claims up now is hurtful and irresponsible.”

People of Praise said in a statement: “Since 1967 Kevin and Dorothy Ranaghan have been known and respected for their tireless work sharing the free gift of the Holy Spirit with hundreds of thousands of people around the world. We are proud that they are members and leaders of the People of Praise.”

The claims about the Ranaghans’ behavior and Kevin Ranaghan’s alleged control over at least one former member of People of Praise is coming to light two years after the Guardian first reported that the group had hired a law firm to conduct an “independent” investigation into decades-old claims of sexual abuse against minors by some members of the Christian faith group.

Since then, at least one alleged victim who cooperated with the investigation has been told that the inquiry into sexual abuse claims by the law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan has been concluded, but that a written report of its findings would not be released to alleged victims or to the public.

When one alleged victim of sexual abuse, who spoke to the Guardian but asked not to be named, asked about the investigation into her own case, lawyer Diane Doolittle of Quinn Emanuel allegedly told her that at least some of the individuals who had been interviewed about the allegations “didn’t recall the details” and that it had been “difficult” to get information.

The South Bend-based group is a covenanted community, which means that members have entered a “covenant commitment” to live together – sometimes families and single members can live in a single household – and are expected to share portions of their income and regularly attend hours-long private prayer meetings, which can include exorcisms and speaking in tongues. The group has about 1,700 members, is mostly Catholic but is open to all Christians, and espouses conservative views on gender. It opposes same-sex marriage and only men can serve on its board of governors or as coordinators, who lead different branches of the community.

The Washington Post reported in 2020 that a People of Praise 2010 directory showed Barrett served as a “handmaid”, a female adviser to other female members. Barrett also served on the Trinity Schools board, whose members must belong to People of Praise, from 2015 to 2017, at a time when the schools effectively barred admission to children of same-sex parents and – according to the AP – “made it plain that openly gay and lesbian teachers weren’t welcome in the classroom”.

Doolittle did not respond to an emailed request for comment. People of Praise said in a statement: “The independent review by Quinn Emmanuel was concluded more than a year ago, and meetings regarding the review have taken place.”

The Guardian sought a comment from Amy Coney Barrett’s chambers through the supreme court press office, but did not receive a response.

In June 2021, four victims of alleged sexual or physical abuse in the People of Praise published an open letter in the South Bend Tribune calling for reforms within the faith group. The suggested reforms included public acknowledgment that there had been a “systemic failure to protect People of Praise children from abuse”, public naming of all individuals who have been “credibly accused of abuse” or “concealing abuse within People of Praise or its schools”, and placing an equal number of women in the highest leadership positions in the group, and giving them an “equal vote in all of the group’s decisions”. The letter noted that the Catholic church has publicly named individuals who have credibly been accused of abuse.

Barrett, who is Catholic, has never publicly been asked about her membership in People of Praise, which first came to light in a New York Times article in 2017, after Barrett, a former law professor at Notre Dame, was nominated by Donald Trump to serve as a judge on the US court of appeal for the seventh circuit. She was confirmed and then later, in 2020, was nominated and confirmed to serve on the supreme court after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Barrett has said that her religious convictions, including her previously stated views opposing Roe v Wade, had no bearing on her role as a judge and would not affect her impartiality.

The justice’s involvement in People of Praise became known publicly in 2017 only after one former member, Kevin Connolly, said he brought the story to the New York Times. He did so, he told the Guardian, because he believed it was important for the public to be aware of and understand her affiliation with the group. He was also one of the four authors of the open letter sent to the South Bend Tribune.

Connolly, who is the brother of the People of Praise’s chief spokesperson, Sean Connolly, told the Washington Post in 2021 that his father, who was then a member of People of Praise, was violent and once kicked him in the face when he was 10, leaving him with a black eye.

Connolly came forward, he said, after he heard of several other incidents of physical abuse among his friends growing up. Neither Connolly’s father nor his brother responded to the Post’s questions at the time the alleged abuse was reported in the Washington Post.

“Growing up in the People of Praise, I knew that they held beliefs that would be extremist to the vast majority of practicing Catholics, including on gay rights and women’s rights. I looked at the number of people living in those states covered by the seventh circuit court, and then projected those numbers over a lifetime appointment. It was well into the tens of millions. That’s when I brought the story to the New York Times in 2017. As a supreme court justice now, her extreme views may affect upwards of half a billion Americans in her lifetime,” he told the Guardian.

 In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International

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