Physician says sects built on 'fear and approval' strain marriages, lives

Doctor concerned with church's 'grip' on Plaster Rock parishioners

The New Brunswick Telegraph Journal/June 12, 2001
By Bob Klager

Plaster Rock -- It's almost summer, and Cindy Corbin believes the season of renewal is playing out painfully in the village of Plaster Rock. More than a dozen years and an international border separate her from the difficult period she encountered over "defying" God's direction in this upper St. John River Valley community she once called home. A divorced mother of two, now living in Presque Isle, Me., Ms. Corbin passed through the winter of her Christian faith ages ago. One of many past and present Plaster Rock residents concerned about the power and growth of a Plaster Rock religious organization, she and others have watched at least two court battles connected to its remarkable rate of spread and its influence unfold.

Earlier this month, the First Apostolic Pentecostal Church failed in its application for intervener status in a child-custody case in a Woodstock court. One of the Plaster Rock church's families had self-destructed, become "completely torn apart," in the words of a judge who refused to let issues of faith and religious authority enter into her courtroom. A lawyer for church leaders argued that being permitted to question witnesses and make arguments in the case was important should the church and the "extremely" pastoral nature of its ministry be "put on trial, even indirectly." The judge said no, deeming the church's interest lay "in protecting [its] own actions, motivations and involvement with [this] family."

But, according to Ms. Corbin, the ability to do as the judge did - to limit the church's reach - doesn't extend to church members and their households. She too watched her marriage dissolve within an environment tempered by the First Apostolic Pentecostal Church and echoed this year in growing accounts of the influence, dictates and power of Rev. Dana McKillop and his burgeoning ministry. Even as snippets of the news made their way into media reports in Maine, Ms. Corbin says she recognized the signs. The church exercised what Ms. Corbin described as "control" in her family's life. She left the breakaway sect of the United Pentecostal Church in 1987, the same year she pulled her children from its Apostolic Christian School. She said in her family's case the church's influence touched the way her household was run and even the way it spent its money. Admitting she and her husband had problems of their own, Ms. Corbin attributes much of her family's break-up to marital strains linked to the family's connection to the church. She said she had a reputation of being outspoken and when she spoke out critically about matters related to the church she was repeatedly told to get "back in line."

Dr. Barry Wecker, a Plaster Rock family physician and chief of staff at the community's Tobique Valley Hospital, says he fears for many members of the church because of their struggles with its grip and its edicts. Dr. Wecker, whose office is situated just steps from the church's front doors, believes its influence on many congregants' lives comes down to strategies of behavior modification - instilling the fear of punishment or desire for reward and the quest for approval in the eyes of the church. A Saskatchewan native who lived in seven countries and four provinces before settling in Plaster Rock 14 years ago, Dr. Wecker is a self-professed Christian drawn by the intrigue of many faiths across the world. He says the basic principles of fundamental Christianity transcend denominations. And, as a medical doctor, a man of personal faith and a citizen of the community, he says impacts of the Plaster Rock phenomenon are far-reaching. "The end result of this on a medical side is when [fear and approval] are used to this degree, they [can] cause things such as family breakdown with the stress that is entailed," said Dr. Wecker. "I could cite, within the realm of confidentiality, that there are several families in town where this has taken place. And the amount of stress that goes on is enormous. "Even when family does not break down, there are ruptured relationships between children and parents, between siblings and between friends - all based on these two issues," he said. And, it can cause stress. It can cause depression. It can causes anxiety. It can cause "the whole gamut of psychological problems," Dr. Wecker said. There are two things that happen when someone becomes alienated by this organization or decides to leave, said the doctor. "The first is that they totally discard every semblance of Christianity at all. They just believe wholeheartedly there are no controls anymore at all,"Dr. Wecker said. "I've had people come in and I've just been totally shocked. "You do have a certain number - and these are the ones who have been thinkers trying to think independently - who realize what they're rejecting is not their belief in God and their belief in Christianity, but the[influence] of this organization," he added. Dr. Wecker said he is prepared for repercussions for speaking publicly on this subject but stresses he's not interested in hurting anyone in the community who may happen to believe in this particular group. "But I cannot agree with what is going on, I cannot support what is going on," he said.

Since a defamation suit was brought against the church by one of its former members late last year, Mr. McKillop and other leaders have declined numerous interview requests. The claims within the defamation action have not been proven in court and no trial date is set in the case.

However, messages of support for the church and congregation have flowed to its Web site from across North America. One of a very few former members to speak out against the church and its leaders publicly, Ms. Corbin said she believes others, including current church members, fear doing so will jeopardize salvation.

Meanwhile the church grows in myriad ways. People have come from great distances to Plaster Rock to join the church. It's a result, Ms. Corbin and others say, of the McKillop family's active recruitment of new congregants. The First Apostolic Pentecostal Church has remarkable financial strength. Despite a congregation of about 450, its annual revenues averaged $814,000 over the past five years. According to registered charity information returns filed with the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, total receipts spanned a low of $641,810 in 1995 to a high of $884,658 in 1998. Total tax-receipted gifts in 1999 were $855,653.

Comparatively, total offertory receipts within the entire Saint John diocese of the Roman Catholic Church - an organization with 55 times more parishioners - was only seven times larger for the same period. The diocese, encompassing more than 25,000 members, 58 parishes, and 33 missions in the Fredericton, Miramichi and Saint John regions, recorded offertory receipts of $5.9 million for 1999.

According to the Plaster Rock church's tax returns, it has received more than $4 million since 1995, claiming $3.4 million of that toward operation of charitable programs it has carried out and costs for management and general administration.

The church's total assets have more than doubled since 1995. And, with a five-year growth of $934,764, assets stood at more than $1.6 million by the end of 1999.

Ms. Corbin said she believes such financial resources hinge largely on the church's control of its members. While her family was connected to the church, she said, it didn't make any major financial move without asking Rev. McKillop. "We were told 'You should have checked it out with daddy first,' " said Ms. Corbin.

Vestiges of this alleged influence appeared starkly procedural this month as the Woodstock-based Court of Queen's Bench justice divvied up children, chattels and marital debt between two clearly devastated adults who, at one time, embraced Mr. McKillop's charismatic preaching side by side in the same church pew. Testifying in the case, one of their children talked of how Mr. McKillop had prohibited contact between siblings, lest one parent's defiance of church dictates should spread. The child tearfully recounted being forced to choose between pastor and dissenting parent, and quietly relayed the story of expulsion from school for whispering a furtive and prohibited "Hi" while kneeling in prayer at the altar. "At that church, the pastor is looked at, regarded as a god. It's just something that everyone knows," the teenager told the court, noting the pastor's blunt remedy for those who cross him. "Brother McKillop said: 'The laundry's out and it's time to do the washing.'

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