Family resolves to take fight over exorcism to Supreme Court

Fort Worth Star-Telegram/July27, 2008

Laura Schubert Pearson was an impressionable 17-year-old when friends in her church youth group thought demons possessed her.

Repeatedly, over two days, the youth pastor, his wife and others held the girl down on the floor of the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God Church in Colleyville, even as Pearson screamed, fought and begged to be released.

They cast it as wrestling with the devil.

But she said it was "like being pummeled by this very large group. These were our friends, people we hung out with."

The 1996 episode left her physically and emotionally scarred, and "this stuff is still hard to talk about," Pearson told the Star-Telegram after the Texas Supreme Court dismissed her lawsuit against the church June 27. The majority said the courts can't get involved in a religious debate over church doctrine.

Pearson, now 29 and living near Atlanta with her new husband and her children, said: "You can't use your religious beliefs to get away with harming a child."

After the exorcism, she dropped out of high school her senior year, began to cut herself as many as 100 times over several years, and refused to leave the house. Pearson slit her wrists with a box cutter.

Her father, a former missionary and minister, became an agnostic.

But Pearson and her parents, Tom and Judy Schubert, say they are willing to go to the U.S. Supreme Court in their fight against a church they once loved.

As the parents see it, Pleasant Glade members abused their daughter in the same way a husband or a boyfriend abuses a wife or a girlfriend - and all under the guise of serving the Lord.

"This is so much bigger than myself," Pearson said.

"This is about not allowing the cover of religion to permit physical abuse in a church, and particularly to a child," Pearson added.

Called out-of-control

The Rev. Lloyd McCutchen, who later merged the Pleasant Glade church with another congregation to create the Assembly of God Church in Colleyville, did not return calls seeking comment. But in 2002, he said that the congregation was a "Bible-believing Pentecostal church. For this we make no apologies."

David Pruessner, the church's attorney, has repeatedly described Pearson as an out-of-control, attention-seeking teenager who he once said "breathes in attention the same way we breathe in air."

In court testimony, church members did not deny holding her down.

"None of them had a personal vendetta," Pruessner said. "She was in a church service and screaming and in a lot of pain, so they were stepping forward to help her."

Pearson already suffered from psychological problems caused by traumatic events she witnessed while her parents were missionaries in Africa, including "beatings and burnings," Pruessner claimed in court documents.

In a 1992 letter to church officials from Cameroon, Tom Schubert said Pearson had fallen into a "terrible depression" and often can be found "curled up on her bed."

Pruessner said the fact that Pearson has been able to attend college and is on her way to getting her second degree - something she claimed during the 2002 trial that she would never be able to do - is evidence that this episode has been "blown out of proportion."

"One of the easiest claims to make is that someone has caused you an emotional injury," Pruessner said.

Six difficult days

Although it happened more than 12 years ago, Pearson says it is still hard to talk about those harrowing six days in June 1996.

Pearson and her brother, Joseph, had been left with their older sister, Amy, while their parents went on a fundraising trip in Indiana. She was going to hang out with the church youth group and work at her part-time job. On June 7, a Friday, Pearson went to the church to help the youth group prepare for a garage sale. At about midnight, one of the teens rushed in saying he had seen a demon in the darkened sanctuary.

Rod Linzay, the youth pastor, urged everyone to anoint the sanctuary with holy oil. They rapped on pews. They prayed. They propped a cross against the doors to keep demons out or drive them out. They were up until early morning.

"I had been around [the church] all of my life, but I had not experienced anything of this sort...After being up all of those hours and involved in all of that, it was easy to believe what was going on was real," she said.

Exhausted, Pearson went home and then to work but was unable to sleep that night. By the time she returned to the church on Sunday evening, she had been up for 72 hours.

It was then that people believed demons had possessed her and the first exorcism was performed. Pearson said she collapsed on the floor out of exhaustion. During the trial, doctors suggested she was hypoglycemic. She clenched her fists, gritted her teeth, made guttural sounds, cried and yelled.

"I was moving my head back and forth, and I hear people saying things are wrong with me and the youth pastor's wife saying it was the demons," Pearson said. They held her down, but after the thrashing stopped, Pearson was allowed to get up after saying the name Jesus.

On Wednesday, Pearson returned to the church. After hearing a sermon about "putting on the whole armor of God to fight off the devil," Pearson said she went off to a corner, curled into a fetal position and prayed.

When another youth asked to pray for her, Pearson refused. Eventually, she was held spread-eagle on the floor. She fought those holding her and asked to be let go. They said "it was the devil talking," Pearson said.

McCutchen then entered the room. He tried to calm Pearson and told her to "just say the word Jesus." Eventually, he called Pearson's parents, who came and took their "dazed" daughter home. Later they saw the bruises and carpet burns. Soon she began having nightmares about hands and faces coming out of her bedroom walls to grab her.

When her senior year in high school started later that summer, Pearson suffered such a strong anxiety attack that she attended school for only one day. In October, she cut her wrists with a dull box cutter at work. She later tried to overdose on her medications. Pearson was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. "My health was so poor. I weighed about 87 pounds...I was afraid to go out of the house," she said.

Turning the corner

In November 1998, the family left Texas, and Tom Schubert resigned as an Assemblies of God minister and missionary. The Schuberts moved to Georgia to be near the wife's family.

Tom Schubert worked as manager of an auto-parts store but eventually got degrees in counseling. Now 56, he is retired and on disability after being diagnosed with severe osteoporosis, which has caused spinal fractures.

Schubert has lost his faith, while his wife and daughter continue to believe.

"I do not hold the religious views I once held," Schubert said. "I don't know what is out there. I don't think what is out there is what I thought was there in the past...I don't believe in demons and such...I doubt that God exists."

Their son, Joseph, who witnessed at least one of the exorcisms, also struggled with what happened and eventually dropped out of school.

He now works for a company that builds trade-show exhibits.

Pearson said she has started to rebuild her life. "For the first several years, it was very, very difficult, dealing with nightmares and feeling out of control," Pearson said. "Getting my bearing again was very hard to do."

Her first marriage ended in divorce, but she credits the birth of her daughter, now 7, with turning her life around. She also has a 5-year-old son.

She remarried on the day the Texas Supreme Court tossed out her lawsuit.

Pearson got an associate degree in criminal justice, then decided to continue her education and will soon complete a degree in social work. In her internship, she works with children from broken homes who have been in abusive situations.

"I wanted to understand why good people do bad things or why bad things happen to good people," Pearson said. "I had a lot of questions I needed legitimate, honest answers to."

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