Pequannock church sues over cult label

The Record (NJ)/July 30, 2005
By John Chadwick

A small Pequannock church, accused of engaging in cult-like behavior, has responded by suing its critics - including one of the largest congregations in North Jersey, Hawthorne Gospel Church.

Gospel Outreach Christian Fellowship contends that a small group of people - including some of its former members, relatives of current members and several ministers at Hawthorne Gospel - have harassed the congregation for several years, labeling it a cult and making it difficult for it to survive.

And in a potentially explosive allegation, the suit, filed July 28 in Newark, accuses the defendants of knowing the location of Tim Carney - a Gospel Outreach member who disappeared nearly a year ago - and keeping it secret.

Carney's parents, who are not named in the suit, said they think their 25-year-old son dropped out of sight to get away from what they called the high-pressure tactics of Gospel Outreach and its pastor, the Rev. James Lethbridge. They reported him missing to Butler police Sept. 28.

In the suit, Gospel Outreach says the defendants know where Carney is and have "engaged in a conspiracy to keep his whereabouts a secret while purporting to search for him and by casting blame upon Pastor Lethbridge and Gospel Outreach."

The suit also says Carney is possibly staying at a "deprogramming" center, which it names as Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center, but gives no further details.

Carney's mother, Phyllis, said the suit is "absurd." She said she's acquainted with most of the defendants and said it's unthinkable that they would keep her son's whereabouts a secret.

"So these people [defendants], who I know quite well, have kept my son's whereabouts from me for 10 months?" she asked. "Give me a break. That's just ridiculous."

A spokeswoman for Wellspring, based in Albany, Ohio, said Friday that it provides short-term therapy for victims of abusive, controlling relationships, including members of cults.

Liz Shaw, the chief operating officer, said that under federal law, she can neither confirm nor deny whether Carney is a client.

"If this person was here, they would have been through admissions and discharged within two weeks, because that's our program," she said.

Gospel Outreach, which has a few dozen members, meets in the American Legion Hall in Pequannock every Sunday for worship services that emphasize the Bible as the infallible word of God, and feature singing and acoustic guitar playing.

The evangelical Protestant congregation attracted little notice until last fall, when Carney vanished and a former member filed a lawsuit that accused Gospel Outreach of abusive manipulative behavior. Ronald Rhodes of Pompton Lakes said the church pressures members to turn over large sums of money and keeps them vulnerable through intimidation and emotional abuse.

Several relatives of members echoed his allegations, saying Gospel Outreach had ruptured their families.

The lawsuit, however, paints a different picture.

It argues that the root of the problem dates to the late 1990s, when a Warren County couple learned that their son had joined Gospel Outreach. The parents were Catholic and were upset he had joined a Protestant church.

"From this time forward, following the advice of their extended family, the [parents] began to tell others that Gospel Outreach was a cult," the suit says.

The parents eventually joined forces with Beth Davies, director of the cult recovery ministry at Hawthorne Gospel Church, and Kenneth MacGillivray, then an assistant pastor at the church.

The suit says the defendants embarked on a campaign to ruin Gospel Outreach - a campaign that began with phone calls to members' families and escalated to the distribution of warning letters to local churches.

Some churches, the suit said, received a form letter, and were encouraged to send it to those congregations renting space to Gospel Outreach.

"We encourage you to break your association with this man and his cultic group at the earliest possible date," said the letter, a portion of which was included in the suit.

The letter got results, the suit said.

The Pequannock Reformed Church and Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church stopped renting space to Gospel Outreach in 2002. During this time, Lethbridge received threatening e-mails, the suit said.

Some of the defendants reached Friday declined to comment, saying they hadn't been served summonses.

Gospel Outreach is being represented by Brian W. Raum of Manhattan.

The suit accused the defendants of violating the civil rights of Lethbridge and the congregation, as well as libel, defamation, interference with a contract, and infliction of emotional distress.

"It's dangerous thing when private individuals can damage and defame with the end purpose of destroying other private individuals," Raum said.

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