Church accused of tearing families apart

Eyewitness News Investigators exclusive

New York- WABC The Eyewitness News Investigators'/September 13, 2006
By Sarah Wallace

Some angry and frustrated parents are accusing the pastor of a church in New Jersey of tearing their families apart. The chuch is called Gospel Outreach, a group that critics say demands too much devotion of its members.

The New Jersey congregation may be small but there are wide implications here. What happens when your child is over 21 and joins a group that you feel is too controlling, too consuming? Now, relatives and ex-members of Gospel Outreach paint a disturbing portrait of a pastor's power.

"I want her to be free. She is not free now. She is a slave to him," Bahaa Barsoums, a devastated father said.

MaryAnn Faillace, devastated mother: "As soon as he feels that you're against him, it's an attack that is unbelievable."

Families are lashing out at this man, Jim Lethbridge, the Pastor of Gospel Outreach Church in Pompton Plains, New Jersey.

MaryAnn and Angelo Fallaice's son, Joe, joined 8 years ago. The parents say at first, they supported his involvement with Gospel Outreach but then started questioning the pastor's indoctrination.

"There's no refusing. The group has priority over everything," MaryAnn said.

"It's all about control," Angelo said.

Bahaa and Saffa Barsoums' daughter joined 6 years ago when she was a 21-year-old college student.

Barsoums: "And now she is with him and now matter what he asks her. If he asked her to kill me, she will kill me."

Sarah Wallace: "She would kill you if he asked her? You believe that?"

Barsoums: "I believe that if he asked her to do anything to make him happy, she will do that."

While we were at their home the Barsoums' daughter called them for the first time in weeks but wouldn't tell them where she was.

"Our daughter is not our daughter anymore ... our daughter is a different person," Bahaa said.

It's a familiar theme: young people on their own for the first time looking to belong to make a church connection. Many familiar with Gospel Outreach say it often recruited its members from college campuses around New Jersey.

Kevin Wilke was looking. Before he left the church a few years ago, the longtime church elder had become Pastor Lethbridge's second in command.

"The family members outside the church are looked at as enemies, there is a conspiracy that they are looking to take down the church," Wilke said.

Gospel Outreach has no church structure of its own. It rents space in this building on Route 23 in Pompton Plains and the pastor often holds morning prayer sessions at a local diner. On Sunday, members of the ever dwindling congregation gather at an American Legion hall.

Wilke says he left because of Pastor Lethbridge's increasingly controlling behavior.

Wilke: "Everything is what the pastor says and that's it"

Sarah Wallace: "And if you disagree?"

Wilke: "You disagree. You're ostracized, basically, while you're in a group, which is a hell of a place to live."

Ron Rhodes says his 10 years in Gospel Outreach left him with permanent psychological damage. He's now suing Pastor Lethbridge for emotional distress.

"I would say that Jim, in my opinion, Jim's an extremely angry man. It isn't until you leave that you finally start thinking about the church. When you actually have time to stop and think about it, that's when you start seeing the control," Rhodes said.

We caught up with Pastor Lethbridge outside of his office after he ignored repeated phone messages. While Lethbridge wouldn't answer us, he's answered his critics by suing various family members and ex-members for defamation. A Federal Judge recently dismissed Gospel Outreach's lawsuit without ruling on the merits, but ordered the church to pay the defendants' legal fees.

The Faillaces don't want money, they want their family back.

"The dreams you have as a mother have all been scattered and destroyed," MaryAnn said.

Lethbridges's attorney said they have nothing to say because of the pending lawsuit against the church but he denies any allegations.

Tomorrow, we'll have the story of a missing church member who vanished two years ago almost to the day. Did his involvement in the church have anything to do with his disappearance?

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