Church disputes claims of abuse

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/March 18, 2001
By Alan Judd

Ask members of the House of Prayer how they're doing, and they immediately give a one-word answer: "Blessed."

Even in a time of adversity, as authorities investigate reports of widespread child abuse by members of the northwest Atlanta church, the congregation is sticking to its beliefs --- and sticking with its pastor, the Rev. Arthur Allen.

When the 68-year-old minister arrived at the church Friday evening, about 75 of the congregation's 130 members crowded around him and his white Lincoln Town Car as he spoke to reporters about the abuse allegations. He opened his remarks by noting he had left his other car, a Jaguar, at home.

"You have to understand what this church does for us," said member Tabitha Houston, 18. "The church bought me and my family a home, two cars." Houston and others who belong to the nondenominational church on Hollywood Road said they look to Allen not just for guidance, but for approval.

Allen plays a pivotal role in the lives of his congregation, granting permission for everything from choosing a home to choosing a spouse. And church members would agree to interviews only when Allen was present.

Atlanta police and state social workers are looking into whether Allen's control extends into discipline of children so severe it may constitute abuse. A 10-year-old boy told police that an adult beat him at the church as three others held him. The boy said Allen was "watching and telling them when to stop." The 10-year-old and another boy, 7, had welts and bruises on their bodies, according to a police report.

Already, social workers have removed 19 children from the homes of three church members. The investigation continued Saturday but no charges had been filed, said Renee Huie, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources. Officials say the abuse case could involve as many as 60 children.

Allen acknowledged Friday that he encourages "whippings" for "unruly" children. But Allen --- who was sentenced to 30 days in jail for child abuse in 1993 after ordering the beating of a church member's daughter --- denied that children from the church had been abused.

His opinions on disciplining children stem from a hard-line view of the Bible that Allen has preached at the House of Prayer for 35 years. He opposes birth control. He condemns gay relationships. And he holds out-of-wedlock sex in such disdain that he has approved marriages for girls as young as 14.

"Teenagers today, you can't force them to do anything they don't want to do," Allen said. "You have girls having babies at 8 years old. We have young girls in here who have come up in the church. When they are of legal age, if they want to (get married), at their request, I approve that.

"I do not force anyone into marriage," he said. "I do tell them this: 'You're not going to whore in this church. If you want to whore, get out there in the streets.' " If they stay in the church, he said, "I suggest marriage. There are girls in here who have gotten married at 14. But they were not forced."

Church member Deltri Barnett, 21, is among them. "I went (to Allen) and told him I wanted to get married," Barnett said. Seven years later, she and the husband Allen approved for her have four children.

"I thank the Lord," she said. "It has been a great blessing for me." Allen said the child abuse investigation and questions about his congregation's worship practices amount to religious persecution. "The only thing we go by is the Bible," he said.

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