Church members sent to jail for whipping kids

House of Prayer pastor says he'll follow the Bible

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/October 18, 2002
By Steve Visser and Jill Young Miller

The outspoken Rev. Arthur Allen Jr. was noncommittal Thursday after a jury convicted him and four followers of cruelty to children for whippings at his church. Asked if he would follow a judge's order to stop advising parents to whip disobedient children, Allen said, "I'm going to follow the Ten Commandments," and would say no more.

The 70-year-old House of Prayer pastor -- who has often quoted the Bible to justify the whippings -- faced the possibility of up to 20 years in prison. He stood with hunched shoulders as Fulton County Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford sentenced him to 90 days in jail and 10 years of probation.

Allen and four members of his congregation were convicted Thursday and sentenced to jail for the whippings in February 2001 that brought national attention to their small church in northwest Atlanta and touched off debates about corporal punishment.

Bedford said the five defendants clearly love their children, but they "crossed the line" when they badly bruised two boys.

"Sadly as it seems, I'm in the business of protecting children from their parents," Bedford told the court. "What happened here was not about disciplining children. It was about, for lack of a better word, beating children."

The jury took about 19 hours, starting Monday, to convict Allen for overseeing the whippings at the House of Prayer. Allen has run the church for 35 years and is deeply involved in his followers' lives -- from overseeing punishment of their children to helping parents financially. He said his church doesn't advocate corporal punishment for every offense but some children need a "meaningful whipping."

State child welfare officials have called the House of Prayer whippings among the worst cases of child abuse to cross their desks -- primarily because the punishments were done at the church at Allen's direction by men who restrained the boys by their arms and legs, suspending them in the air as they were beaten.

During the trial, Allen acknowledged parents brought children to the plain-brick church for punishment. He said men in the church restrained the youngsters to protect them before whipping their buttocks and backs with a belt.

Allen and the other four church members on trial chose to represent themselves before the judge, declining repeated efforts by Bedford to persuade them to accept help from lawyers.

On Thursday, the judge also ordered Allen to pay an $8,000 fine. He sentenced Charles Ogletree, 30, convicted of wielding the belt, and Emanuel Hardeman, 37, convicted of holding a boy during a whipping, to 75 days in jail, 10 years of probation and $2,500 fines each.

Bedford sentenced Sharon Duncan, 41, to 20 days in jail, five years of probation and a $250 fine, and her 45-year-old husband, David Duncan Sr., to 40 days in jail, eight years of probation and a $500 fine. The Duncans were convicted for bringing their 10-year-old son to the church for a whipping.

The men were told to report to the Fulton County Jail next Friday to begin serving their sentences. Sharon Duncan is to report to jail after her husband returns home to take care of their children.

Bedford warned the defendants he could put them in prison for years if they don't follow his orders on discipline. "I do not want that," the judge said. "You do not want that. I don't think anybody in here wants that."

The judge ordered them to restrict any spanking to their own children, generally only in the presence of immediate family members, to use only an open hand on a child's buttocks during such punishment and to complete an intensive counseling program. He banned them from bringing children to the House of Prayer for punishment and from advising or assisting other parents with punishment.

Among them,the defendants have 18 children.

District Attorney Paul Howard said the sentences would protect the children from the discipline of well-meaning but overzealous parents.

"What I want them to do is stop beating these children," Howard said.

The district attorney said he hoped the threat of serious prison time would restrain Allen and his followers -- this time. In 1993, Allen was convicted of a misdemeanor in DeKalb County for ordering the whipping of a 16-year-old girl. He served 20 days in jail.

Six more House of Prayer members, including the parents of a boy who was whipped, still face trial, possibly later this year. Bedford ordered two trials to help manage the number of defendants.

The next group could avoid trial and jail if they agree to modify their use of corporal punishment, Howard said.

But David Wilson, one of the defendants, shook his head when asked if he would agree to the district attorney's demands in the wake of the guilty verdicts of his pastor and four other church members.

"We're still going to trial," he said. "It's up to the Lord, you know."

The criminal investigation began after Ricky Wilson Jr. and David Duncan Jr. showed up at C.W. Hill Elementary School with welts and bruises on Feb. 28, 2001. Social workerstook the boys from their parents and soon seized 47 other House of Prayer children and put them in foster care and group homes. Police arrested Allen and the others.

The pastor's advocacy of the belt to correct unruly children sparked a blaze of publicity. Within a week, Allen went from being the pastor of an obscure nondenominational church in a poor part of Atlanta to a controversial figure in the national news. He appeared in People magazine, on Dateline NBC, on the Sally Jesse Rafael show.

And while many people pilloried the church's members as brutes, others found Allen and his followers to be blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth parents with well-behaved children.

David Duncan Sr., a welder, and Ogletree and Hardeman, landscapers, take pride in providing for their families.

Allen comes off as a caring, if domineering, man. He draws no salary from his church, and his lifestyle is far from lavish. He worked as a landscaper and house painter until retiring. He has raised money in recent years by selling land he inherited, and his followers say he has bought several of them houses and cars and has helped them keep their marriages together.

But then there are the pictures.

The prosecution's photos showed the jury two badly bruised boys who felt the lash in church for misbehaving in school. Allen told jurors whipping is a last-resort punishment, and it has to be painful to be meaningful. Otherwise the child will not fear it.

"I say, 'If you do that, you'll get a whipping,' " the pastor said. "And a light seems to go off in their head." Allen and other church members contended the state doctored photos to make the boys' bodies appear brutally bruised. They called to the witness stand House of Prayer members who said they saw Ricky's whipping in church, and they claimed he wasn't hurt as badly as the photos show. When longtime church member Carolyn Ruth saw the photos, she looked shocked and said, "This is impossible." Allen has said his black congregation's children have tougher skin and need a tougher blow because they haven't been "free" as long as whites and have too much "Africanism" in them, testified Ted Hall, a lawyer with the state Division of Family and Children Services.

Also, Allen advocates marriage for 14-year-old girls to protect them from becoming unwed mothers, living in sin and going on welfare.

Sandra Lang, who grew up in the same neighborhood as many of the church members, said, "We used to laugh at them, going to church to get beat."

The 35-year-old minister with Communities Opposing the Powers of Satan Ministries in Marietta now views House of Prayer as a loving flock being led by a wolf. Lang called Allen's sentence too lenient. "This cult needs to be broken," she said.

Social workers have returned all but six of the 49 children seized from church members. Remaining in foster care are children of the Duncans and of Yolonda and Ricky Wilson Sr., who are to go on trial later.

Thursday's verdict may help the Duncan children come home, said Hall, lead attorney in the Juvenile Court cases over custody of the children. The parents now must abide by punishment guidelines the Department of Family and Children Services has long tried to impose, he said.

"The Duncans will be on probation and under strict rules of conduct," Hall said. "We now have a safety net for those children -- apparently."

Allen's leadership may well determine whether the next case goes to trial and whether his co-defendants successfully complete probation. He had accused the government of ganging up on his small church and trampling his congregation's rights to discipline their children in accordance with their beliefs.

The 130 members of the close-knit church appear deeply loyal to Allen and to his teachings. Many of them are the grown children of men and women the pastor recruited from some of Atlanta's toughest housing projects when he started the House of Prayer in 1966.

Earlier this week, it was clear where their hearts were. While waiting outside the courtroom for a verdict, Allen passed the time preaching to about 40 followers. He proudly recounted what he told the jury when he gave the defendants' closing argument.

"I told them that we chastise our children," the pastor said.

"You don't love them if you don't --" he stopped, waiting for someone to finish his sentence.

"Chastise them!" church members responded.

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