From all over the world, they flocked to this tiny town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lured by promises of inner peace and eternal life. What many found instead: years of terror — waged in the name of the Lord.
Congregants of the Word of Faith Fellowship were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a violent form of deliverance meant to “purify” sinners by beating out devils, 43 former members told The Associated Press in separate, exclusive interviews.
Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers — even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken, screamed at and sometimes smacked to banish demons.
“I saw so many people beaten over the years. Little kids punched in the face, called Satanists,” said Katherine Fetachu, 27, who spent nearly 17 years in the church.
Word of Faith Fellowship, an evangelical church with hundreds of members in North Carolina and branches in other countries, also subjected members to a practice called “blasting” — an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.
As part of its investigation, the AP reviewed hundreds of pages of law enforcement, court and child welfare documents, along with hours of conversations with Jane Whaley, the church’s controlling leader, secretly recorded by followers.
The AP also spent more than a year tracking down dozens of former disciples who scattered after leaving the church. Many initially were reluctant to break their silence because they had hidden their pasts from new friends and colleagues — and because they remain afraid of Whaley.
Those interviewed — most of them raised in the church — say Word of Faith leaders waged a decades-long cover-up to thwart investigations by law enforcement and social services officials, including strong-arming young victims and their parents to lie. They said members were forbidden to seek outside medical attention for their injuries, which included cuts, sprains and cracked ribs.
The former members said they were speaking out now due to guilt for not doing more to stop the abuse and because they fear for the safety of the children still in the church, believed to number about 100.
Several former followers said some congregants were sexually abused, including minors. On one recorded conversation, Whaley admits to being aware of the sexual assault of three boys but not reporting it to authorities.
In the past, Whaley has strongly denied that she or other church leaders have ever abused Word of Faith members and contended that any discipline would be protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of religion tenets.
She and church attorney Josh Farmer turned down repeated AP requests for interviews to discuss the fresh allegations from the dozens of former congregants.
The ex-members said the violence was ever-present: Minors were taken from their parents and placed in ministers’ homes, where they were beaten and blasted and sometimes completely cut off from their families for up to a decade. Some male congregants were separated from their families and other followers for up to a year and subjected to the same brutal treatment.
Teachers in the church’s K-12 school encouraged students to beat their classmates for daydreaming, smiling and other behavior that leaders said proved they were possessed by devils.
“It wasn’t enough to yell and scream at the devils. You literally had to beat the devils out of people,” said Rick Cooper, 61, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent more than 20 years as a congregant and raised nine children in the church.
Word of Faith Fellowship has been scrutinized on numerous occasions by law enforcement, social services agencies and the news media since the early 1990s— all without significant impact, mostly because followers refused to cooperate.
Some former members offered a more doctrinal explanation for their decades of silence — frequent warnings by Whaley that God would strike them dead if they betrayed her or her church.
“We were warned to keep the abuse to ourselves. If we didn’t, we knew we would be targeted. … You lived in total fear,” said Liam Guy, 29, an accountant who fled in 2015 after nearly 25 years in the church.
Word of Faith was founded in 1979 by Whaley, a petite former math teacher with a thick Southern accent, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman.
They are listed as co-pastors but all of those interviewed said it is Jane Whaley — a fiery, 77-year-old Christian Charismatic preacher — who maintains dictatorial control of the flock and also administers some of the beatings herself.
She has scores of strict rules to control congregants’ lives, including whether they can marry or have children. At the top of the list: No one can complain about her or question her authority. Failure to comply often triggers a humiliating rebuke from the pulpit or, worse, physical punishment, according to most of those interviewed.
Under Jane Whaley’s leadership, Word of Faith grew from a handful of followers to a 750-member sect, concentrated in a 35-acre complex protected by tight security and a thick line of trees.
The group also has nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana, and affiliations with branches in other countries.
It was Whaley’s personality as much as her message — “strong prayer” and deliverance turn around troubled lives and assure salvation — that attracted people to the church, former members said.
When she started Word of Faith in her early 40s, some of the former members recall her as a motherly figure offering hope to those struggling with alcohol and drugs, or stuck in bad marriages. She filled a spiritual and emotional void, showering new congregants with love and attention.
Those attending the church’s twice-a-year international Bible seminars were encouraged to move to Spindale, a community of 4,300 midway between Charlotte and Asheville. It wasn’t until they sold their homes and settled in North Carolina that the church’s “dark side” gradually emerged, former members said.
By then — isolated from their families and friends, and believing Whaley was a prophet — they were afraid to leave, they said.
Looking back, some former members told the AP they that consider Word of Faith a cult.
“You had a strong leader who controlled everything in your life — where to live, work, who to talk to,” Guy said. “You couldn’t do anything without her permission. And she had people around her enforcing her law. Soon, you couldn’t think for yourself. You had to do everything she said.”
SOURCE: The Associated Press