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By Eric Lieberman
Congregants of a North Carolina church were systematically punched, choked, throttled, and slammed through walls, all in the name of religion, according to 43 former members who spoke to the Associated Press.
Leaders at the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, N.C., would allegedly shake and smack toddlers and crying babies in order to ostensibly purge the demons from their souls.
“I saw so many people beaten over the years. Little kids punched in the face, called Satanists,” 27-year-old Katherine Fetachu, who spent nearly 17 years in the church, told the AP.
In fact, several former members of the church said some, including minors, were sexually abused.
Word of Faith Fellowship, which was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, is believed to have around 750 members.
“Blasting,” hours-long sessions of verbal barrages meant to eject the devils from people, was a popular ritual. Sequestering minors from their parents and placing them in ministers’ homes, where they were regularly beaten and restricted from coming into contact with their family, was also favored. Some children were kept from their parents for up to a decade, according to the AP’s investigative report.
Education was also apparently critical for promoting their beliefs and barbaric behavior. Teachers at the church’s K-12 school would teach, even goad, students into berating and beating their fellow classmates if they were smiling or daydreaming, purporting that those were signs of sinister spirits.
“It wasn’t enough to yell and scream at the devils. You literally had to beat the devils out of people,” Rick Cooper, 61, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent more than 20 years as a member and raised nine children in the church, told the AP.
Congregants were explicitly prohibited from trying to solicit medical attention beyond the confines of the church for injuries like fractured ribs.
Whaley, the evangelical church’s controlling leader and former math teacher, vehemently denies the allegations. Whaley’s accused of running the religious organization in the style of a dictator, ensuring that all followers are controlled, while inflicting both her beliefs and beatings on congregants herself.
While law enforcement agents have made attempts before, they haven’t been able to fully inspect the church and verify the allegations because followers usually declined to cooperate.
But now, several ex-members corroborated each other stories to the AP, while also providing secret recordings of incriminating conversations made by Whaley and other church leaders.
Some former members told the AP they are speaking out about it because they feel guilty for going along with the abuse, and that it troubles them that children are still there, being victimized in the name of religion.
“For most of my life, I lived in fear. I’m not scared anymore,” John Cooper, Rick’s son, told the AP.
Others said they were hushed by authoritative promises of a day of reckoning. Whaley allegedly would tell followers that God would lethally smite them if they chose to betray her or the church.
“You’re cut off from everyone in the world. The church — and Jane — is the only thing you know. You believe she’s a prophet — she has a pipeline to God. So you stand by while she rips your family apart,” Rick Cooper continued. “I’m not sure how you ever get over that.”
Whaley has consistently asserted that First Amendment rights relating to freedom of religion will protect the church from any punishment.
The 35-acre religious complex in North Carolina, which is situated within a dense line of trees and stringent security, isn’t the only location with affiliations to the Word Of Faith. There are roughly 2,000 members in related churches in Ghana, Brazil, and several other countries, according to the AP.
The Word of Faith Fellowship isn’t the only religious group to allegedly engage in violent assaults, while professing its importance to the sake of sacraments.
The pastor of the cult-like group, The World of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, N.Y., pled guilty to manslaughter in October after she beat two teenage boys (one to death) during a religious “counseling session.”
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