Posts Tagged “exorcism”

Five members of the church Word of Faith Fellowship in North Carolina face kidnapping and assault charges. (WSPA-TV, via (NY) Daily NewsFor several months now, the Associated Press has been digging into the abuse inflicted on congregants at the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, NC, including continuing criminal trials (one of which recently imploded in spectacular fashion). The crux of it all is this fiercely fundagelical church’s practice of assigning every problem a congregant has to diabolical or demonic infestation, which they “treat” by — literally! — beating the devils/demons out of people. (Because naturally, it makes total sense that incorporeal beings will flee from people who’ve been beaten to within an inch of their lives, and never come back. Right?)

The abuse at Word of Faith has been going on for decades, and had been sporadically reported on through that time. For instance, it was covered by Inside Edition in 1995. Despite this, Word of Faith had avoided prosecution, and the AP uncovered the reason why: Word of Faith insiders in the NC justice system had shielded them from being investigated at all, in many cases, and whenever Johnny Law did come poking around, coached witnesses in how to answer questions.

The AP recently published another article explaining how and why it took so long for charges to be filed in the case of one abused congregant who’d reported what happened (WebCite cached article):

For two years, Matthew Fenner said he pleaded with authorities to investigate his allegations that a group of fellow congregants at the Word of Faith Fellowship church had punched, slapped and choked him to expel his “homosexual demons.”

An Associated Press investigation found that Rutherford County investigators and then-District Attorney Brad Greenway delayed investigating and told Fenner his only option was to pursue misdemeanor charges against the church members he said assaulted him for nearly two hours in the evangelical church’s sanctuary.

The AP’s conclusions are based on more than a dozen interviews and court documents, along with a series of secretly made recordings that were provided of Fenner’s meetings with law enforcement authorities, including Rutherford County Sheriff Chris Francis.…

Fenner tried to get action, but there was resistance:

When Fenner fled to his grandparents two days later [after he was attacked by church personnel], they called authorities. But Fenner told the jury that law enforcement — ranging from the Rutherford County sheriff’s office to the Federal Bureau of Investigation — didn’t take his allegations seriously.

The AP found that Fenner not only told law enforcement agencies about what happened to him, but also warned of ongoing abuse in the church.

“Over the last two decades, it appears that different politicians or leaders in the community have had a certain fear of the Word of Faith and for whatever reason that sort of encapsulated them and made them untouchable,” said Jerry Wease, chairman of the Rutherford County Democratic Party and a licensed counselor who has worked with people who left the church.

In Fenner’s case, it wasn’t even just the North Cackolackian justice system refused to budge; even the FBI wouldn’t pick up the case:

On Jan. 31, 2013, he met with FBI agent Fred Molina, who was investigating a complaint from another congregant who said he was beaten because he was gay. Fenner detailed what happened to him, along with the abuse of other congregants, six people told the AP.

A month later, Fenner called the FBI to check on the progress of the agency’s inquiry and was told a new agent was on the case because Molina was about to retire. That agent never called him back, Fenner said. When he received a letter months after that saying the FBI wasn’t going to investigate, he inquired why and said he was told it was because the other church member who reported being attacked had recanted.

Molina declined to talk to the AP, saying he was told by his former bosses not to discuss the case. But Nancy Burnette, who became familiar with the church through her court work with foster children and who helped some congregants flee, said Molina told her that he was pulled from the investigation. He urged her to “keep fighting” to get the “truth out,” she said.

So it seems even FBI management within NC was protecting Word of Faith. Nice, huh?

Fenner simultaneously pressed both state and federal law enforcement. Assistant US attorney Jill Rose declined to prosecuted because she said Fenner’s case didn’t meet federal hate-crime standards and didn’t cross state lines. At the state level he met with the DA (Brad Greenway) and sheriff (Chris Francis). Like Rose, Greenway refused to prosecute, and the sheriff told Fenner to file misdemeanor charges on his own.

It took Greenway being voted out, for the charges to be pressed. Indictments were handed down shortly after that. Hmm.

As I’ve noted previously, colossal deference to churches is certainly not unique to North Carolina, nor to fundagelical churches. The very same phenomenon helped the Roman Catholic Church avert charges against its own abusive clergy — and it happened all over the world for decades, if not centuries. It’s a tendency that must fucking stop. The idea that churches, and religious institutions generally, are not to be held accountable for their actions, is simply unacceptable. Folks within the criminal justice system are going to have to grow up, pull up their big-boy (or big-girl) pants, and just fucking deal with allegations against churches and religious personnel. They can no longer be allowed to skate just because they’re religious folks.

Photo credit: WSPA-TV, via (NY) Daily News.

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Word of Faith Fellowship, Spindale, NC / Alex Sanz/AP, via (NY) Daily NewsI blogged a few times about the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, NC. A trial is underway there, as I type this, and as the Associated Press reports, one of the defendants suddenly turned state’s evidence and testified against the rest (WebCite cached article):

One of five people charged with trying to beat “homosexual demons” out of a fellow church member in North Carolina testified for prosecutors on Friday, saying she threw the first slap after their minister began the attack.

Sarah Anderson took the stand despite defense objections in the trial of Word of Faith minister Brooke Covington. Anderson accused her of starting the confrontation with Matthew Fenner after a January 2013 service at the Spindale church.

She testified that Covington started pushing Fenner’s chest and screaming “Open your heart!” Anderson said she then slapped Fenner in the face, and about 30 church members then joined in, beating, screaming and choking the man for about two hours.

Not only did Anderson testify about the beating, she also testified about the subsequent attempt to obstruct justice:

Anderson testified that church leaders, including two working prosecutors at the time, met with the people who participated in the attack after Fenner pressed charges. She said then-assistant District Attorneys Frank Webster and Chris Back coached them to tell investigators that nothing violent happened that night.

The case involving Fenner’s beating predates the AP’s multi-story exposé; of the abuse, this past February. indictments were handed down back in December 2014 (cached). It took 2.5 years for the case to grind its way through the North Cackolackian justice system and reach this point. I’m actually amazed it proceeded even that quickly, given it’s a Bible Belt Bobble Bayelt state, where churches are granted deference.

Photo credit: Alex Sanz/AP, via (NY) Daily News.

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Word of Faith Fellowship Church grounds in Rutherford County, N.C. / CBS affiliate WSPAI’ve already blogged about the Word of Faith Fellowship church in Spindale, NC which was the subject of a series of Associated Press stories.

In addition to some North Carolina prosecutors (who were also members of the church, and one a relative of its leaders) being reviewed for having helped prevent Word of Faith from being fully investigated through the years, there’s been a little more fallout. As the Associated Press reports, a county social worker — also a member of the church who may have helped shield them from accountability — has resigned from her job (WebCite cached article):

A veteran social worker accused of coaching congregants and their children on what to say during a 2015 child abuse investigation of her secretive religious sect has resigned, an attorney for a child welfare agency said Friday.

Andrea Leslie-Fite said Lori Cornelius left her position at the Cleveland County Department of Social Services.…

[North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation] spokesman Patty McQuillan said Friday the agency isn’t currently investigating Cornelius or the Rutherford County Division of Social Services. But she said that could change.…

In its ongoing investigation, the AP has reported that the 2015 social services investigation included complaints that students at the church-run K-12 school were encouraged to beat classmates to cast out devils. Former members also said Cornelius coached children on what to tell investigators with the help of assistant prosecutors Frank Webster and Chris Back. Back is the son-in-law of sect leader Jane Whaley.

That DSS probe ended with no charges.

The abuse this church inflicted on people was all about devils:

Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers — even crying babies — who were vigorously shaken, screamed at and sometimes smacked to banish demons, according to on-the-record interviews with 43 former members. Those interviewed said congregants also were subjected to a practice called “blasting” — an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.

Yes, let’s torture people in order to drive out devils (or demons or ghosts or poltergeists or whatever-the-fuck)! Why, of course it makes total sense that incorporeal beings can be harmed that way. Obviously!

Photo credit: WSPA-TV, via CBS News.

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Rutherford Cty (NC) Court House / via North Carolina Court System Web siteIt seems officials in North Carolina finally awakened to the idea that maybe … just maybe! … there’s been a little corruption going on, surrounding abuses at the Word of Faith Fellowship Church in the town of Spindale. The Associated Press’s coverage of this story continues, with a report that there might be a corruption investigation (WebCite cached article):

A district attorney has asked the state to investigate two assistant prosecutors after an Associated Press story that quoted former congregants of a North Carolina church as saying the men derailed criminal probes into allegations of abuse by sect leaders.

David Learner said Wednesday that he wants the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the accusations against his employees, who are members of the evangelical Word of Faith Fellowship church.

The AP story, released Monday, cited nine former Word of Faith members who said Frank Webster and Chris Back provided legal advice, helped at strategy sessions and participated in a mock trial for four congregants charged with harassing a former member.

The ex-congregants also said that Back and Webster, who is sect leader Jane Whaley’s son-in-law, helped derail a social services investigation into child abuse in 2015 and attended meetings where Whaley warned congregants to lie to investigators about abuse incidents.

As the AP reported and I’ve blogged, Word of Faith believes in beatings and other kinds of abuse as a way of exorcising demons and devils. Or at least, that’s their rationale for the abuse.

It’s nice, I suppose, that there might be a probe into Webster and Back, but really, I’m not confident it will go far. This is, after all, a Bible Belt (er, Bobble Bay-elt) state, where churches are sovereign, and no one questions them much. So this might die on the vine, just as past investigations into Word of Faith’s affairs did.

Photo credit: North Carolina Court System.

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Photo from Word of Faith FellowshipThe Associated Press continues to report on the vile shenanigans that have gone on at the Word of Faith Fellowship church in Spindale, NC, which I blogged about just a few days ago. I wondered, when I first posted on the subject, how and why this church was able to continue doing what it’s been doing for decades, unaffected by the North Carolina legal system. Well, this latest AP report explains why. The fix, it seems, was in (WebCite cached article):

At least a half-dozen times over two decades, authorities investigated reports that members of a secretive evangelical church were being beaten. And every time, according to former congregants, the orders came down from church leaders: They must lie to protect the sect.

Among the members of the Word of Faith Fellowship who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators were two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker, the ex-followers told The Associated Press.

Frank Webster and Chris Back — church ministers who handle criminal cases as assistant DAs for three nearby counties — provided legal advice, helped at strategy sessions and participated in a mock trial for four congregants charged with harassing a former member, according to former congregants interviewed as part of an AP investigation of Word of Faith.

Back and Webster, who is sect leader Jane Whaley’s son-in-law and lives in her house, also helped derail a social services investigation into child abuse in 2015 and attended meetings where Whaley warned congregants to lie to investigators about abuse incidents, according to nine former members.

Yeah, that’s right. This church employed all its legal connections to derail prosecutions, for example:

According to nine former members interviewed by the AP, at least five other congregants who are lawyers participated in or were present during coaching sessions designed to circumvent investigators.

Back and Webster also helped sabotage a Rutherford County Department of Social Services investigation in 2015, according to Jeffrey Cooper’s brother, Chad Cooper, an attorney who said he attended a church meeting convened to undermine that probe.

Chad Cooper, who left the church last year, said also participating in the meeting was Word of Faith member Lori Cornelius, a longtime social services worker assigned to a nearby county.

Cooper said social services personnel were investigating complaints that students were beating classmates at the church-run K-12 school to cast out devils, and that teachers, including Whaley, encouraged the violence.

There’s more — a lot more! — to this story, which is much longer and more substantial than the AP’s earlier piece (cached). I urge you to read it … all of it. It shows how, as with the Roman Catholic Church and its “priestly pedophilia” scandal, this church used its status as a religion, and its deep connections to the region and the legal system, to ensure it was, effectively, above the law. But the interference went beyond just church members who were attorneys and social workers (which, by itself, is quite bad enough). Brad Greenway, for a time District Attorney of Rutherford County — and who is not a member of this church — was quick with excuses for why he couldn’t prosecute at least one case:

Asked why he didn’t do more — especially since he said he believed people were being beaten — Greenway said, “I don’t know what you’re expected to find if you went there. You’d find a building. … Are you going to find shackles? Handcuffs?”

Greenway said outsiders don’t understand what it’s like to try to make a case against the church.

Here’s my paraphrase of Greenway’s whine: “Boo hoo hoo! It’s just too hard to develop a case! There was nothing <sniff> I could do! It was all <snuffle> just so hopeless! We had no choice <sniff> but to let a church we knew was abusing people <sniff> continue doing so! Boo hoo hoo!” Any DA who can’t make a case when s/he knows there’s one, should just fucking resign and let his/her betters take over the job. (Which may be why he’s no longer in that position.)

But actually, it appears Greenway was much more sympathetic to Word of Faith Fellowship than just unable and unwilling to make a case. As the AP explains, he actually tipped them off to key developments:

One of the former congregants interviewed by AP, attorney Jeffrey Cooper, also said that … Greenway … leaked information to him and other church lawyers about a 2012-2013 grand jury investigation he was conducting into the church.

Greenway told the AP that he talked to Cooper and other church attorneys about the investigation, but couldn’t recall specifics of the conversations. But he denied supplying the church with “inside information.”

He acknowledged, however, that when asked by Cooper and church attorney Josh Farmer “something about ‘What are you going to do? What do you think is going to happen’…I might have said, ‘We’re going to the grand jury.'”

Look, I get it. This is the Bible Belt (er, the Bobble Bay-elt) where churches are sovereign … just as R.C. hierarchs were (and often still are) sovereigns. No one messes with a church, even when that church is messing up people really badly. They’re all godly outfits, you see, so it must be just fine. Right?

Photo credit: Word of Faith Fellowship Web site.

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Word of Faith Fellowship Church grounds in Rutherford County, N.C. / CBS affiliate WSPAThe American South isn’t called “the Bible Belt” for nothing. Churches pervade the area, and range in size from megachurches with tens of thousands of congregants, to tiny little backyard shacks that host services for just a couple families. Some of those churches, especially those that call themselves “non-denominational,” can get pretty weird. And I’m not just referring to charismatic or “holy roller” churches … those are weird, too, to be sure, but in Bible Belt terms they’re almost mainstream. No, by “weird” I mean downright cult-like, in ways that most Southern churches aren’t.

One of those cult-like outfits is the Word of Faith Fellowship in rural Spindale, NC. The Associated Press spoke with former members and published a story outlining outrageous abuse that had been meted out to some congregants (WebCite cached article):

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.

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 evangelical 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.

Several former followers said some congregants were sexually abused, including minors.

This cultish church, of course, denies all of this:

But hours after the AP’s stories were released, the church posted a statement on its website calling the allegations false and contending they were made by “certain former members” out to target the church.

The problem with this is, the abuse was substantiated by sources independent of what people simply claimed had happened. They were backed up by recordings, law enforcement reports, etc. So it’s not just some people’s word against theirs.

A lot of these abusive practices appear to be predicated on the notion that people’s problems are caused by demons and/or devils, which can be driven out by the abuse. This is, of course, medieval thinking … but sadly, it’s still all too common in 21st century America.

Rather shamefully, though, as the Friendly Atheist points out, this isn’t the first time Word of Faith has been caught abusing its congregants. Its vile tactics were reported on as long ago as 1995. And in 2014, some Word of Faith operatives were charged with beating a man in an effort to drive the gayness out of him (cached). So none of this is really news. What I expect will happen, now, is what happened all those other times … i.e. Word of Faith will go back to being the abusive cult it’s always been, and local authorities in North Carolina will look the other way. After all, dey gotsta drive dem dere demons out!

Photo credit: WSPA-TV, via CBS News.

Hat tip: Friendly Atheist.

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Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, and Jason Miller in The Exorcist (1973) / via IMDBThe Roman Catholic Church is facing a crisis. No, I’m not referring to the worldwide clerical child-abuse scandal that’s wracked the Church for over 15 years, nor the resulting problem of dioceses experiencing financial straits and even bankruptcies. The Church’s problem is a shortage … but not of priests — a problem it’s faced for the last few decades (WebCite cached article).

While those are genuine problems the Church faces, they’re not the dire crisis I’m blogging about just now. That happens to be a different kind of shortage: A shortage of exorcists. Satanism and the occult are spreading like rashes, as the (UK) Telegraph explains, but the Church has too few anti-demonic personnel to fend them off (cached):

Exorcists are in urgent demand as a result of a sharp rise in people dabbling in Satanism and the occult, experts from the Catholic Church in Italy and the US said.…

Valter Cascioli, a psychologist and scientific consultant to the International Association of Exorcists, which is endorsed by the Vatican, described as an “emergency” the lack of priests capable of fighting the forces of evil.

“The lack of exorcists is a real emergency. There is a pastoral emergency as a result of a significant increase in the number of diabolical possessions that exorcist priests are confronting,” he told La Stampa newspaper.

“The number of people who take part in occult and satanic practices, which lead to serious physical, psychological and spiritual damages, is constantly rising.”…

“It is dangerous to underestimate a phenomenon that is caused by the direct actions of the devil, but also by a decline in faith and values.”

Cascioli’s complaints about the spread of what his Church considers black magic practices and “a decline in faith and values,” reflects the bellyaching of the main character in my last blog post (a Connecticut police chief who thinks the growth of atheism is making the crime rate go up). This sort of thinking is common in Christianity, what with its persecutorial psychopathology that causes them to delude themselves into believing they’re under siege and about to be wiped out at any moment.

Really, Cascioli has nothing to be worried about. Demonic possession never happens. There are no demons or devils, no Satan leading them, and no such thing as black magic, either. Exorcisms occur only in horror movies. There’s no viable reason for the Roman Catholic Church to divert any resources to creating a demonology school (which Cascioli has demanded). It’s all metaphysical nonsense, which until just a few years ago, the Church had de-emphasized through most of the 20th century. They should resume that policy and ignore Cascioli’s absurd kvetching about Satanism and “black magic.”

Photo credit: Still from The Exorcist (1973), via IMDB.

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