By Mitch Weiss, AP
SPINDALE, North Carolina — 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 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 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.
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.
Several former followers said some congregants were sexually abused, including minors.
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.
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. 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.
“We do not condone or allow abuse — in any form — at our church. Period,” the statement said.