Forty-three former members of the Word of Faith Fellowship assert that they were abused -- along with pre-teens, toddlers and babies -- by the church in Spindale, North Carolina.
The Associated Press interviewed the former members, reviewed legal documents, and researched hours of secretly recorded conversations of Jane Whaley, the leader of the evangelical church.
According to former members, people were subjected to violence that was supposed to "purify" them by literally beating devils out of them.
The methods allegedly included being screamed at, thrown through walls, choked, punched and slammed down on floors. Churchgoers were also allegedly subjected to "blasting," hours of ear-piercing sessions intended to cast out demonic forces.
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Jane, who started the church with her husband Sam, has strongly denied in the past that she or anyone else in church abused people, but added that church discipline is considered freedom of religion under the First Amendment. Jane and the church attorney, Josh Farmer, refused to speak to the AP about these new abuse allegations.
The church posted a statement on its website on Feb. 27:
We are shocked and saddened to learn of the false allegations made against our church and its pastors by certain former members and reported in a recent Associated Press article authored by Mitch Weiss. We do not condone or allow abuse -- in any form -- at our church. Period.
"I saw so many people beaten over the years," Katherine Fetachu, a former church member, told the AP. "Little kids punched in the face, called Satanists."
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Most of the people interviewed by the AP had grown up in the church, which they say worked to cover up the abuse for decades by allegedly bullying younger victims and telling their parents to lie to law enforcement and child welfare officials who have investigated the church since the 1990s.
Little has come from those investigations because church followers would not cooperate. Some ex-congregants told the AP that their 77-year-old leader, Jane, told them that the Lord would take their lives if they betrayed her or the Word of Faith Fellowship.
According to the former members interviewed by the AP, members were not allowed to get medical treatment outside the church for injuries, even serious ones involving broken bones.
Several ex-members also said that minors were sexually abused, and that the former followers felt guilty for not stopping the child abuse; they also said they worried for the safety of young people still at the church.
Ex-churchgoers said the abuse extended to the church's K-12 school, where teachers allegedly told students to assault their classmates for violations such as smiling, daydreaming and other demonic behaviors.
Some young people were allegedly taken from their parents and forced to live in the homes of church ministers, where they were subjected to beatings and blastings; in some cases, children were isolated from their parents for up to 10 years.
"It wasn't enough to yell and scream at the devils," ex-member Rick Cooper said. "You literally had to beat the devils out of people."
Jane allegedly decided if church members could marry and have kids, and did not allow anyone to question her authority.
John Cooper, one of Rick Cooper's sons, recalled living under her authority:
For most of my life, I lived in fear. I'm not scared anymore. 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. I'm not sure how you ever get over that.
The church has about 750 members in Spindale, and around 2,000 members in Brazil, Ghana and other countries.
People who went to Word of Faith Fellowship's twice-a-year Bible seminars were told to move to Spindale, where they saw the "dark side" of the church, said former members.
The "Prayer & Deliverance" page of the church's website states: "More than once, through prayer, some have been restored to life after having been medically examined and declared to have no signs of life."