SPINDALE, N.C. — 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.

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.

For several years, males perceived as the worst sinners were kept in a four-room former storage facility in the compound called the Lower Building. They were cut off from their families for up to a year, never knew when they would be released, and endured especially violent, prolonged beatings and blastings, according to more than a dozen of those interviewed.

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, the former followers said.

“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.

Word of Faith Fellowship was founded in 1979 by Whaley, a petite former math teacher, 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 in other countries.

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 or speak out, they said.

Given what they characterize as Whaley’s record for retribution against those she sees as traitors, the former members said they hope there is strength and protection in speaking out in numbers.

“For most of my life, I lived in fear. I’m not scared anymore,” said John Cooper, one of Rick Cooper’s sons.

Still, many former church members say the memories — and the nightmares — never seem to fade, and they live in fear for their family members still inside.

Danielle Cordes, now 22, said she has deep psychological scars from spending more than three-quarters of her life in Whaley’s world.

Three years ago, the last time she tried to visit her parents’ house, her father slammed the door in her face without saying a word. To this day, whenever she calls, family members hang up.

“I need my family and they’re gone,” she said.

Said Rick Cooper: “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 AP National Investigative Team can be reached at [email protected]

This Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, photo shows John Cooper near his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. Cooper recounted what happened to him at a meeting of nearly three dozen young ministers on April 12, 2012, when he was 19. One by one, the ministers were sharing stories of how they were serving God. When it was Cooper’s turn, a church elder interrupted and accused him of “giving in to the unclean” _ a catchall phrase covering a wide array of sins. Suddenly, Cooper said, he was pinned to the floor and pummeled for a half-hour, accused of having erotic fantasies. When the assault ended, Cooper said his body was covered with bruises and he had trouble breathing for weeks.
AP

This Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, photo shows John Cooper near his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. Cooper recounted what happened to him at a meeting of nearly three dozen young ministers on April 12, 2012, when he was 19. One by one, the ministers were sharing stories of how they were serving God. When it was Cooper’s turn, a church elder interrupted and accused him of “giving in to the unclean” _ a catchall phrase covering a wide array of sins. Suddenly, Cooper said, he was pinned to the floor and pummeled for a half-hour, accused of having erotic fantasies. When the assault ended, Cooper said his body was covered with bruises and he had trouble breathing for weeks.

In this 2014 photo provided by a former member of the church, Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley holds the newborn baby of a congregant of her church in Spindale, N.C. 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.
AP

In this 2014 photo provided by a former member of the church, Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley holds the newborn baby of a congregant of her church in Spindale, N.C. 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.

In this 2012 photo provided by a former member of the church, Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley, center, holds a baby with others during a church ceremony in Spindale, N.C. From all over the world, they flocked to a tiny North Carolina 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.
AP

In this 2012 photo provided by a former member of the church, Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley, center, holds a baby with others during a church ceremony in Spindale, N.C. From all over the world, they flocked to a tiny North Carolina 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.

This Nov. 30, 2016 image made from video shows Danielle Cordes in Gainesville, Fla. Cordes said she has deep psychological scars from spending more than three-quarters of her life in Whaley’s world. She remembers the last time she tried to visit her parents’ house, three years ago. Her father opened the door and then slammed it in her face without saying a word. To this day, whenever she calls family members, they hang up on her. “I need my family and they’re gone,” she said.
AP

This Nov. 30, 2016 image made from video shows Danielle Cordes in Gainesville, Fla. Cordes said she has deep psychological scars from spending more than three-quarters of her life in Whaley’s world. She remembers the last time she tried to visit her parents’ house, three years ago. Her father opened the door and then slammed it in her face without saying a word. To this day, whenever she calls family members, they hang up on her. “I need my family and they’re gone,” she said.

This Oct. 26, 2015 image made from video shows Tim Cornelius in Shelby, N.C. Cornelius, who left the Word of Faith Fellowship in 2013 after more than 20 years in the church, said in the eyes of Word of Faith leaders, “The baby isn’t hungry or needs to be changed. The baby is crying because they’re possessed by a devil.”
AP

This Oct. 26, 2015 image made from video shows Tim Cornelius in Shelby, N.C. Cornelius, who left the Word of Faith Fellowship in 2013 after more than 20 years in the church, said in the eyes of Word of Faith leaders, “The baby isn’t hungry or needs to be changed. The baby is crying because they’re possessed by a devil.”

This Oct. 1, 2015 image made from video shows Amanda and Liam Guy in Charlotte, N.C. Liam, 29, an accountant who fled in 2015 after nearly 25 years in the Word of Faith Fellowship church, said “We were warned to keep the abuse to ourselves. If we didn’t we knew we would be targeted. … You lived in total fear.” They were married in the church and left together.
AP

This Oct. 1, 2015 image made from video shows Amanda and Liam Guy in Charlotte, N.C. Liam, 29, an accountant who fled in 2015 after nearly 25 years in the Word of Faith Fellowship church, said “We were warned to keep the abuse to ourselves. If we didn’t we knew we would be targeted. … You lived in total fear.” They were married in the church and left together.

In this Jan. 23, 2015 photo provided by Rachael Bryant, Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley holds the newborn infant of one of her congregants in a hospital in Shelby, N.C. 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.
AP

In this Jan. 23, 2015 photo provided by Rachael Bryant, Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley holds the newborn infant of one of her congregants in a hospital in Shelby, N.C. 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.

This photo provided by John Cooper shows him at the age of 12 at a public park near Spindale, N.C., during a court-mandated visitation with his cousins. Cooper, who spent a few years working as a teacher’s aide in Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley’s class, said she encouraged the violence meant to beat out devils and warned students not to say anything to their parents.
AP

This photo provided by John Cooper shows him at the age of 12 at a public park near Spindale, N.C., during a court-mandated visitation with his cousins. Cooper, who spent a few years working as a teacher’s aide in Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley’s class, said she encouraged the violence meant to beat out devils and warned students not to say anything to their parents.

This Jan. 16, 2017 photo shows Danielle Cordes at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. The 22-year-old business major had spent over 17 years inside the Word of Faith Fellowship church. “When you’re young, you don’t understand what’s going on, why they’re hitting you,” said Cordes, who left in 2013. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You weren’t causing trouble, but you think you’re a bad person because they’re beating you in the name of God.”
AP

This Jan. 16, 2017 photo shows Danielle Cordes at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. The 22-year-old business major had spent over 17 years inside the Word of Faith Fellowship church. “When you’re young, you don’t understand what’s going on, why they’re hitting you,” said Cordes, who left in 2013. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You weren’t causing trouble, but you think you’re a bad person because they’re beating you in the name of God.”

In this Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017 photo, John Cooper walks through his neighborhood in Chapel Hill, N.C. Cooper, who spent a few years working as a teacher’s aide in Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley’s class, said she encouraged the violence meant to beat out devils and warned students not to say anything to their parents.
AP

In this Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017 photo, John Cooper walks through his neighborhood in Chapel Hill, N.C. Cooper, who spent a few years working as a teacher’s aide in Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley’s class, said she encouraged the violence meant to beat out devils and warned students not to say anything to their parents.

In this Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017 photo, John Cooper looks out of his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. Cooper says there is an urgent need for authorities to finally intervene in the Word of Faith Fellowship church in Spindale, N.C. “What’s going on now isn’t right. What went on for my entire childhood wasn’t right,” he said.
AP

In this Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017 photo, John Cooper looks out of his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. Cooper says there is an urgent need for authorities to finally intervene in the Word of Faith Fellowship church in Spindale, N.C. “What’s going on now isn’t right. What went on for my entire childhood wasn’t right,” he said.

This photo provided by Danielle Cordes shows her riding a bike at the age of 11 in her front yard near Spindale, N.C. Cordes, who spent over 17 years inside the Word of Faith Fellowship church, recalled numerous beatings of her and others by Jane Whaley and other church leaders. Seemingly innocuous behavior warranted a beating to expel the devil — perhaps asking a question, or wanting to play outside.
AP

This photo provided by Danielle Cordes shows her riding a bike at the age of 11 in her front yard near Spindale, N.C. Cordes, who spent over 17 years inside the Word of Faith Fellowship church, recalled numerous beatings of her and others by Jane Whaley and other church leaders. Seemingly innocuous behavior warranted a beating to expel the devil — perhaps asking a question, or wanting to play outside.

In this 2012 photo provided by a former member of the church, Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley, center, holds a baby, accompanied by her husband, Sam, center right, and others during a ceremony in the church’s compound in Spindale, N.C. 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.
AP

In this 2012 photo provided by a former member of the church, Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley, center, holds a baby, accompanied by her husband, Sam, center right, and others during a ceremony in the church’s compound in Spindale, N.C. 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.

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