For the better part of two decades, a fringe charismatic church in western North Carolina has faced accusations that it subjected its members–including kids–to horrific and even criminal abuse. Well, at long last, the bill may finally be coming due for this so-called church. A former member who is due to be tried later this year for her role in a horrific attempt to beat “homosexual demons” out of a member revealed that church leaders tried to sweep the whole thing under the rug.
In January 2013, Matthew Fenner was leaving a prayer service at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, halfway between Asheville and Charlotte, when about 30 members collared him and subjected him to a horrific two-hour exorcism. During that time, several members “blasted” him, or screamed at him like banshees in an attempt to drive the gay demons out of him. They also slapped, punched, and choked him.
To get an idea of what “blasting” sounds like, watch this story “Inside Edition” ran on this church in 1995.
Understandably, Fenner is still shaken by the “emotional toll” this ordeal took on him.
Last weekend, one of the WOFF members accused of taking part in the assault, Sarah Anderson, detonated a bombshell at the trial of the alleged ringleader, Brooke Covington. Anderson, who left the church in 2016 after claiming that her son had been abused, testified that she had been the first to slap Fenner after Covington, one of the church’s ministers, viciously berated him.
But it turns out that Anderson revealed far more than that. She claimed to have been on hand for several meetings to reenact the “blasting” session, at which Covington told those present to move further back. She also testified that two assistant district attorneys who are also ministers at WOFF, Frank Webster and Chris Back, took part in the reenactment, with one of them taking Fenner’s role.
According to Anderson, Webster and Back’s role in the cover-up went much further than reenacting the “blasting.” They told church members to tell investigators that nothing had happened. To that end, Covington and other church leaders had her sign an affidavit stating that nothing improper occurred that night, and also tried to coach her testimony.
Webster and Back, who worked in a neighboring district, are already suspected of helping sabotage investigations into child abuse at WOFF and its affiliated Christian school. They are also suspected of helping several members accused of assaulting a former member fend off charges by coaching their testimony. Their boss, District Attorney David Learner, asked the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate the matter in March. However, less than 48 hours later, Learner forced Webster and Back to resign. A social worker who allegedly helped Webster and Back throw child abuse investigations sideways, Lori Cornelius, also resigned soon afterward.
And now, for the first time, someone has stated under oath that Webster and Back tried to throw an investigation into potential criminal behavior at their church off the track. In the process, they may have become criminals themselves. Assistant district attorneys in North Carolina are not allowed to have any involvement, let alone give legal advice, in outside cases. Doing so can result in discipline, up to and including disbarment. Offering legal advice in an attempt to avoid prosecution can be grounds for criminal charges. So it goes without saying that what Anderson described in her testimony is outrageously illegal.
Anderson came forward knowing full well that she was incriminating herself; indeed, her own lawyer tried to stop her from testifying. From where I’m sitting, though, she’s one very brave woman. In abusive churches like WOFF, speaking out against church leaders is almost tantamount to a deadly sin. It’s almost like omerta, the Mafia code of silence–and in some respects, even worse. WOFF’s pastor, Jane Whaley, frequently warns her flock that if members speak out against the church, God will kill them where they’re standing. Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder that few people have spoken out, even though WOFF has been under fire for the better part of two decades.
I know from experience how this Christianist omerta works. As many longtime readers both here and at Daily Kos know, during my freshman year at the University of North Carolina, I was tricked into joining a hypercharismatic outfit that was only slightly less abusive than WOFF. I’ve recently started writing more about what happened in there at a blog called “Child for the Truth.” Even when I discovered overwhelming evidence that this church had once been the Carolina chapter of Maranatha Campus Ministries, a particularly notorious “campus cult” from the 1980s, my now-former friends in that bunch essentially said, “So what?” Indeed, to this day, many of my former “brothers” and “sisters” in that outfit say that I sold them out.
If past history is any indication, Anderson’s testimony is a trickle that could start a flood–one that could potentially sweep WOFF out of existence. The odds are pretty good that in the wake of Anderson’s explosive testimony, the SBI is leaning pretty heavily on Webster and Back to come clean about any cover-ups in which they took part. Webster, in particular, could be feeling the heat; he’s Whaley’s son-in-law.
Mark it down, folks. June 2, 2017 could go down as the beginning of the end for Word of Faith Fellowship. It’s a moment that is at least two decades overdue.
(featured image courtesy WSPA via WBTV)