For almost a quarter-century, a fringe charismatic church in the North Carolina foothills has been under fire for abusive and cultish practices. But it took until this spring for someone to start peeling back the onion on this outfit.
It now turns out that Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, halfway between Charlotte and Asheville, has a lot more to worry about than just criticism from former members. Two now-former prosecutors who are also ministers at the church face allegations that they helped cover up child abuse at the church and its attached Christian school. They are also accused of helping cover up a brutal attempt to beat the gay out of a church member. If that wasn’t enough, the church is now being investigated for turning its satellite churches in Brazil into pipelines for slave labor.
These anecdotes alone would be enough to suggest that this isn’t a church, but a crime family. Yet more evidence came to light on Monday, with reports that the church is being investigated by federal and state authorities for encouraging its members to commit unemployment fraud.
WOFF first came under the hot lights in 1995, when “Inside Edition” ran a scathing report about allegations of emotional and physical abuse running rampant in the church. Watch it here.
That piercing, banshee-like screaming you hear is called “blasting.” It can go on for hours on end in hopes of driving out demons–even if the target is a child. According to the former members, WOFF’s idea of “deliverance” includes beating, shaking, smacking, and choking people–even kids and babies.
The criticism has continued unabated since then. However, until recently, it went nowhere because church founder and pastor Jane Whaley held a vise-like grip on her congregation. She does not allow her flock to watch movies or television, and decides whether you can go to college, marry, or have children.
Few have been willing to speak out until recently because Whaley frequently warns that if they do so, God will kill them where they stand. Watch footage of a typical example of her bullying from the pulpit here.
But as history shows, at some point outfits like this always wind up pissing off too many people. That point was reached in February, when The Associated Press began rolling out the results of a lengthy investigation into WOFF’s tactics. Interviews with several former members not only confirmed the numerous allegations that have been leveled against the church over the last two decades, but also suggested that the church has strayed into outright criminal conduct.
The AP detonated its latest bombshell in the form of interviews with 11 former members who say Whaley ordered them to file false unemployment claims in order to keep the tithes flowing in. One of them, construction contractor Randy Fields, spent almost a quarter-century as a member of the church before leaving in 2015. When he felt the squeeze from a sluggish economy, he asked Whaley to let him cut back on his tithes until business picked up.
Any pastor with any regard for basic decency would have said yes. Not Whaley. According to Fields, she told him to file bogus unemployment claims on behalf of his employees. This gambit would allow him to keep tithing at the normal rate while giving his company some breathing room.
Fields said that he knew this was illegal. However, he feared being dressed down from the pulpit by Whaley, and also believed he would be beaten up by his “brothers” and “sisters” if he didn’t go along with what Whaley called “God’s plan.” He had his employees work without pay while drawing unemployment.
His account was echoed by Rick Cooper, another prominent WOFF walkaway. From 2011 to 2012, he filed for unemployment while working for a manufacturing company owned by one of WOFF’s ministers, Rick Covington. Not only was this illegal, but it was financially devastating. Cooper said that he normally took home $700 per week, but only took home $235 per week in unemployment over two years–nowhere near enough to make ends meet.
In an understatement, Cooper said that losing almost two-thirds of his check was “devastating for my family.” But hey, at least Covington was able to keep tithing. Whoopee!
Another former member, Rachael Bryant, says that Whaley was very involved in the scheme. While drawing $200 per week in unemployment over 18 months, she recalled Whaley asking her if the checks were still coming. Bryant says that when she said they were still coming, Whaley exclaimed, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!”
The AP’s review found at least six companies owned by church leaders drew hundreds of thousands of dollars in potentially fraudulent claims from 2008 to 2013. According to the people in whose names the claims were filed, they learned about the scheme in meetings with company brass.
All of those interviewed by the AP say that they have been questioned about the matter by both the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Department of Homeland Security. The SBI, which is conducting a broader investigation into WOFF, declined to comment. DHS referred questions to the U. S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, which also declined comment citing its own investigation into the church.
If these allegations are even half true, Whaley and her church could be in a world of trouble. Since 2012, receiving more than $400 in fraudulent unemployment benefits is a felony at state level; anything less than that is a misdemeanor. Previously, unemployment fraud was only a misdemeanor. If it turns out there was a conspiracy, those involved could face serious charges at both the state and federal level. For instance, filing those claims could amount to mail fraud and/or wire fraud–and any two of them could expose Whaley and friends to the manifold glories of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
There was already ample reason for every minister and staffer at this church to be lawyered up. But if I were on staff at this church from 2008 onward, I’d have a lawyer on speed dial. After all, it looks like Whaley was trying to line her church’s bank account at taxpayer expense.
(featured image courtesy WOFF Website)