SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) — 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org