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SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) — At least a half-dozen times over two decades, authorities investigated reports that members of a secretive evangelical church were being beaten. And every time, according to former congregants, the orders came down from church leaders: They must lie to protect the sect.
Among the members of the Word of Faith Fellowship who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators were two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker, the ex-followers told The Associated Press.
Frank Webster and Chris Back — church ministers who handle criminal cases as assistant DAs for three nearby counties — provided legal advice, helped at strategy sessions and participated in a mock trial for four congregants charged with harassing a former member, according to former congregants interviewed as part of an AP investigation of Word of Faith.
Back and Webster, who is sect leader Jane Whaley's son-in-law and lives in her house, also helped derail a social services investigation into child abuse in 2015 and attended meetings where Whaley warned congregants to lie to investigators about abuse incidents, according to nine former members.
Under North Carolina law, prosecutors cannot provide legal advice or be involved in outside cases in any manner. Violation of those rules can lead to ethics charges, dismissal and disbarment.
More egregious actions — including offering legal advice in an ongoing criminal investigation to help a person avoid prosecution — could lead to criminal charges, including obstruction of justice.
The receptionist for Back and Webster at the Burke County Courthouse in Morganton, North Carolina, said the two men were "too busy" to talk to AP reporters. They also did not respond to a note seeking comment about their roles in the church.
On Monday, their supervisor, District Attorney David Learner, declined to say if he had started an internal investigation. "As far as I am concerned, they are my employees and this is a personnel issue," he said.
Also Monday, former members held a news conference pressing anew for state and federal investigations of the church. "In recent years, I, along with others, have made several attempts to warn the local authorities of what is known today as the deteriorating conditions inside Word of Faith," said ex-congregant John Huddle. "The severity and intensity of abuses has grown more alarming in recent years."
One of the former congregants interviewed by AP, attorney Jeffrey Cooper, also said that then-District Attorney Brad Greenway of Rutherford County, where Word of Faith Fellowship is located, leaked information to him and other church lawyers about a 2012-2013 grand jury investigation he was conducting into the church.
Greenway told the AP that he talked to Cooper and other church attorneys about the investigation, but couldn't recall specifics of the conversations. But he denied supplying the church with "inside information."
He acknowledged, however, that when asked by Cooper and church attorney Josh Farmer "something about 'What are you going to do? What do you think is going to happen'...I might have said, 'We're going to the grand jury.'"
Last week, the AP revealed decades of physical and emotional abuse inside Word of Faith, which has 750 members in Spindale, North Carolina, and nearly 2,000 members in churches based in Brazil and Ghana. Former members described being punched, choked and thrown through walls as part of a violent form of deliverance meant to purify sinners. (http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA )
During the Jan. 1, 2013, mock trial for the congregants charged with harassing a former member, Cooper said Whaley and other ministers watched Back play the familiar role of a prosecutor trying to trip up defendants during cross-examination.
Cooper, who represented one of those charged and left the church two years later, said that when the defendants made statements harmful to their case, Webster responded, "There are better ways to say that."
Court records show that three of the defendants were acquitted, while charges against the fourth were dropped.
"The purpose of the mock trial was to beat the charges — and it worked," said Randy Fields, 57, who fled the church last year and was one of those acquitted.
According to nine former members interviewed by the AP, at least five other congregants who are lawyers participated in or were present during coaching sessions designed to circumvent investigators.
Back and Webster also helped sabotage a Rutherford County Department of Social Services investigation in 2015, according to Jeffrey Cooper's brother, Chad Cooper, an attorney who said he attended a church meeting convened to undermine that probe.
Chad Cooper, who left the church last year, said also participating in the meeting was Word of Faith member Lori Cornelius, a longtime social services worker assigned to a nearby county.
Cooper said social services personnel were investigating complaints that students were beating classmates at the church-run K-12 school to cast out devils, and that teachers, including Whaley, encouraged the violence.
When the AP contacted Cornelius at her home to ask about her role in the case, she said only "I don't want to talk" and slammed the door.
According to nearly two dozen of those now speaking out, Whaley ordered congregants during prep sessions to change their answers when she didn't like their responses.
"No, no, no, no. You did not do that," former congregant Rachael Bryant quoted Whaley as saying during a faux cross-examination last year.
Whaley turned down repeated requests to discuss the allegations against the church. But hours after the first AP stories were released, the church posted a statement on its website calling the accusations false and saying Word of Faith Fellowship does not "condone or allow abuse — in any form — at our church."
Attorney Jeffrey Welty, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina's School of Government, said the assistant prosecutors could be criminally charged even if they didn't say a word at the strategy meetings.
"Any of that would raise questions about whether there might be some kind of implied conspiracy to obstruct justice," he said.
One of the former members speaking out, Chad Cooper, acknowledged that his actions were wrong.
"We protected Jane. We protected the church," he said. "We should have protected the children."
As part of its investigation, the AP examined decades of the criminal justice and social services systems' dealings with the church. The AP also interviewed dozens of former congregants, legal experts and law enforcement officials, reviewed hundreds of pages of police and court documents, and listened to hours of conversations secretly recorded by now-former congregants.
The first full-scale police investigation of Word of Faith stemmed from a February 1995 broadcast of the TV show "Inside Edition" that included secretly recorded video showing children being subjected to "blasting," where a group of congregants surround a perceived sinner and scream for hours to expel devils.
Acting on a request from the local sheriff and district attorney, state Bureau of Investigation agents interviewed dozens of former congregants and leaders — including Whaley, a former math teacher who co-founded the church in 1979 with her husband, Sam, a former used-car salesman.
Agents heard accusations of child abuse and assault but ultimately deemed them too general and broad.
SBI Special Agent R.C. Hayes wrote that the agency had been told children were "whipped with paddles and rods" and that adults had been "physically restrained and assaulted" during deliverance sessions.
In an unreleased 315-page report of the investigation obtained by the AP, Whaley acknowledged children were spanked but contended they had asked for the discipline. "They all left after the paddling smiling and praising," she said.
Of blasting, she said, "They loved it."
Behind the scenes, former members say, Whaley embarked on a cover-up that continued for the next two decades.
"She said if investigators contacted us, we couldn't tell them the truth," said Rick Cooper, who left the church in late 2014, 21 years after he moved to Spindale.
In August 1995, then-DA Jeff Hunt said investigators determined that adults and children had been abused inside the church, but declined to prosecute. Hunt said he concluded he couldn't win a conviction because he lacked specifics and most of the congregants interviewed by the SBI had declined to testify.
Those interviewed said Whaley and some senior ministers also undermined several child abuse investigations in the early 2000s, including a 2003 case involving a single mother who said church leaders blocked her from leaving the sect with her four children.
Unable to get help from the sheriff's office, she lodged a complaint with social services officials accusing church leaders of abusing her children and others, according to three of those interviewed.
When the county Department of Social Services opened an investigation focusing on 12 church families, Whaley filed a federal lawsuit, saying Word of Faith worshippers were entitled to "practice their religion free from unwarranted government interference."
Inside the church's 35-acre compound, located between Charlotte and Asheville, Whaley took critical steps to cripple the two-year investigation, 21 former members told the AP.
"They would have meeting after meeting every time DSS was coming," said Rick Cooper, whose family was among those investigated. "They'd ask: 'How would you answer this question?' If you answered it wrong, they would severely scold you in public and say: 'No, this is the way you should answer that question. This is the way that God would have you answer this question.'"
Former member Jamey Anderson said parents and children were ordered to tell social workers no abuse had taken place and to lie about beatings and other physical discipline.
"We were too scared to say anything — too scared to tell them the truth," said Anderson, 28, who left Word of Faith in 2006 and is now an attorney. "We were told if we didn't answer the questions the right way, we would go to hell."
In 2005, in a court-approved compromise that hampers law enforcement and social services officials to this day because it made the church harder to prosecute, Word of Faith received guarantees that objections to blasting and other core practices could no longer form the sole basis to launch an abuse inquiry.
In addition, the county social services agency closed all active child abuse investigations against Whaley and the church.
According to several of those interviewed, Whaley bragged from the pulpit: "We won! We won! We beat DSS!"
THE USE OF A RUSE
The church came under scrutiny again when congregant Michael Lowry fled Word of Faith. He said he told the sheriff's office in January 2012 that he had just finished his second stay in a former storage building used to punish males deemed as the sect's worst sinners.
Lowry said he was held for months in the so-called Lower Building, a four-room structure crammed with up to 30 males — some of them children or teenagers. He said he was beaten almost daily because church leaders wanted to expel his "homosexual demons," and that others were subjected to similar treatment.
Instead of interviewing witnesses or even visiting the building, Lowry said, investigators urged him to drop the complaint, telling him they didn't think he would hold up under the pressure.
In late October 2012, Faith in America, a group that fights religious bigotry, asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Lowry's allegations, labeling his treatment a hate crime.
Afraid of a surprise law enforcement visit, Whaley released everyone from the Lower Building and ordered a complete makeover, former members said. Within days, they said, church workers had painted walls, and installed new carpet and countertops.
Whaley also convened more strategy sessions, with Webster, Back and other church members who are attorneys in attendance, according to seven former members.
The former members said they also witnessed Whaley grilling dozens of congregants who had been in the Lower Building with Lowry, including some who said they had seen him beaten.
"She would scream if somebody started telling the truth about what happened," said Rick Cooper, who spent a year imprisoned there.
Whaley's team also took part in a campaign to smear Lowry's character, according to two former members.
Consulting his legal notes, Jeffrey Cooper recounted a meeting where the lawyers collectively "put together bullet points on how to discredit him."
Some wanted to focus on Lowry's supposedly low IQ. "We were going to say he really didn't understand what the building was being used for," Cooper said.
According to Cooper, Webster told the group he had attended his Baptist church's week-long men's retreats when he was young and suggested offering a similar explanation if law enforcement asked. But Cooper said he raised an important point: "The Baptist retreats were for a week. Some men were in the Lower Building for a year."
A sheriff's investigator and Greenway, who was then the DA, were invited for a Nov. 29, 2012, tour of the compound, Cooper said, during which the officials were told the Lower Building was used to house visitors from Word of Faith's Brazilian churches. "They believed us," he said.
In January 2013 — a year after Lowry first contacted police — Greenway convened a grand jury, which is supposed to be conducted in secrecy. However, Cooper said that he and other attorneys served as conduits for progress reports from Greenway to Whaley, as they did with other investigations.
Cooper said Whaley also ordered the attorneys to cajole the local police and plant doubts about accusers.
Greenway told the AP that while he frequently talked to church attorneys about various issues, he did not share critical information about the Lowry case and did not recall church attorneys serving as go-betweens with Whaley.
After meeting with Lowry, Greenway said, he believed he was held against his will in the Lower Building and abused, along with other congregants. But he added that his office didn't attempt to interview any of Lowry's witnesses or get a warrant to search the building.
"I had personally dealt with Word of Faith for 10 years and I can assure you that you would get nothing of any prosecutorial benefit by interviewing anyone from Word of Faith," he said.
Asked why he didn't do more — especially since he said he believed people were being beaten — Greenway said, "I don't know what you're expected to find if you went there. You'd find a building. ... Are you going to find shackles? Handcuffs?"
Greenway said outsiders don't understand what it's like to try to make a case against the church.
If minors make accusations, he said, some might change their stories. And then, he said, "You're going to have 20 people who come in, who are former Navy pilots, schoolteachers, principals and they're dressed to the nines, and they're going to say these kids are lying."
"And if you look back, the people they take in come from prison, are drug addicts, they're alcoholics, so when they come and make these allegations, they're not believable or there's something that can impugn their character. So you don't have the ideal witnesses."
When reminded that both Lowry and another complainant, Matthew Fenner, were raised in the church with no criminal records, Greenway shifted course, saying, "I'm not talking about them."
It didn't take long for the Lowry case to fall apart.
Told that his mother was very ill, Lowry returned to his parents' home in February 2013 and soon recanted.
But Lowry told the AP that his mother had not been sick. Instead, he said, Whaley used the ruse to corner him and pressure him to withdraw his accusations.
Lowry said church lawyers and family members still in Word of Faith drove him first to the sheriff's department, then to the FBI office in Asheville so he could recant.
The case died.
FINALLY, A CRIMINAL CASE
Matthew Fenner said he was leaving a Word of Faith prayer service on Jan. 27, 2013, when nearly two dozen people held him captive for two hours, slapping, punching, choking and blasting him to expel his "homosexual demons."
For nearly two years, Fenner said he waged battle with various law enforcement agencies until the five congregants he said administered the worst beatings were charged with kidnapping and assault.
Nearly two more years later, no trial date has been set because of persistent legal wrangling, mostly by defense lawyers who also are Word of Faith members.
Meantime, former congregants say, Whaley has been working to sabotage the case, holding meetings with congregants to make sure their stories match her narrative: Fenner is a liar.
Rachael Bryant, who left the church in 2015 and whose sister is one of the defendants, said 20 people — including Back and Webster — attended one such session.
"They put Chris Back in a chair like he was Matthew. Then Jane told everyone to stand where they were that night," she said.
One by one, as Whaley called their names, the members had to demonstrate what they had done to Fenner, Bryant said.
"Some would point to his head and say, 'I put my hand on him right here.' But then she would start screaming: 'No, no, no, no! You did not do that! Your hand was not on his head!'" Bryant said.
The participants quickly changed their stories, she said.
"Frank and Chris didn't do a thing. They went along with everything," Bryant said.
In the summer of 2015, Whaley was confronted with news of a Rutherford County social services investigation of student-on-student beatings in the church's school.
Investigators informed Whaley that they were planning to interview more than a dozen children in two classes, including one she taught.
Chad Cooper said he took part in a meeting to discuss that investigation attended by Whaley, Webster, Back and Lori Cornelius, the social worker.
One by one, the children were called into the room, along with their families.
"The first thing they do is tell the kids not to tell anybody that Lori's there," Cooper said.
Cornelius then began questioning the students on likely topics: "Do you know the difference between a good touch and a bad touch? Has anyone ever touched you sexually?"
The students were warned not to tell investigators they had been beaten, Cooper said.
"Several times the kids would say something not quite right — they might say they were touched, hit — and Jane would scream: 'That is witchcraft!'" Cooper said.
"Just imagine yourself as a little 10- or 12-year-old child and your pastor, your teacher — the person who tells you to call them grandmother — says, 'None of this ever happened, right?' The kids go: 'Oh no. Of course not.' They're afraid of going to hell, losing their parents. Of course they're going to listen to her," he said.
Despite his obligations as an attorney, Cooper said he did not tell authorities because he was too afraid of Whaley and what could happen to him for having stayed silent about the cover-up.
Investigators closed the case in November 2015 without taking any action.
"I'm a lawyer and I can tell you that Lori completely obstructed the official investigation," he said. "Everyone in that room obstructed justice, including me."
Read more of AP's investigation of the Word of Faith Fellowship here: http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA
AP Writer Jeffrey S. Collins reported from Newton, North Carolina
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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