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Word of Faith Fellowship Church

Social worker accused of hiding religious-sect abuse resigns 

“CHARLOTTE, N.C.—A veteran social worker accused of coaching congregants and their children on what to say during a 2015 child abuse investigation of her secretive religious sect has resigned, an attorney for a child welfare agency said Friday. Andrea Leslie-Fite said Lori Cornelius left her position at the Cleveland County Department of Social Services. The development came less than two weeks after The Associated Press published a report that quoted former members of the Word of Faith Fellowship sect saying that Cornelius and two assistant district attorneys—all members of the church—had helped undermine abuse investigations. The prosecutors resigned their posts and are under investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.” (Boston Herald, 3/18/17) [IT 8.2]

Church Members Indicted for Kidnap and Assault of Gay Man

Five members of Word of Faith Fellowship (WOFF) in Spindale, North Carolina have been indicted on kidnapping and assault charges for allegedly attacking and beating a fellow church member, who is gay. Matt Comer at QNotes reports that a grand jury has indicted the men on second-degree kidnapping and simple assault charges. A woman was also indicted on second-degree kidnapping, simple assault, and assault-by-strangulation charges.

The indictment stems from allegations made by Matthew Fenner, 21, who said a many as 15 to 20 male church members attacked him because he is gay, allegedly threatened him with confinement for 2 days, and slapped, strangled, and verbally assaulted him to “free” him from “homosexual demons.” The assailants purportedly were screaming and shaking him, punching his chest, and grabbing his head, while telling him to repeat certain phrases. Fenner said, “I honestly thought I was going to die.” He also claims local officials did not take his allegations seriously at first, and hesitated to let him file a complaint.

WOFF, which also runs an unaccredited school, has faced numerous accusations of abuse and cult-like behavior over the three decades in Rutherford County, North Carolina. It has been at the center of child-custody disputes over the years, as well. The group was the subject of a 1995 Inside Edition exposé that first revealed church practices, including “blasting,” which involves members surrounding another member, whether child or adult, suspected of demonic possession and screaming to exorcise the demons. The practice was sometimes hours-long and at times involved tying those suspected to chairs. The Department of Social Services and the State Bureau of Investigations examined the allegations but found no wrongdoing.

Most recently, in 2012, church member Michael Lowry alleged he was attacked and confined because of his sexual orientation. His allegations spurred a Department of Justice hate-crime investigation, and he was placed under FBI supervision. Lowry later recanted his story but now says he was coerced into recanting.

The church’s attorney told WSPA News that the accused members were innocent of the charges and that “we are adamant that no one ever physically harmed Mr. Fenner. … The church does not target members who are gay.” (Southern Poverty Law Center, 12/11/14) [IT 6.2 2015]

Former Word of Faith Fellowship Church member Michael Lowrey, 22, has filed a complaint with police in Spindale, North Carolina, alleging that he was kept in a church dormitory for months in 2011 after telling church members he was gay. He said members knocked him unconscious as they read from scripture.The pastor said to find out what my darkest secret was, and I was like, ‘I’m never telling.’ They hit my head with fists and I was on the floor. They held my hands and feet down and were pushing on my chest and I could barely breathe. The church has been accused in the past of abusing a congregant—the conviction was overturned—and it successfully sued the Department of Social Services over child-abuse charges, gaining a $300,000 settlement. “As far as the church being against gays,” said Jane Whaley, one of the church’s pastors, “that’s absurdity. There are 18 people in this church who have been delivered, they’re not homosexual anymore, but if they were, they could still stay in the church.” (ABC News, 10/22/12) [IT 4.1 2013]