Word Of Faith's Pattern Of Abuse 'Got Worse Over Time,' Says 'Broken Faith' Author

Feb 17, 2020
Originally published on February 18, 2020 7:42 am

Updated at 8:50 p.m. ET

In 1979, Jane Whaley and her husband, Sam, started the Word of Faith Fellowship church in North Carolina.

In recent years, the organization has been investigated for alleged abuse of its congregants — and has faced other charges ranging from fraud to human trafficking.

Pulitzer Prize winner Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr, journalists who have been exposing these stories, spent time interviewing hundreds of people who have been connected to the church over the years — and also acquired secret recordings, videos and documents for their new book Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America's Most Dangerous Cults.

Interview Highlights

On what people saw in church pastor Jane Whaley

Mohr: I think that in the beginning, when people would go to the church, they were shown a lot of love. You know, the members of this church, they live in nice homes. They drive nice cars. The children are well-mannered. They have a Christian school. So I think when a lot of families first go there, everything seems great. But over time, Jane Whaley and her other ministers, they take more and more control of your lives. In fact, a lot of times they'll remove children from their family's home and place them with ministers to be raised. And what that does is over time, sometimes those kids care more about the ministers than their own parents. So it makes it difficult for families to leave. So it's not a quick thing where you just walk in the door and they say, hey, come on in. You can come in and you can never leave. We're gonna take your television, magazines, radio, all that away from you and institute all these rules. It's a slow, progressive thing.

On using family members against one another

Weiss: You have to realize they believe that Jane Whaley was a prophet, that God spoke to her and everything she said was the gospel. And one of the techniques that she used was that she had everybody inform on each other. And the reason they did that was because that was the godly way of doing things. It was, in a way, she would have them tell her their deepest, darkest secrets. And then she kept a file of those secrets. And if they threatened to leave or did something wrong, she had all the evidence she needed there to keep them in line.

On reconstructing a pattern of violent physical abuse

Weiss: Yes, it was something that really got worse over time. And you have to understand what her philosophy is. The doctrine is really pretty simple — devils are real. And if you're a drug addict, it's because you have this drug devil. If, you know, you're an alcoholic — the same. If you're having an affair, it's the same thing. There are lustful devils. And so what she would do is it was called Devils in Deliverance, where they would have people surround you and scream at you to get the devils out. Get out, devil. And it would go on and on and on. Perfect example is with a baby. If babies cried, it wasn't because they were hungry or they had a dirty diaper. It was because there was a devil inside them that was making them cry. So you would have groups of people surrounding an infant and screaming until that baby would just get tired and finally, you know, go to sleep....

And that's how she started at the beginning with her congregants. Over time, it became more and more violent. It wasn't enough just to scream, to scare the devils out of people. Now you had to punch people. You had to hold them down and restrain them. You had to choke them. You had to do everything possible to get rid of that devil. And that's when it became extremely violent. That's where the people who've recounted their stories would break down to us. They would tell us about their injuries. And they couldn't go to doctors. They couldn't be treated because they knew what would happen. So they had to keep it secret. But it's those beatings that really still seared into their brains now. They can't get rid of those images, those nightmares.

On whether anyone has been held accountable for the alleged abuse

Mohr: There are five people currently charged with assaulting a former member of the church. Matthew Fenner, who says that he was beaten to expel his homosexual demons back in 2013. But, so far, nobody has been convicted in that case. And Matthew Fenner's waiting for justice. ...

Weiss: You have the sheriff. You have the district attorney. You have all these people who have looked the other way, who know what's going on, and they're just not doing their job. This church now is thriving.

[Editor's Note: When NPR reached out to District Attorney Ted Bell, he responded via email: "Under my administration we have prosecuted allegations of abuse as well as worked with federal investigators and the US Attorney's Office in seeking prosecution at the federal level of violations of federal law." NPR also sought comment from the Word of Faith Fellowship and the sheriff of Rutherford County, N.C.]

: 2/16/20

A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the Word of Faith Fellowship as the World of Faith Fellowship.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Jane Whaley was not satisfied with being a pastor's wife. She believed God had bigger plans for her. So she pushed against all the norms that kept her from the pulpit and founded a church in Spindale, N.C., called the Word of Faith Fellowship. The church's website shows people singing and smiling, Jane Whaley at center stage. From the outside, it looks like a community of pious believers. But some former members say it's a dangerous cult.

HOLBROOK MOHR: These people believed that Jane Whaley was their path to salvation and that if they did anything that went against her wishes, they would get cancer and die or they would become drug addicts. These are things that Jane Whaley would tell them.

GREENE: That was Holbrook Mohr. He and Mitch Weiss, a fellow AP reporter, have been looking into abuse allegations within the church for years. Our colleague Rachel Martin spoke with them about their new book "Broken Faith." And just a note here - this story does include descriptions of that alleged abuse.

MITCH WEISS: There's two sides of Jane Whaley. There's that sweet, Southern grandmotherly type. And then there's the Jane that nobody sees except church members, the one who's screaming at the top of her lungs at congregants, warning them that the devils have to come out. It's like a Jekyll and Hyde.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Right.

Holbrook, can you describe what people saw in her? What was bringing them to this church?

MOHR: I think that in the beginning when people would go to the church, they were shown a lot of love. You know, the members of this church, they live in nice homes. They drive nice cars. The children are well-mannered. They have a Christian school. So I think when a lot of families first go there, everything seems great. But over time, Jane Whaley and her other ministers, they take more and more control of your lives. In fact, a lot of times, they'll remove children from their family's home and place them with ministers to be raised. And what that does is, over time, sometimes those kids care more about the ministers than their own parents. So it makes it difficult for families to leave.

So it's not a quick thing, where you just walk in the door and they say, hey, come on in. You can come in; you can never leave. We're going to take your television, magazines, radio, all that away from you and institute all these rules. It's a slow, progressive thing.

MARTIN: And Mitch, she and the other church leadership, they would use family members against one another. I mean, Holbrook talked about how they would separate children sometimes as leverage. But they got family members to serve as informants almost.

WEISS: Oh, absolutely. You have to realize they believed that Jane Whaley was a prophet - that God spoke to her and everything she said was the gospel. And one of the techniques that she used was she had everybody inform on each other. It was - in a way, she would have them tell her their deepest, darkest secrets. And then she kept a file of those secrets. And if they threatened to leave or did something wrong, she had all the evidence she needed there to keep them in line.

MARTIN: So it was a range of emotional and psychological abuse. But from interviews you did with a hundred or so former members, you were able to reconstruct a pattern of violent physical abuse. Can you just lay out for us some of those more extreme examples of that?

WEISS: Yes. It was something that really got worse over time. And you have to understand what her philosophy is. The doctrine is really pretty simple - devils are real. And if you're a drug addict, it's because you have this drug devil. If you know, you're an alcoholic - the same. If you're having an affair, it's the same thing. There are lustful devils. And so what she would do is - it was called Devils in Deliverance, where they would have people surround you and scream at you to get the devils out. Get out, devil. And it would go on and on and on.

Perfect example is with a baby. If babies cried, it wasn't because they were hungry or they had a dirty diaper, it was because there was a devil inside them that was making them cry. So you would have groups of people surrounding, you know, an infant and screaming until that baby would just get tired and finally, you know, go to sleep.

MARTIN: And not just screaming, just to be specific, this method called blasting - they are - they're right in front of the subject's face. Right? They're screaming into the baby's ears - in their - like, inches from her face.

WEISS: Exactly. And that's how she started at the beginning with her congregants. Over time, it became more and more violent. It wasn't enough just to scream to scare the devils out of people. Now you had to punch people. You had to hold them down and restrain them. You had to choke them. You had to do everything possible to get rid of that devil. And that's when it became extremely violent.

That's where the people who recounted their stories would break down to us. They would tell us about their injuries. And they couldn't go to doctors. They couldn't be treated because they knew what would happen. So they had to keep it secret. But it's those beatings that really - it's still seared into their brains now. They can't get rid of those images, those nightmares.

MARTIN: There is a lot of suspense in this tale, but it's not fiction. I mean, this is a real-life accounting of how the church destroyed these lives. But you're so specific. I mean, it reads like fiction, though. You're recreating dialogue. How did you do that?

MOHR: We tried to talk to as many people as we could about any particular incident that we wanted to write about. Mitch and I would often interview them together multiple times over a period of years, really. We looked for police reports, Department of Social Services child welfare investigation documents. We have recordings from inside the church, videos. So we just tried to use all the resources that we could find to tell this story in the most compelling way that we could.

MARTIN: Several lawsuits have been brought against the church and its members over the years. Has anyone been held accountable for the abuse?

MOHR: There are five people currently charged with assaulting a former member of the church, Matthew Fenner, who says that he was beaten to expel his homosexual demons back in 2013. But so far, nobody has been convicted in that case. And Matthew Fenner's waiting for justice.

WEISS: The fact that you have the sheriff, you have the district attorney - you have all these people who have looked the other way, who know what's going on and they're just not doing their job - this church now is thriving.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTS AT SEA'S "BATEAU")

GREENE: That was our co-host Rachel Martin speaking to Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr. Their new book is "Broken Faith: Inside The Word Of Faith Fellowship, One Of America's Most Dangerous Cults." We should note that the fellowship has denied allegations of abuse. We reached out to the DA and the sheriff's office in Rutherford County but have not heard back.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTS AT SEA'S "BATEAU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.