SPINDALE, N.C. — For two years, Matthew Fenner said he pleaded with authorities to investigate his allegations that a group of fellow congregants at the Word of Faith Fellowship church had punched, slapped and choked him to expel his “homosexual demons.”
An Associated Press investigation found that Rutherford County investigators and then-District Attorney Brad Greenway delayed investigating and told Fenner his only option was to pursue misdemeanor charges against the church members he said assaulted him for nearly two hours in the evangelical church’s sanctuary.
The AP’s conclusions are based on more than a dozen interviews and court documents, along with a series of secretly made recordings that were provided of Fenner’s meetings with law enforcement authorities, including Rutherford County Sheriff Chris Francis.
In February, the AP detailed how many Word of Faith Fellowship congregants were regularly attacked both physically and verbally in an attempt to “purify” sinners by beating out devils.
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The church has come under scrutiny by law-enforcement and social-services authorities on numerous occasions with little effect, mostly because followers refused to cooperate. But Fenner’s relentless pursuit eventually led to the indictment of five congregants, who were charged with kidnapping and assault.
“The whole investigation should have taken a month,” said Michael Davis, who spent 15 years as a Rutherford County sheriff’s investigator before retiring last year, and was not involved in Fenner’s case. “They should have interviewed witnesses. They should have gone to the church. They should have written up a report and sent it over to the sheriff, then to the DA. But that didn’t happen. None of that happened.”
Greenway said he couldn’t recall details of the Fenner case, but initially believed it wasn’t a “big deal” based on what the sheriff told him. Francis said Greenway made the decision not to pursue charges early on.
In May, more than four years after Fenner said he was assaulted, longtime minister Brooke Covington became the first of the five church members to go on trial in proceedings that attracted national attention due to AP’s investigation.
Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus declared a mistrial when the jury foreman shared three unauthorized documents during deliberations, and a retrial is scheduled for Sept. 11.
The judge also issued a gag order that is being challenged by the AP preventing witnesses, prosecutors and jurors from discussing the case. The witnesses interviewed for this story talked to AP before that order was issued.
During the trial, Fenner, now 24, testified that he didn’t call police the night of the Jan. 27, 2013, attack because he was afraid he would be beaten again. At the time, Fenner said he and nearly 20 other people were living in Covington’s house.
When Fenner fled to his grandparents two days later, they called authorities. But Fenner told the jury that law enforcement — ranging from the Rutherford County sheriff’s office to the Federal Bureau of Investigation — didn’t take his allegations seriously.
The AP found that Fenner not only told law enforcement agencies about what happened to him, but also warned of ongoing abuse in the church.
“Over the last two decades, it appears that different politicians or leaders in the community have had a certain fear of the Word of Faith and for whatever reason that sort of encapsulated them and made them untouchable,” said Jerry Wease, chairman of the Rutherford County Democratic Party and a licensed counselor who has worked with people who left the church.
He added: “If no one is going to stand up and say choking, beating, violence and abuse is illegal and morally wrong, I have one question: Why? Why is every elected official not standing up and saying this?”
The sect was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman. Under Jane Whaley’s leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to a congregation of about 750 in North Carolina and nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil, Ghana and affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.
Allegations of abuse at Word of Faith Fellowship date back years, but church leaders have dodged any serious consequences. In another previous story, the AP outlined how congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities looking into reports of abuse and coached on what to say by two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker who are members of the church.
After that report, the prosecutors left their jobs and the social worker resigned. All three had worked in nearby counties.
Fenner was a teenager when he joined the church with his mother and brothers in 2010. During his years at Word of Faith, he testified that he saw congregants, including children, subjected to violent deliverance and a practice called blasting — an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.
He said he experienced both himself, but nothing like what happened in January 2013, when he was surrounded by nearly two dozen people while leaving a service.
Danielle Cordes, one of four former church members who told AP they witnessed the attack, said, “They just kept hitting him over and over. It was horrible. … I thought that he was going to be the first person they killed.”
Several witnesses told the AP that when Fenner initially talked to a Rutherford County sheriff’s deputy the day after fleeing the church, he wasn’t ready to press charges.
“I was still confused and hurt. I needed time to think,” he told the AP.
On Jan. 31, 2013, he met with FBI agent Fred Molina, who was investigating a complaint from another congregant who said he was beaten because he was gay. Fenner detailed what happened to him, along with the abuse of other congregants, six people told the AP.
A month later, Fenner called the FBI to check on the progress of the agency’s inquiry and was told a new agent was on the case because Molina was about to retire. That agent never called him back, Fenner said. When he received a letter months after that saying the FBI wasn’t going to investigate, he inquired why and said he was told it was because the other church member who reported being attacked had recanted.
Molina declined to talk to the AP, saying he was told by his former bosses not to discuss the case. But Nancy Burnette, who became familiar with the church through her court work with foster children and who helped some congregants flee, said Molina told her that he was pulled from the investigation. He urged her to “keep fighting” to get the “truth out,” she said.
The FBI referred questions to the Charlotte office of U.S. Attorney Jill Rose, who said Fenner’s allegations did not rise to the level of a federal crime.
Fenner said he talked to sheriff’s detective Joey Sisk about the assault on June 7, 2013, and that he and other former church members pressed Sisk for updates for months.
On an October 2013 recording obtained by the AP, Sisk told Fenner that Greenway, then the district attorney, read Fenner’s statement about the attack and said no criminal charges would be pursued.
Sisk said Fenner’s only recourse was trying to file misdemeanor charges with the local magistrate, which is allowed under North Carolina law, though experts say magistrates rarely issue warrants.
“Ok, so let me get this straight,” Fenner said on the recording. “He’s willing to look at assault by strangulation, slapping, holding me against my will and say, ‘That’s just a misdemeanor?'”
“That’s what he’s telling me,” Sisk responded. Sisk could not answer questions from the AP because he is barred from speaking under the gag order.
The AP found that Fenner kept pushing the issue, telling the directors of two local child-welfare agencies that ministers were abusing children in the church’s K-12 school.
“During my time, I watched a lot of bad things happen to a lot of people,” Fenner told the director of the Rutherford County Department of Social Services in a December 2013 meeting that was secretly taped.
The director, John Carroll, declined to comment to the AP about the meeting.
Fenner also met in January 2014 with Rose, who was then an assistant U.S. attorney in Charlotte, hoping to get help under a federal law governing hate crimes motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender and race.
On a tape obtained by the AP, Fenner, two former church members and two advocates told Rose about widespread abuse at Word of Faith. Rose responded that she was familiar with the church because she was an assistant prosecutor in a North Carolina district that included Spindale in the 1990s.
“We had a horrible time trying to make cases against them,” she said on the recording. “For whatever reason, it was always something.”
At the end of the meeting, Rose said she would think about her next step and promised to stay in touch. But Fenner said she did not return any follow-up calls.
Rose told the AP that she decided Fenner’s allegations did not fully meet the requirements of the federal hate crimes statute for religion or sexual orientation because they contained no element of interstate commerce, involving movement across state lines.
All the while, Fenner had been trying to set up meetings with Greenway and Francis, the sheriff. He finally succeeded in landing a meeting with Francis in August 2014 as he was preparing to start classes at the University of North Carolina.
“I have not looked at one thing in your case file,” the sheriff said in a recording of the meeting obtained by the AP, adding that Greenway “personally reviewed” the allegations and decided not to prosecute.
Then Francis suggested that Fenner file misdemeanor charges with the magistrate. “I’ll walk you over there right now,” he said.
When Fenner returned to Spindale on his fall break in October, he camped outside Greenway’s office with five family members and friends. Within an hour, they said, Greenway met with them.
The AP talked to three people who attended the meeting, who said they told Greenway that both Francis and Sisk earmarked the district attorney as the one who declined to prosecute.
Although Sisk had told Fenner a year earlier that Greenway had read Fenner’s statement, Greenway told them he didn’t know details of the case because he hadn’t seen an incident report. Fenner said he soon discovered that either no one at the sheriff’s office had created a report or it couldn’t be located.
“Greenway refused to do anything until he got one,” said Fenner’s aunt, Lynn Rape. So Fenner and his family walked across the street to the sheriff’s office and found a “sympathetic” deputy who took his statement, Rape said.
In an interview with the AP this February, Greenway said he could not recall many details about the Fenner case.
“The sheriff told me early on it was not a felony kidnapping case,” he said. When asked how he came to that conclusion, Greenway responded: “I don’t know.”
Francis disputed that characterization. He told the AP that the protocol is for his department to present information to the district attorney’s office for a determination on whether to file charges. The sheriff also said he had limited involvement in the investigation.
As for Greenway, he told the AP that the church was influential and that its accusers weren’t always reliable. The church “would make sure they would bring in all these well-dressed congregants to tell a different story. Don’t take this the wrong way — and I knew people were being abused down there — but you just got tired going against them,” he said.
In December 2014, a month after Greenway lost his re-election bid, a grand jury indicted the five Word of Faith Fellowship members.
“If it wasn’t for our pressure,” Rape said, “nothing would have happened.”
Added Davis, the former sheriff’s investigator: “They just wanted the case to go away. They never expected Fenner to push so hard.”
Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.
Read more of AP’s investigation of the Word of Faith Fellowship here: http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at email@example.com