UPDATED 12:11 P.M. ON FRIDAY, MARCH 10
North Carolina district attorney David Learner said Friday that two assistant district attorneys no longer work for his office.
Learner’s statement is in response to an investigation by the Associated Press that reported prosecutors Frank Webster and Chris Back helped derail criminal investigations into allegations of abuse by church leaders of the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale.
"I cannot allow the integrity of the office to be called into question," Learner said in a statement.
The statement did not say whether Learner fired Webster and Back or if they resigned.
For decades, church leaders of the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina physically and emotionally abused church members, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. Forty-three former members of the church said congregants were regularly punched, slammed to the floor and thrown through walls as a way to cast demons out of victims. The alleged abuse also included a practice called “blasting,” which entailed hours of screaming at congregants as a way to “purify” their souls.
“I found out just about anybody in the church was subjected to it, from babies to older adults,” Mitch Weiss, investigative reporter for the Associated Press, told host Frank Stasio.
Weiss’ investigation began four years ago when he wrote a story about a young man named Michael Lowery who was a member at Word of Faith Fellowship. Weiss said Lowery was beaten by church leaders because they believed Lowery was gay. Since speaking with Lowery, Weiss has interviewed dozens of former church members and learned that minors would sometimes be separated from their families in order to monitor their behavior.
“The stories they told me about the abuse, the beatings, the isolation and just living in fear, it almost sounded like fiction,” Weiss said. “I thought ‘this couldn’t happen in the United States where people would be held against their will like this.’ The more people I talked to, the more people corroborated and confirmed the stories.”
The Word of Faith Fellowship sits on a 35-acre campus in Spindale. The church has about 2,000 members in satellite churches in countries like Ghana and Brazil. The church is run by 77-year-old Jane Whaley. Whaley has denied that abuse takes place in the church and asserts that any practices would be protected by freedom of religion under the First Amendment.
According to former members, Whaley is controlling of congregants’ behavior.
“You cannot buy a car; you cannot buy a house; you can’t even go on vacation without her permission,” Weiss said. “If you violate any of the rules and go against any of her teachings, there is somebody there who will tell on you and at that point you are liable to face violent deliverance to cast out the demons.”
Weiss added that many congregants live together in neighborhoods near the church’s campus.
“They practice this loud prayer, and they don’t want their neighbors to be suspicious if at two in the morning they are shouting and screaming at a baby who is up and crying,” he said.
Since the mid ‘90s, authorities have attempted to investigate the church, but church leaders have obstructed their efforts. Weiss said Whaley orders congregants to lie about any abuse in the church whenever they are questioned by police.
Weiss added that church members Frank Webster and Chris Back have allegedly served as legal counsel for the church in the past. Webster and Back are assistant district attorneys for three nearby counties.
“They’ve stepped in to help Jane and others avoid prosecution. They are prosecutors, and their job is to prosecute criminals, but they were obstructing justice,” Weiss said.
On Wednesday, District Attorney David Learner asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into accusations against his employees Webster and Back.
Read more about Weiss’ reporting on the Word of Faith Fellowship here.