Witnesses in custody case describe bizarre punishment, active church role in family court matters
Forest City NC – Details of the inner workings of the controversial Word of Faith Fellowship church were aired in open court Friday as former members testified in a child custody case.
The hearing to determine temporary custody of three children belonging to Ben and Pamela McGee served as the backdrop as attorney Jim Siemens, representing the father, presented testimony implicating church leaders for bizarre disciplinary procedures Siemens put on the stand a former church member who claimed to have taken part in disciplining children, a mother who tearfully admitted her role and the role of church leaders in disciplining her son, an SBI agent who described an unusual church nursery, and a Forest City police officer who testified about incidents between church members and the McGee family.
The picture that emerged from the witnesses testimony was one of a heavily controlled atmosphere in which church leaders routinely dictated the punishment of children. The discipline was often carried out by church leaders and members not related to the child.
Friday’s hearing marked the first time that former members have given testimony under oath about the church congregation and its leaders.
The testimony was peppered with descriptions of “the rod of discipline”, “surveillance teams,” and “blasting.” The rod of discipline is a paddle used to spank children, the subjects of the surveillance were parents outside the church involved in custody disputes.
The Word of Faith Fellowship, with an estimated 300 to 400 members, was established in Rutherford County in 1978 by the Rev. Sam and Jane Whaley.
Over the past decade, numerous former members and members of the community at large have made allegations about the church’s worship practices and treatment of children.
The church was the subject of an SBI investigation four years ago after more than 40 former members stepped forward and told the Daily Courier and national news organizations of their concerns about the church, including allegations of child abuse and spiritual abuse.
The criminal investigation concluded without formal charges against church leaders, but District Attorney Jeff Hunt said at the time that the church’s “unorthodox practices seem to create opportunities for abuses.”
Testimony Tuesday indicated the investigation forced church leaders to take greater steps to conceal how they routinely discipline children at the church and church owned school.
The hearing adjourned at 4 p.m. Friday and is expected to conclude Aug. 15 in Rutherford County District Court with Judge C. Randy Pool presiding in the case.
The McGee children, ages 4 to 9, are only the latest to be at the center of custody cases involving the church. Last week, a 12 year old boy was returned to his mother who lives in a church communal home. The child had run away and his father, a former church member had petitioned for emergency custody.
The issue before the court in the McGee case is whether the children should live with their mother, a member of the church or their father, who left the church and his wife last April.
The Word of Faith Fellowship was contacted regarding the allegations made in Friday’s testimony. an unidentified spokesman returned the call and said, concerning the mother’s testimony. “The lady lied. She’s a liar.”
The mother and her son, now 14 were members of the congregation from 1985 until they left in 1994 or 1995.
The woman, who now lives outside the county, asked that her name not be used because she was fearful her testimony would be harmful to her son.
Siemens focused his questions on parenting practices and discipline of children inside the church and how the church functions.
“It’s more like a family,” she said when asked to describe the church. “You live together, you play together, you eat together.”
She said church leaders “pinpointed” a variety of problems with her son, including declaring that he had “homosexual devils” and “feminine spirits.”
“He was subjected to hours of strong blasting”, she said. Blasting has been referred to by dozens of former church leaders as loud prayer often used by church members to drive out demonic or devilish spirits from a person’s body.
The practice involves standing in a circle around an individual while “praying” loudly and can last a few minutes or hours.
“It is a high shrilling sound,” she said explaining that it did not always include words. “It will hurt your ears. We were trained how to do it. We were required to do it at least one hour a day. We had to fill out journals recording it.”
Her son was about a year old when he was first subjected to blasting, she said. The child began crying for her while he was in the church’s nursery, she testified. The toddler was brought into the church sanctuary and a church member held him in a chair” with his arms held and his legs spread” while other church members stood around him and “blasted” him, she said.
Under cross-examination by Pam McGee’s attorney, Tom Hix, the woman refused to give a demonstration of the blasting. She said she had not prayed loudly since leaving the congregation.
The woman said her son was also physically disciplined after he once told her that another boy living in their household had tried to hug and kiss him.
“I was told to call Doug MacDonald if my son or anyone in my household did anything unclean,” she said. The woman said each person in the church has their own “authority”, a church leader with whom they confer when a question or issue arises.
On that evening she told the court that Mac Donald, a church leader and her “authority” at the time, came to the house with a wooden paddle which were known by church members as the “rod of discipline”.
The woman and another witness described the paddles as slender slabs of wood about 14-18 inches in length and an inch to one and one half inches thick- with a handle.
“She told me it was God’s will at times to bruise a child if the devil were that deep…to be thankful to God that (Mac Donald) did what he did” –Witness
The woman testified that Mac Donald sat and talked with both boys, then told them they were filled with homosexual devils before paddling them.
“While he spanked them, he told them to cry out to God for forgiveness,” she said.
She told Judge Pool that her son was spanked at least 15 times.
“He was beaten black and blue”, said the fearful woman. “He literally could not sleep. He still to this day talks about this event.”
Several members of the audience stormed from the room during the mother’s emotionally charged testimony.
The witness said she later approached church leader Jane Whaley about the incident.
She told me it was God’s will at times to bruise a child if the devils were that deep…to be thankful to God that (Mac Donald) did what he did,” she said.
On cross examination by Hix, the woman affirmed that her husband at the time she attended the church was charged and convicted of taking indecent liberties with a minor. She said she was in Brazil at the time the charge was filed and told about it several days later. That incident did not involve the woman or her son.
When asked about the incident involving Mac Donald and her son, she admitted that she did not tell local authorities about the incident. Under direct examination, the mother testified her lack of action was because of “fear.”
The mother also said she had witnessed discipline incidents involving several of the McGee children and took part in blasting one of the children in a bathroom outside the church sanctuary.
SBI agent Toby Hayes also gave limited testimony about what he observed inside the church during a 1995 investigation ordered by district prosecutor Hunt.
Hayes said no children were present at the time he inspected the church facility five years ago, but he did visit the church’s nursery.
“I noticed the cribs were stacked on top of each other,” he said, explaining that the cribs were completely enclosed with wooden bars.
In earlier testimony, former church staff member Sheri Nolan had said that the nursery was the size of a cloakroom and had cribs stacked along the walls.
“The attorney for the church told me it was to prevent the children from rolling out,” Hayes said. “It reminded me a lot of an animal cage.”
He said the cribs were similar to those shown in a crib catalog present by Hix, but that the cribs at WOFF’s nursery were smaller and completely enclosed.
“I certainly would not want one of my children placed in (such a crib),” he said.
Nolan also testified about the church’s disciplinary actions at the church run school off Old Flynn Road.
Nolan said she was a member of the church in 1990-91 and between the end of 1995 and Dec 4, 1997.
“I have seen children with bruises on their bodies, scratches made on their arms, fingernail marks on their arms, she said.
Asked whether the church used collective parenting techniques, Nolan said,”Yes. Because anybody and everybody could discipline a person’s child.”
Nolan said children who misbehaved at school were taken to the principal’s office where they were spanked with wooden paddles.
‘I heard the kids screaming, the paddle spanking many, many times and many, many children,” she said.
The West Coast resident said that changed in 1995 after the SBI’s investigation.
Paddlings were moved to a church owned house on Old Flynn Road and staff members acted as guards outside the building while disciplinary action was taken, she said.
“We were to let them know that somebody was coming up,” Nolan said. “I would sit in the church window; and radio to the person inside the house with the child.”
Nolan said she also worked on a church surveillance team that kept track of parents who were “I have seen children with bruises on their bodies, scratches made on their arms, fingernail marks on their arms…anybody and everybody could discipline a person’s child.” –Sheri Nolan, former Word of Faith member Former church members involved in custody cases “We had cars and walkie talkies,” she said. “We followed them around and reported their moves, and where they were going at all times”. Under cross examination, Hix asked Nolan why she had left WOFF in 1991 and then returned in 1995.
Nolan said she was told to leave for two years while she paid off debts. Hix also asked her whether she had been an alcoholic and a drug user. She denied both charges saying she at one time had a drinking problem A motion filed by Siemens for the custody hearing alleges that Pam McGee is not in control of the litigation, a charge Pam McGee has denied in court papers.
Nolan said the church leadership took an active part in custody cases while she was a member.
“They were 100 percent involved in every aspect.” she said, noting that six current WOFF members were in attendance at the hearing. Nine individuals in attendance were supporting Ben McGee.
More recent allegations of surveillance were brought forward when Jamey Dunn, an officer with the Forest City Police Department took the stand.
This past April while Dunn was an officer with the Spindale Police Department, Dunn said he was at the Oakland Road exit on U.S. 74-A when a dispatcher asked for an officer to respond to a report of a motorist being followed in the vicinity.
Dunn said he observed and stopped church member Mike Capistrant driving an orange van about four feet off the bumper of a mini van in which Ben McGee was a passenger.
“I knew he was a member of the church,” said Dunn, explaining that he mows grass for several church members, including Joshua Farmer.
Dunn said he was also called to another incident late Thursday involving members of Ben McGee’s family and local private investigator Wayne Hall, also a member of the church.
Dunn said he was called as backup to the Texaco on Oak Street in Forest City. At the scene, the McGee’s vehicle and vehicle were parked perpendicular to each other. He said witness statements at the scene indicated Hall had been at the hotel of one of the family members when the McGees followed him to the Texaco station.