RUTHERFORDTON — The assistant principal and youth leader at the Word of Faith Fellowship was cleared Friday on a charge that he assaulted a then-16-year-old boy during an incident that took place at the church in 2001.
Mark Robert Doyle, 40, of Spindale was charged by former WOFF member Benjamin Talley, 18, of Florida for a spanking incident that took place while Talley was still a member of the church.
Talley left the church — and his mother — in June of this year and moved to Florida with his father. He had been considering charges all along, but waited until he was outside of the church and 18-years-old before bringing the charge. The two-year statute of limitations on such charges would have expired this month.
The three-hour hearing began at 4 p.m. Friday after Judge David Fox worked through the rest of the Rutherford County District Court docket.
In explaining his ruling, Fox expressed frustration that he was not sure what happened on that evening two years ago. Fox, however, was not sufficiently swayed by the prosecution’s argument that the witnesses for Doyle, all current WOFF members, were pressured to lie about what happened because of possible repercussions from church leadership.
“I am unhappy that the court is not clear what happened,” said Fox. “There is no question to this court that some of the people were not telling the truth today.”
Fox took about 10 minutes to explain his ruling, discussing, among other things, the appropriateness of corporal punishment and the status of the WOFF in this community.
“The Word of Faith is an awkward fit in this community, and I think it would be in any community,” said Fox who recalled other cases he has presided over where the WOFF was “hovering.”
Using Biblical references, he made a point of saying that no church or religion is above the law.
“But it has never been represented, at least to me, with such voraciousness that I should disbelieve what the members of this church say in court.”
Doyle’s attorney, Tom Hix, made the point in his closing argument that there was sufficient doubt about what happened to acquit his client.
“This is what you’ve got,” said Hix. “You’ve got testimony that is night and day, and not too much in between.”
Fox’s decision suggested he felt there was sufficient doubt to acquit.
He said that if there had not been any evidence presented by the defense, the description given by Talley of the event would constitute child abuse if administered by a parent.
Fox told Assistant District Attorney Ken Suave, who handled the prosecution, that he would fully expect Suave to bring a case like Talley’s before the judge again if the evidence was there.
Talley’s side of the story was different than the story a series of WOFF witnesses told.
Talley said the event took place on a Friday evening during a rehearsal for a special music outreach service for the all the members of the church.
He said another church member noticed that Talley was not raising both hands during a song as the rest of the people were doing.
Talley said he was sent off with Doyle to an office where, after a short lecture, Doyle began spanking him with a one-foot long, one-inch thick paddle.
Talley questioned why he was being punished and said Doyle went to ask WOFF leader Jane Whaley about the punishment.
“He (Doyle) said that Jane told him it didn’t matter whether or not (Talley) had raised one or no hands, it was because I had rebellion in my heart,” testified Talley.
Talley said three other church members — Sally Carlson, Olaf Carlson and Patty Welch — were present for most of the incident including praying over and/or with Talley.
“It was the hardest spanking I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Talley said.
Suave presented photographs taken in October of the scar Talley says he still has from the incident. Talley said he had multiple bruises and was bleeding near his waistline after the spanking.
He said he told his mother, Kay, about the event. Kay was working and was not at the church that evening.
“She was infuriated,” said Talley after showing his mother the blood at the Carlson home where they lived. “She walked out and asked, ‘Does anyone of you know what Mark (Doyle) did to Benjamin.’”
John Blanton, who left the church about three months ago, testified on behalf of Talley.
Blanton said he was in the hall for about half of the time Talley was getting spanked and said Talley later told him what happened. Blanton said Talley was hit at least 10 times.
The Carlsons, Welch, Doyle, Kay Talley and three teenage boys testified for the defense.
The Carlsons, Welch and Doyle each gave strikingly similar renditions of what happen.
“It was his anger and his belligerent attitude, not whether or not he raised his hand,” said Sally Carlson, who has taught in the WOFF Christian School. “(He was spanked) for giving over to his anger, for his attitude.”
Carlson and the other three who were there said Talley was hit twice with the paddle by Doyle and that Doyle and Talley hugged afterward.
Suave asked Carlson about being suspended from teaching in 2001. Carlson said she could not remember which year it was she was suspended.
“You can remember this (incident with Talley) but you can’t remember the year you were suspended,” asked Suave.
“Yes,” said Carlson.
Each of the three teenage boys and Doyle was asked about a secret group of some of the WOFF teenagers called “The Underground.”
Reports differed as to what the Underground was, but it was geared towards anyone who was dissatisfied with the church.
The three teenagers testified that Talley told them the incident with Doyle was no big deal and they joked about it.
“He (Talley) joked about it, about how it didn’t hurt,” said Cody Hawkins, 18, and current WOFF member. “We all joked about how much of a wuss Mark was.”
Suave inquired of Hawkins about a plan called Operation Phoenix where Hawkins and Talley were going to escape from the church.
“It was basically to go against the authority of the church because I didn’t want to live under any rules or authority,” said Hawkins. But he said he now sees that desire as wrong doesn’t question the church’s teachings.
Kay Talley said she never had a concern about what Doyle did to her son that night and that Benjamin did not show her the blood or tell her about any damage.
Suave asked Kay Talley about a car she recently got.
She said she had not had a car in a while because she was saving money for braces for her son. Kay said she got the car from church leader and co-founder Sam Whaley for a very good price.
Jane Whaley is expected to be in court on Wednesday, Dec. 19, for a similar assault charge.
The Spindale-based church has been under the microscope for years about its unusual practices. In a October ruling in a custody case, Judge Randy Pool declared the WOFF environment to be abusive to children.