SPINDALE — The Word of Faith Fellowship filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the Rutherford County Department of Social Services.
DSS officials were not served with the suit on Monday, but said they had learned of it through a weekend report in The Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
A clerk in the Asheville office of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of North Carolina confirmed receipt of the suit Monday which was filed in the Charlotte office late Friday.
DSS director John Carroll said Monday he is not sure what the suit alleges, other than what he had read in the Spartanburg report.
That report quoted an attorney for the Spindale-based church as saying the suit will seek to enforce the constitutional right of WOFF members to exercise religious beliefs.
“We’ll evaluate the filing when we see it,” said Carroll who said he has scheduled a Tuesday meeting with DSS attorney Brad Greenway and a representative from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office.
A call on Monday to the church office went unanswered.
Although he declined to comment on the lawsuit, Carroll said he believes DSS has acted responsibly in regard to investigations of child abuse at the church.
“I feel like we’ve done our job in terms of policy and law and we’ll continue to do so,” said Carroll. “None of the investigations we’ve done have had anything to do with personal feelings toward the church. We’ve simply been investigating reports of abuse.”
The filing from the church comes on the heels of an October ruling by District Court Judge Randy Pool which gave DSS custody of the children of Shana Muse. The children had been living with church members Kent and Brooke Covington.
The Covingtons and Muse are in an ongoing legal battle over Muse’s four children who lived with the Covingtons for just over a year after Muse left the church.
A custody battle ensued with DSS getting involved. DSS won a court ruling last month that removed Muse’s children from the Covington’s and placed them in DSS care.
Pool ruled the WOFF environment was abusive to children.
The Covingtons have appealed the ruling including requesting Pool’s order be stayed pending appeal which would allow the children to stay with the Covingtons.
Both Judge Pool and the North Carolina Court of Appeals have denied a stay. The Covingtons have appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court for a stay.
The church’s leader, Jane Whaley, also is facing criminal charges of assault filed by an ex-member, Lacy Wien.
Wien filed the criminal complaint shortly after the October ruling in the Muse case, claiming that Whaley assaulted her when Whaley got upset about Wien’s desire to leave the church and Wien’s wish to pursue a relationship with her now husband, Ruben Wien, also a former WOFF member.
Whaley is scheduled to appear in court to face the charges on Dec. 19.
Lacy Wien also has a civil suit against the church which names Whaley and multiple other church members as defendants.
Wien has testified about the alleged assault while on the stand for Muse’s custody dispute.
Wien, Muse and other former members have testified that the WOFF environment is highly controlled, abusive and set up in a hierarchy that reports up to Whaley.
The alleged assault took place on Feb. 24, 2002, in what Wien called “the holding room” at the church on Old Flynn Road in Spindale.
In the text of her civil suit and in testimony given in Muse’s case Wien described the event.
Wien said she had been called to the church for a blasting session. Blasting, or deliverance prayer, is a technique used by the WOFF in which anywhere from two to 25 people gather around a person and scream, yell or groan in loud tones in an attempt to exorcise demons.
After a series of events involving another church member, the suit states that Whaley lifted Wien out of the chair by her neck and put her on a table which was placed against the wall and “proceeded to violently bang the back of (Wien’s) head against the wall.”
In November, a youth leader and assistant principal at the church’s school was cleared 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 was held before District Court Judge David Fox.
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 out of fear of 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.”