RUTHERFORDTON — Three children will be allowed to live most of the week with their mother, despite her membership in a controversial church community that practices corporal punishment and “blasting,” or loud prayer, a District Court judge in Rutherford County ruled Wednesday.
While finding that the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale tries to exercise “complete control” over its members, Judge C. Randy Pool ruled that it was in the children’s best interests to reside there with their mother during the week.
The children’s father will have custody on most weekends. They will be transferred between the parents at the Spindale police station.
The ruling brought a close to a court case that began Aug.4. Testimony and closing arguments concluded Friday.
The hearing was to determine if temporary custody of the three children of Ben and Pam McGee should be granted to the father, who left the church in April, or the mother, who remains a church member. The three children, ages 4 to 9, and Pam McGee’s two children from a previous marriage live with their mother on the campus of the 400-member church in Spindale, about 65 miles west of Charlotte.
Several church officials and members testified at the hearing, though not its founders and pastors, Sam and Jane Whaley. They said that while it engages in corporal punishment and “loud prayer,” the practices do not harm children.
Church officials could not be reached for comment.
The McGees joined the church in 1993, on the verge of divorce and hoping to change their lives, according to testimony at the hearing. Ben McGee, 37, petitioned the court to get custody of his three children after leaving the church.
Jim Siemens, his attorney, argued Friday that the church was an inappropriate environment for children and called the Word of Faith Fellowship “a cult.”
“If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck,” he said in his closing argument. “In this case it’s a cult – shiny happy people striving to touch a madwoman’s cloak.”
Tom Hix, the attorney representing Pam McGee, called the church a loving community that helped counsel the McGees through tough times. He said its practices – while perhaps seeming unusual to a lay person – cause no harm to children.
“Ain’t no brainwashing at all,” Hix said. “No bruises, no contusions.”
Current and former members testified that the church uses a paddle to discipline children. They said it also engages in loud prayer, referred to as “blasting” and “deliverance,” in which shouting church members surround the person being prayed for and pray in high-pitched tones, sometimes for hours.
One former church member testified that a pink bucket is placed in front of the subjects of a blasting for them to vomit in.
Pool found that the church community collectively parents and disciplines children, that children as young as age 1 have been restrained, and that youngsters have been disciplined by church members with telephone wire and an 18-inch-long wooden paddle.
Children are discouraged from participating in any nonchurch activity, Pool said, and sometimes are disciplined for playing.
He said joint custody was the best option, although “continued exposure to certain religious practices” could harm the children.
He did impose restrictions, saying neither parent could allow the children to be blasted, paddled or restrained.
“I think we’ve made some progress, but I still hope the church will be investigated by the proper authorities,” said Ben McGee, who now works as a store manager in Rutherfordton. “I’m still hoping my wife will see the light and we can be a family again.”
Former and current members say blasting has decreased and that children are no longer tied in chairs during the process since 1995 investigations into the church by both the Department of Social Services and the State Bureau of Investigation.
The investigations followed statements from former church members and the airing of a videotape of a blasting on the television show “Inside Edition.” The investigations led to no findings of wrongdoing at the church.