PORTSMOUTH — A judge on Thursday granted custody of five children to their father after hearing evidence that their mother belongs to an Ohio church whose fiery brand of faith has been called into question.
So great was the sway of the Jefferson , Ohio , congregation – led by a charismatic bishop – the children turned against their dad after moving to that community in 2004 , according to testimony.
Circuit Judge James A. Cales Jr. determined that evidence in the case, including a summary of abuse investigations involving church members, showed that the congregation is a dangerous place for children.
“Evil is the only word that comes to my mind,” he said.
Dorothy Butts, the mother, moved to Ohio to work at the church.
The children’s father, David W. Butts of Portsmouth , said he changed his mind about moving from Hampton Roads with his wife because he questioned the church’s teachings and the pastor, the Rev. Charles D. Keyes Sr .
Butts called the Apostolic Faith Church Body of Jesus Christ of the Newborn Assembly a cult.
Allegations about church members including the sexual abuse of women, mind control and physical abuse of children emerged. In several cases, children were removed from their homes and ordered to be kept away from the church, according to testimony by an Ohio caseworker.
Additionally, David Butts’ sister, Carolyn J. Clark , was bludgeoned to death by her husband after she left the church, left him and gained custody of that couple’s children. Clark, born in Norfolk and raised in Portsmouth , said people were abused and claimed she was “required” to have sex with the church bishop, according to an affidavit she signed months before her death.
David Butts gained temporary custody of five of his children last summer when such concerns became a topic of court proceedings between the couple in Portsmouth Circuit Court. He and Dorothy Butts have six children, but one now is an adult and was not part of the court matter this week. The remaining children range in ages from 11 to 16 . The adult son is in Ohio. He’s still with the church.
The minor children testified that they want to return to Ohio, but David Butts said the church’s recent history makes him fear for their safety.
Dorothy Butts, meanwhile, said she wants her children back.
Cales refused to allow the children to have contact with church members, in part because Dorothy Butts violated past orders, including a previous instruction to keep the children away from church members.
Her visits with the children will be supervised. Dorothy Butts said she believed Keyes talks with God. Her children, in previous hearings, said the same.
She said her church is not a cult, and she does not believe the allegations against its members.
Keyes was advised not to comment.
A social worker from Ohio testified this week that some members have been counseled by a cult expert to help overcome their experiences with the church.
The father of one child on Wednesday told The Virginian-Pilot his son was thrown out of a window, held underwater and left to spend a night by the church altar after he had been hog-tied by adults.
The boy was 6.
“From what my child has told me, he was being punished for being bad at school,” said Anthony S. Miller , an Ohio resident and former member of the church.
Eleven cases involving between 20 to 25 children have been investigated, Katie Lane said Wednesday in Portsmouth. Lane, an assessment caseworker for the Ashtabula County Children Services Board , has investigated some of those matters and dealt with the Butts children when they were in Ohio.
In Portsmouth, Lane testified that investigations showed some abuse and neglect was going on among members of the church. About 18 children were taken into protective custody and others were placed with relatives, in some of those matters criminal charges are pending.
“I don’t believe any children should be there,” she said.
According to Lane’s testimony, it was Charles Keyes who threw Miller’s son out of the window.
Several allegations are contained in a March 2005 affidavit by Carolyn J. Clark.
She witnessed her husband being beaten by members of the church, and she too was beaten with a belt, she said in the affidavit.
The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer newspaper reported on Thursday that he was sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 28 years in the slaying. A prosecutor in that case told The Associated Press there was no evidence the church was involved.
While some testimony in Portsmouth this week dealt with Carolyn Clark’s death, Cales limited what would be included in the custody hearing.
During testimony in Portsmouth, social workers and a mental health expert who interviewed the children said the Butts children exhibited “groupthink.”
One of the boys on Thursday acknowledged he had brought notes his sister had written down for him into the witness box. Concerns of social workers included the lack of emotion the children have toward their aunt’s death. The children would talk about “lies” their aunt had spread, according to testimony.
Two of the children, in conversations with social workers, also spoke of a “Deliverance Team,” which allegedly beat children, though they later backtracked on that topic.
Another child told a social worker that the group beat one of the Butts children, but recanted. Social worker Debbie K. Forsythe testified the child told her that such things were done “to beat the sin out of you.”
David Butts said his relationship with the children has improved since he was granted temporary custody last summer. In an interview this week, he noted that they are still in therapy. And, one after one, they criticized him Thursday during the court hearing.
“We do not have to go to a certain church to be a family,” he said in court.
Though activities of church members were part of the reason her children were taken away, Dorothy Butts on Thursday said the kids might go back to church there.
“If they wanted to,” she said.
After his wife left the courtroom, David Butts said he was happy to have his children.
“But nobody wins, man,” he said. “Nobody wins.”
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