Brooke Covington, 1st of five church members to face trial in the case, will be awarded with 2 years in prison if convicted.
Rutherfordton (North Carolina): A North Carolina man thought he was ‘going to die’ when members of his evangelical church beat and choked him for two hours to expel his ‘homosexual demons,’ he testified on Thursday.
Matthew Fenner was the first person to take the stand in the assault and kidnapping trial of Brooke Covington, a 58-year-old minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina.
Fenner, 23, said Covington was the leader in a 2013 beating involving numerous congregants. He said Covington pointed out his sexual orientation, saying, "God said there is something wrong in your life."
Fenner said he had cancer as a child and had a biopsy one week before he was assaulted.
"I'm frail, and in my mind, I'm thinking, 'Is my neck going to break? Am I going to die?' " Fenner said.
Covington faces up to two years in prison if convicted. She is the first of five church members to face trial in the case. Each defendant will be tried separately.
Prosecutor Garland Byers said during opening statements that Covington “directed and participated in” the assault.
Fenner has said he was leaving a Sunday night prayer service on Jan 27, 2013 when nearly two dozen people surrounded him in the sanctuary. He said they slapped, punched, choked and blasted him — a church practice that involves intense screaming — for two hours as they tried to expel his ‘homosexual demons.’
Covington's lawyer, David Teddy, painted a different picture.
Teddy said the congregation gave Fenner routine prayer that lasted no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. When the prayer was over, Fenner “hugged everybody and left the church,” Teddy said.
As part of an ongoing, two-year investigation into abuse of Word of Faith Fellowship congregants by church leaders, the four former church members said in an interview that they witnessed Fenner being attacked.
Based on interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, a report in February said that Word of Faith Fellowship congregants were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a violent form of deliverance meant to ‘purify’ sinners by beating out devils.
The church has scores of strict rules to control congregants' lives, including whether they can marry or have children. Failure to comply often triggers a humiliating rebuke from the pulpit or, worse, physical punishment, as numerous former members said in an interview. Members can't watch television, go to the movies, read newspapers or eat in restaurants that play music or serve alcohol. If church leaders believe a congregant has sexual or dirty thoughts, they can be accused of being ‘unclean’ and be punished, the former members said.
Fenner said he joined the sect with his mother and brother in 2010. He fled after he said he was attacked.
The defence had filed requests to move the trial out of Rutherford County, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains midway between Charlotte and Asheville, because of years of negative publicity about the church's practices. As an alternative, the defence asked to have a jury brought in from another area.
Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus denied those requests.
An investigation also revealed that congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities probing reports of abuse and that two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker were among those who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators.
After the AP report, the prosecutors, including one who is a son-in-law of a church founder, left their jobs, and the social worker resigned.
The sect was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman. Under Jane Whaley's leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to a 750-member congregation in North Carolina, and has nearly 2,000 additional members in churches in Brazil and Ghana. It also has affiliations in other countries.