Members of an evangelical and supposedly Christian sect accused of trying to beat 'homosexual demons' out of a now former member could be about to go on trial, according to reports.
Matthew Fenner says that he joined Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, with his mother and brother in 2010, but that he fled on January 27, 2013, after he was attacked by two dozen members for two hours as he was leaving a prayer service.
The Associated Press (AP), having interviewed 43 former members of the 750-member evangelical church, reviewed documents and covertly made recordings, reports that sinners are routinely 'purified' by being punched, choked, and thrown to the floor as a means of expelling demons. One witness told the AP that Fenner's beating 'made me sick'.
The church was founded in 1979 by a former maths teacher, Jane Whaley, and her husband Sam, a former used car salesman. It has grown from just a few followers to thousands in its North Carolina congregation and at churches in Brazil, Ghana, and other countries.
Now, after countless twists and turns, the long-delayed case finally appears ready to move forward in North Carolina Superior Court, according to Newser.com.
Reports said that jury selection could begin today for the first of five Word of Faith Fellowship members charged in the attack, with each defendant set to be tried separately.
The first defendant, a veteran minister, Brooke Covington, 58, has pleaded innocent to one count each of kidnapping and assault. She faces up to two years in prison if convicted.
The victim himself, now aged 23, is bracing himself. 'I'm going to have to relive that night again,' said Fenner, who spent two years pressuring authorities to investigate the allegations.
Fenner joined the sect with his mother and brother in 2010, before fleeing after allegedly being attacked. His family members are still inside the sect, according to reports.
Fenner, who graduated from college last year and is planning to go to medical school, added: 'You can't imagine the emotional toll this has taken on my life. I had to put a lot of things on hold because of this...I can't do anything until this is over.'
Over the last few years, there have been numerous delays in the trial going ahead, and reports said that it could be delayed again.
At first, the five defendants were represented by the same attorneys, who were all members of Word of Faith Fellowship.
Assistant Prosecutor Garland Byers Jr filed a motion in 2015 to disqualify the law firm, citing conflicts of interest. A judge agreed, but the church appealed, and a year later, the church attorneys withdrew the appeal, with each defendant obtaining their own new attorney.
Separately, one of the defendants, Sarah Anderson, left the church in 2015, saying her 1-year-old son was being abused. It's unclear whether she will testify at Covington's trial and what she will say if she does.
Fenner said that nearly two dozen people surrounded him in the sanctuary when he was slapped, punched, choked and 'blasted' — a church practice that involves intense screaming — for two hours as they tried to expel his 'homosexual demons'.
The AP interviewed four former church members who said they witnessed the Fenner assault.
'They just kept hitting him over and over. It was horrible. ... I thought that [Fenner] was going to be the first person they killed," said former member Danielle Cordes.
Another former member, Andre Oliveira said: 'I saw them throw him around, pin him on the floor. They were screaming at him, hitting him over and over. It just made me sick.'
The AP also previously disclosed that congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse.
The report further revealed that two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker were among those who gave lessons to congregants and their children on what to say to investigators.
Following that AP report, the prosecutors, including one who is a son-in-law of a church founder, left their jobs, and the social worker resigned.