A cult? A sect? What do you call a church that murders its own?

Their faces look like something out of some grade B film: the wife looking like some hick gun moll and the white-bearded husband appearing like a cross between an Old Testament patriarch and Idaho survivalist.

The locale, it turns out, was upstate New York; New Hartford, to be exact, where several people have been arrested for the beating death of a 19-year-old and the near beating death of his younger brother.

Media have descended upon the town in the past week, talking with neighbors, attending the arraignment, polling the local Catholic priest and even wandering about the building itself. Was this group a church? A Christian sect? A doctrinal cult? A sociological cult? A compound? A commune? The phrases “reclusive church,” “ultra-secretive,” “shadowy,” “sect” and “cult” sprinkle multiple reports of a congregation gone off the rails.

Memories of other congregations run amok (Waco, anyone?)  mark yet a notch in the popular imagination of religion as inherently dangerous. We’ll start first with the Daily Beast's take:

On Sunday night, an ultra-secretive New York church turned into a living hell. Two teenage brothers were brutally beaten -- one of them to death -- by their own family members and fellow churchgoers who wanted them to “confess” to their sins, authorities say.
Police charged the boys’ parents with manslaughter and four other participants with assault in the chilling incident that killed Lucas Leonard, 19, and left his 17-year-old brother, Christopher Leonard, in serious condition.
To neighbors, New Hartford’s Word of Life church is a “cult.” Those who live nearby point to the fence separating the red brick building -- a sprawling former high school -- from the community. Some say they’ve heard chants late at night and glimpsed men wearing long black trench coats. Others claim the gated church was breeding dogs, which were constantly barking.
But one former congregant, who was excommunicated from the mysterious flock, denied it was a cult.

It’s that last sentence that makes the Daily Beast’s report interesting, in that they spend give a lot of ink to an unnamed source who says violence was never part of the church.

“From the people that I knew, from the behavior that has been shown, something extreme… [must have] pushed them to that point to snap and do what they did,” said the exiled member, who was reeling over the allegations.
When she was in the church, counseling sessions only involved conversations, never physical attacks, she said. “It didn’t get heated,” the insider said. “I witnessed a couple of them, so I know first-hand. No one ever laid a hand on anyone.”

In all the coverage I’ve scanned so far, the Beast is the only one I’ve found that gave the congregation any benefit of the doubt.

Less so was a New York Times report that was accompanied by a photo of a snake. The caption: "A neighbor's ball python slithered through a yard on the street where the Leonard family lives." Really? Obviously this congregation was not a candidate for Church of the Year, but to run an unrelated snake photo of a reptile gamboling about in a neighbor’s yard is below the belt.

From the Times, we learn:

Interviews with investigators and defense lawyers on Thursday yielded a portrait of a controlling, meddlesome church whose members sought to handle any problems internally.
The meeting was orchestrated by the pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, 29, who called the teenagers into a sanctuary of the church’s three-story former schoolhouse, the authorities said. Her mother, Traci Irwin, is the congregation’s spiritual leader, and the congregants refer to her as Mother.

In another Times’ story, this one on Oct. 14, we at least get photos of the accused couple rather than someone's yard décor. Their interviews with neighbors and police officers revealed this:

Not much was known about the church’s need for secrecy, though it was intensely private: On Halloween, neighbors said the perimeter of the church -- partially hidden by a tall, thick hedgerow -- would sometimes be guarded by members, dressed in dark clothes, apparently to prevent vandalism or pranks.

With no church officials able or available to defend themselves, what's left are the neighbors. The Post-Standard, which is based in Syracuse, did near-saturation coverage and basically reported whatever anyone cared to say about the group. Their Oct. 13 story starts as follows:

NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. -- Neighbors near the Word of Life Christian Church, which became the site of a manslaughter and assault, describe it as a 'cult' whose members are often only seen after 3 a.m. and can be heard singing strange chants from the school-building-turned church…Neighbors said Tuesday the church has come across as mysterious and suspicious for many years, though they'd never been inside. One woman said she most often only sees church members at night, sometimes at 3 a.m., and she hears chants emanating from the building.

I would have liked the reporter to have probed a bit more as to what the “chants” sounded like. Chants in themselves are not evil and Orthodox and high church Episcopal congregations employ them.

But at least in this piece, the reporter actually walked inside the now-abandoned church building and took notes on what he found.

The Syracuse paper latched onto whomever would talk about the deranged family of the murdered and injured teenagers. There’s the rescue of the family’s abandoned pets where the main person quoted in the article is never given a title. Was this a neighbor, a police officer or what?

There’s also a story about police rebuffing rumors of voodoo and witchcraft on the part of the defendants. The police were commenting about this New York Times piece claiming that witchcraft was at the center of the boys’ beating deaths.  

That horrifying story -- which police didn't say was factually wrong -- is the most detailed account of what happened during the 10 hours the 19-year-old was being beaten to death. By later in the week, former parishioners were surfacing like crazy, appearing in stories like this one that describes the ordinary beliefs these church members started out with.

The church’s history begins with pastor Richard Wright, who founded the church with Irwin and was known as a charismatic and passionate pastor.
Jerry Irwin, the founder, was "more of a prophet or an overseer," (former member Nathan) Ames said, and did not have a knack for counseling congregants or igniting spirituality.
Wright was well liked, and the church was growing, Ames said. Gatherings began in a basement at a home in Richfield Springs and then church members bought the school-house building in Chadwicks. The gymnasium was turned into a sanctuary, the classrooms into residences.
The church "started out as a good, God-fearing Pentecostal Church and was rapidly growing. Great things were happening, miracles, prophecy, and people getting set free," Ames wrote in the letter. "There was no beating and or molestation going on."

So, rather than join everyone else who's writing up what a freak show this congregation was, we learn that the original intent of the group some 20 years ago was benign.

Personal note: In the early 1980s, I lived two years in a covenant Christian community that some thought was a cult (it wasn't) and experienced the weird labels people pin on groups that keep to themselves. Obviously it's game over when abuse, much less murder, is involved. But I hope somewhere, someone can write up what went so wrong with this church and why the neighbors, who were pouring out of the woodwork this past week, never publicly voiced their concerns before.

The bottom line: If half their observations: Weird ceremonies at night, drumming, chants, black trench coats and so on are accurate, why are we only learning about this now?

I say this because there's been some spectacular evangelical church splits and losses in recent years, all of which have been reported on by a sea of bloggers. Places like the Maryland-based Sovereign Grace Ministries, whose fall was abetted by various blogs spilling out secret documents, didn't go unnoticed thanks to the Internet.

Surely, some of us thought, abusive churches can no longer stay under the radar thanks to social media. Now we've learned that one did. Maybe, just maybe had someone been reporting on this church beforehand, the junk therein might have been brought to light without someone getting killed. Sometimes journalism can save lives. In this case, it came too late.

Please respect our Commenting Policy