Calling attention to 'important AP investigation on physical and sexual abuse' at N.C. church

If you pay attention to religion headlines, you've probably heard about the exclusive Associated Press story this week on "years of ungodly abuse" at a North Carolina church.

The investigative piece — a mountain of a wire service report at more than 4,000 words — delivers the journalistic goods.

Here's a big chunk of the opening, which sets the scene:

SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) — From all over the world, they flocked to this tiny town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lured by promises of inner peace and eternal life. What many found instead: years of terror — waged in the name of the Lord.
Congregants of the Word of Faith Fellowship 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, 43 former members told The Associated Press in separate, exclusive interviews.
Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers — even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken, screamed at and sometimes smacked to banish demons.
"I saw so many people beaten over the years. Little kids punched in the face, called Satanists," said Katherine Fetachu, 27, who spent nearly 17 years in the church.
Word of Faith Fellowship, an evangelical church with hundreds of members in North Carolina and branches in other countries, also subjected members to a practice called "blasting" — an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.
As part of its investigation, the AP reviewed hundreds of pages of law enforcement, court and child welfare documents, along with hours of conversations with Jane Whaley, the church's controlling leader, secretly recorded by followers.
The AP also spent more than a year tracking down dozens of former disciples who scattered after leaving the church. Many initially were reluctant to break their silence because they had hidden their pasts from new friends and colleagues — and because they remain afraid of Whaley.

If you don't have time to read the full report, there's an abridged version — about 1,100 words — that hits the high points.

As Time magazine religion writer Elizabeth Dias noted on Twitter, it's an "important @AP investigation on physical and sexual abuse at a prosperity gospel church." Kudos to Mitch Weiss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who produced the story.

There was a hiccup in AP's promotion of the story on social media:


Anybody think that tweet could have been just a little more specific?

I liked this response from Ben Dreyfuss:

But back to the story itself: I noticed that Bob Smietana, the veteran Godbeat pro and former president of the Religion News Association, shared the story:

Given Smietana's experience reporting on such groups, I asked for his analysis of the AP piece. Here's what he told me in an email:

Questions about this church have been brewing for years. They were investigated in 1990s for child abuse, but the investigation was reportedly dropped because of lack of cooperation of church members. Then there's been two cases where church members allegedly kidnapped/beat gay members.  
So this goes beyond the average, ex-members mad at their former church story. 
Add in the beliefs that the pastors/founders are prophets, who have a great deal of control over the lives of congregation members -- which are more common that you might expect-- and it's a story worth digging into. 
The AP appears to have done their homework--they interviewed 43 former members, reviewed documents, got a hold of tapes of church events/conversations with the leader, etc. That's a lot of work. I've done pieces on smaller controversial groups-- 50-60 people or so-- and it can take months or years to get someone to go on the record. They're often afraid of the former leader and also ashamed of what they experienced and fearful that no one will believe them. 
Stories like this are difficult for another reason. Often these churches are secretive or at least suspicious of outsiders. So it's not easy for a reporter just to show up and observe. And they rarely want to talk with the press. 
I wish they'd explained more about the appeal of the church -- what attracts people, why do they stay, what is it about Jane Whaley that's so appealing, etc.

I really appreciate Smietana's insights and would not disagree with any of them.

My own response to the story was twofold:

1. I found it to be an exceptional piece of journalism about an overwhelmingly depressing set of circumstances.

2. But I also found myself wanting some kind of takeaway to go along with the ugly facts. I mean, even the 1,100-word version persuaded me that something is seriously wrong. But what is the lesson to be learned? What is the solution? Is there one?

I'd welcome your thoughts, dear readers, on the story and your reaction to it. Feel free to leave a comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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