Crime & Courts

Abuse claims lead to charges against church members

A leader and four members of a controversial Rutherford County church have been indicted on charges that they kidnapped, beat and strangled a 21-year-old man to cleanse him of gay demons.

The allegations by Mathew Fenner mark the second time in the past three years that the members of Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale have been accused of beating someone over the victim’s sexual orientation.

In a statement, church attorney Josh Farmer said the allegations against church members are untrue.

“We look forward to proving their innocence and to their complete vindication before a trial court,” said Farmer, who is listed on the Word of Faith website among the church’s pastors and ministers.

“Please remember that the law declares them innocent until they are proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.”

The church’s accuser is a UNC Chapel Hill pre-med student who says he left the Word of Faith after being assaulted for more than two hours after a Sunday night service.

In an affidavit, Fenner alleges that in January 2013, a church leader, her adult children and some 20 other Word of Faith members repeatedly punched, shook and knocked him down to expel what they felt was Fenner’s gay demon.

He said he also was strangled at one point. Fenner said the episode left him bruised and fearing for his life.

His allegations closely track those made by former church member Michael Lowry in October 2012. Lowry said he was beaten and held against his will at the church as members tried to rid him of a gay demon.

Lowry, 22 at the time, testified before a grand jury. But in January 2013, the same month Fenner says he was beaten and strangled, Lowry rejoined Word of Faith and recanted his allegations. He has since left the church and is living out of state. He now says in a statement released by Word of Faith critics that his original claims are true.

Church leaders at the time said Lowry’s allegations were lies, and that Word of Faith doesn’t discipline members for their sexual orientation.

Fenner’s claims, which come almost two years after his alleged assault, have led to indictments against five church members, including:

• Brooke Covington, 56, of Rutherfordton, the daughter of church founders Sam and Jane Whaley and an influential leader of the 750-member charismatic congregation. She faces a felony charge of second-degree kidnapping and a misdemeanor charge of simple assault.

• Covington’s children, Sarah Anderson, 27, and Justin Covington, 20, both of Rutherfordton. Anderson faces felony charges of second-degree kidnapping and assault by strangulation, along with simple assault. Justin Covington was indicted on second-degree kidnapping and simple assault charges.

• Robert Louis Walker Jr., 26, of Spindale and Adam Christopher Bartley, 25, of Monroe. Both are charged with second-degree kidnapping and simple assault.

The five turned themselves in together on Thursday and were released on bond, said Lt. Kelly Aldridge, head of criminal investigations for the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department. The probe continues.

The indictments are the latest chapter in Word of Faith’s stormy 35-year existence in the North Carolina foothills. Church leaders say they have created a spiritually and financially thriving community that includes 15 nationalities and missions in several parts of the world. Word of Faith also aggressively defends itself in court, claiming to have spent millions of dollars in legal fights with local governments or to defend its leaders and members against criminal charges and in custody battles.

Its accusers in Rutherford and surrounding counties say Word of Faith is a cult that dominates its followers’ lives, breaks up families and wrecks lives.

“Churches are free to preach against homosexuality and sinful behavior ... but members of a church clearly cross the line if they target an individual with physical, emotional and psychological abuse because of their sexual orientation,” said Brent Childers, executive director of the Hickory-based nonprofit Faith in America, a frequent critic of Word of Faith.

In his affidavit, Fenner says he was a church member for three years when the attacks “to break me free of the homosexual demons they so viciously despise” took place. At one point, Anderson grabbed him by the throat, then shook and beat him, Fenner said.

Before the two-hour incident ended, as many as 25 church members had taken part, Fenner told the Observer on Friday night.

“I really didn’t think I was going to get out of there,” he recalled. “I thought I was most likely going to die.”

He said he escaped from the church the next night.

Childers said he and Fenner met soon after with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Rose to discuss his case. Childers said Friday that he hasn’t heard back in the year since.

Asked Friday afternoon whether federal investigators are looking into the case, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said the office would not comment.

Rutherford County District Attorney Brad Greenway did not return a phone call Friday.

Childers said he was surprised by the indictments. Given Word of Faith’s influence in the surrounding community, he said he has “no confidence that this process is going to lead to any justice for Matthew Fenner.”

Fenner said he has hope.

“What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong,” he said. “I have no ulterior motive except my little brother is still in there, and this is the only way I can stand up to what’s going on.”