SPINDALE, North Carolina (AP) — When Rutherford County's child protection agency seeks to investigate allegations of abuse at Word of Faith Fellowship, it runs smack into two major obstacles: a habitual lack of cooperation from church members and a court-ordered compromise that limits what can trigger an inquiry and how social workers can question minors.
Word of Faith has been investigated numerous times over the course of decades without serious consequences, in large part because church leader Jane Whaley orders congregants to lie to and mislead authorities, according to dozens of former followers interviewed by The Associated Press.
In 1995, for example, the State Bureau of Investigation interviewed Whaley, sect leaders and dozens of former members about abuse allegations. Investigators determined congregants — including children — had been mistreated, but the district attorney ultimately declined to prosecute, saying any case would be undermined by most victims' recalcitrance.
Whaley and a dozen church families sued the Rutherford County Department of Social Services in 2003, contending they were being targeted because of their religious beliefs. The agency settled the lawsuit two years later, agreeing to a list of stipulations dictating how it can investigate reports of child abuse.
Word of Faith received guarantees that abuse inquiries could no longer be solely based on objections to such core practices as "blasting," when congregants surround a church member and shriek for hours in an attempt to expel demons.
The agreement also placed limits on where social workers can interview children and barred them from asking questions about religious beliefs or practices.
And the church won the right to refuse to admit any child to its K-12 school whose parents do not consent to the use of corporal punishment.
Several experts who reviewed the stipulations at the Associated Press's request called the agreement highly unusual and spoke of a potential chilling effect on investigations.
Some of the provisions could make it "extremely difficult to protect children," said Rita Swan, recently retired as the president of Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, which specializes in child abuse and neglect related to religious beliefs.
Several former members told the AP that the social services department has either cited the settlement in refusing to get involved in cases or given Whaley and other church leaders advance notice before interviewing parents.
"If she knows social workers are coming, she will hold meeting after meeting, warning parents what to say," said Rick Cooper, a former member who was one of the parents involved in the investigation that led to the court settlement.
John Carroll, the child protection agency director, has repeatedly declined to discuss why he settled the lawsuit. But he said it "does not prevent us from fulfilling our statutory obligation to protect children."
A January 2005 email, however, reveals that the state had serious concerns.
Kirk Randleman, acting as counsel to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Resources, wrote that the stipulations could have "far reaching impact" on social service departments throughout the state. He also noted that Carroll's department didn't have "authority to negotiate policy decisions, but they are proceeding full steam ahead."
In a statement to the AP, the state agency said it "disagreed with the stipulation agreement" and did not support Carroll's decision to sign it.