For the better part of the last two decades, Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina has been under fire for subjecting its members to cultish and horribly abusive practices. The fringe charismatic church located halfway between Charlotte and Asheville is infamous for trying to drive out supposed demons by subjecting its members–even kids and babies–to lengthy sessions of banshee-like screaming, or “blasting.” According to numerous former members, this church’s idea of “deliverance” includes shaking, smacking, and choking people.
Well, it looks like the bill may be about to come due for this church. On Friday morning, the district attorney for three counties in the North Carolina Foothills announced two of his assistants have been forced out amid suspicions that they helped WOFF sabotage investigations into child abuse at the church and its attached Christian school.
Frank Webster and Chris Back were assistant district attorneys with the state’s 25th Prosecutorial District, comprising Burke, Catawba, and Caldwell counties. They are also ordained ministers at WOFF, which is located in Rutherford County. On Tuesday, as part of its ongoing investigation of WOFF, the Associated Press reported that Webster and Back were suspected of derailing an investigation into reports of teachers encouraging students to beat up kids suspected of being possessed at Word of Faith Christian School. Reportedly, this was part of a decades-long effort to throw police and social services investigators off the scent.
Former members said that Webster and Back were on hand for strategy sessions at which church founder and pastor Jane Whaley–who is also Webster’s mother-in-law–told members to lie to investigators. The former members also say that Webster and Back teamed up with social services worker and church member Lori Cornelius to coach kids on what to tell investigators. Webster and Back were also suspected of sabotaging a 2013 trial in which four WOFF members were accused of harassing a former member. According to former members, they took part in a mock trial in which they helped the defendants hone their testimony.
At first, District Attorney David Learner said the case was a personnel matter. But by Wednesday, he had asked the North Carolina State Board of Investigation to look into the matter. Less than 48 hours after that, Learner announced that Webster and Beck were out of jobs. Christian Flores of WBTV in Charlotte obtained the press release announcing Webster and Back’s ouster.
— Christian Flores (@CFloresNews) March 10, 2017
It’s not clear whether Webster and Beck were fired or resigned under threat of being fired. But it’s pretty clear from Learner’s statement that their departure was not voluntary. It’s also clear that Learner has seen something that strongly suggests that even if Webster and Beck didn’t do anything illegal, they betrayed their trust. There’s a reason that the standard of acceptable behavior for public officials is set higher than the standard below which you go to jail.
This is important to consider, because Webster and Beck are accused of behavior that was unethical at best. North Carolina prosecutors who give legal advice or take part in outside cases could face discipline, up to and including disbarment. Giving legal advice to someone in order to help them avoid prosecution is a crime. In the case of Webster and Back, they may have risked their legal careers–and potentially their freedom–by putting together that mock trial. And of course, helping sabotage a child abuse investigation is outrageously illegal.
Webster and Back now find themselves in the same position as many of the criminals that they tried over the years–needing lawyers on speed dial. They may not be the only ones. If there is anything at all to these charges–and Friday’s move by Learner strongly suggests that there is–they need to go to prison for as long as legally possible. After all, if they deliberately threw a child abuse investigation sideways, they not only broke the law, but breached every standard of decency that is known.
Over the last two decades, many residents of Rutherford County have complained about cases involving WOFF being tainted by judges and social workers who are at least sympathetic to the church. The Foothills have long been “God, gays, and guns” territory. In much of this area, the Republican primary is the real contest, and Republicans spend most of their time trying to out-pray and out-homophobe each other. In this environment, going against a church can sometimes be seen as a political death wish.
But there are some risks that need to be taken–and standing up for children is one of them. If there were more elected officials in this area like Learner, WOFF would have long since been driven out of existence. This move by Learner could potentially be the beginning of the end for this crime family masquerading as a church.
(featured image courtesy WSPA via WBTV)