SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) — At least a half-dozen times over two decades, authorities investigated reports that members of a secretive evangelical church were being beaten. And every time, according to former congregants, the orders came down from church leaders: They must lie to protect the sect.
Among the members of the Word of Faith Fellowship who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators were two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker, the ex-followers told The Associated Press.
Frank Webster and Chris Back — church ministers who handle criminal cases as assistant DAs for three nearby counties — provided legal advice, helped at strategy sessions and participated in a mock trial for four congregants charged with harassing a former member, according to former congregants interviewed as part of an AP investigation of Word of Faith.
Back and Webster, who is sect leader Jane Whaley's son-in-law, also helped derail a social services investigation into child abuse in 2015 and attended meetings where Whaley warned congregants to lie to investigators about abuse incidents, according to nine former members.
Under North Carolina law, prosecutors cannot provide legal advice or be involved in outside cases in any manner. Violation of those rules can lead to ethics charges, dismissal or disbarment. Offering legal advice in an ongoing investigation to help a person avoid prosecution could lead to criminal charges.
The receptionist for Back and Webster at the Burke County Courthouse said the two men were "too busy" to talk to AP reporters. They also did not respond to a note seeking comment about their roles in the church.
On Monday, their supervisor, District Attorney David Learner, declined to say if he had started an internal investigation. "As far as I am concerned, they are my employees and this is a personnel issue," he said.
Also Monday, former members held a news conference pressing anew for state and federal investigations of the church. "In recent years, I, along with others, have made several attempts to warn the local authorities of what is known today as the deteriorating conditions inside Word of Faith," said ex-congregant John Huddle. "The severity and intensity of abuses has grown more alarming in recent years."
One of the former congregants interviewed by AP, attorney Jeffrey Cooper, also said that then-District Attorney Brad Greenway of Rutherford County, where Word of Faith Fellowship is located, leaked information to him and other church lawyers about a 2012-2013 grand jury investigation he was conducting into the church.
Greenway told the AP that he talked to Cooper and other church attorneys about the investigation, but couldn't recall specifics. But he denied supplying the church with "inside information."
He acknowledged, however, that when asked by Cooper and church attorney Josh Farmer "something about 'What are you going to do? What do you think is going to happen'...I might have said, 'We're going to the grand jury.'"
Last week, the AP revealed decades of physical and emotional abuse inside Word of Faith, which has 750 members in Spindale, North Carolina, and nearly 2,000 members in churches based in Brazil and Ghana. Former members described being punched, choked and thrown through walls as part of a violent form of deliverance meant to purify sinners. (http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA )
During the Jan. 1, 2013, mock trial for the congregants charged with harassing a former member, Cooper said Whaley and other ministers watched Back play the familiar role of a prosecutor trying to trip up defendants during cross-examination.
When the defendants made statements harmful to their case, Webster responded, "'There are better ways to say that,'" Cooper said.
Court records show that three of the defendants were acquitted, while charges against the fourth were dropped.
"The purpose of the mock trial was to beat the charges — and it worked," said Randy Fields, 57, who fled the church last years and was one of those acquitted.
Back and Webster also helped sabotage a Rutherford County Department of Social Services investigation in 2015, according to Jeffrey Cooper's brother, Chad Cooper, an attorney who said he attended a church meeting convened to undermine that probe.
Chad Cooper, who left the church last year, said also participating in the meeting was Word of Faith member Lori Cornelius, a longtime social services worker assigned to a nearby county.
Cooper said social services personnel were investigating complaints that students were beating classmates at the church-run K-12 school to cast out devils, and that teachers, including Whaley, encouraged the violence.
When the AP contacted Cornelius at her home to ask about her role in the case, she said only "I don't want to talk" and slammed the door.
According to nearly two dozen of those now speaking out, Whaley ordered congregants during prep sessions to change their answers when she didn't like their responses.
"No, no, no, no. You did not do that," former member Rachael Bryant quoted Whaley as saying during a faux cross-examination last year.
Whaley turned down repeated requests to discuss the allegations against the church. But hours after the first AP stories were released, the church posted a statement on its website calling the accusations false and saying Word of Faith Fellowship does not "condone or allow abuse — in any form — at our church."
The first full-scale police investigation of Word of Faith stemmed from a February 1995 broadcast of the TV show "Inside Edition" that included secretly recorded video showing children being subjected to blasting.
Acting on a request from the local sheriff and district attorney, state Bureau of Investigation agents interviewed dozens of former congregants and leaders, including Whaley.
Agents heard accusations of child abuse and assault but ultimately deemed them to be too general and broad.
Behind the scenes, former members say, Whaley embarked on a cover-up that continued for the next two decades.
"She said if investigators contacted us, we couldn't tell them the truth," said Rick Cooper, another Cooper brother who left the church in late 2014 after 21 years.
When the county Department of Social Services opened an investigation focusing on 12 church families, Whaley filed a federal lawsuit, saying Word of Faith worshippers were entitled to "practice their religion free from unwarranted government interference."
And inside the church's 35-acre compound, Whaley took critical steps to cripple the two-year investigation, 21 former members told the AP.
"They would have meeting after meeting every time DSS was coming," said Rick Cooper, whose family was among those investigated. "They'd ask: 'How would you answer this question?' If you answered it wrong, they would severely scold you in public and say: 'No, this is the way you should answer that question. This is the way that God would have you answer this question.'"
Former congregant Jamey Anderson said parents and children were ordered to lie to social workers.
"We were too scared to say anything — too scared to tell them the truth," said Anderson, 28, who left Word of Faith in 2006. "We were told if we didn't answer the questions the right way, we would go to hell."
"We protected Jane," Chad Cooper said. "We protected the church. We should have protected the children."
Read more of AP's investigation of the Word of Faith Fellowship here: http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org