Christianity

Jury selection begins for minister accused in member beating

Jury selection began Tuesday for a North Carolina church minister accused of beating a man to expel his "homosexual demons."

Brooke Covington, 58, a longtime minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, is the first of five church members to face trial in the case. Each defendant will be tried separately. Seven jurors had been selected by Tuesday afternoon; selection was to continue Wednesday.

Covington has pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping and assaulting former church member Matthew Fenner in January 2013. If convicted, Covington faces up to two years in prison.

Fenner, 23, said he was leaving a prayer service Jan. 27, 2013, when nearly two dozen people surrounded him in the sanctuary. He said they slapped, punched, choked and blasted him — a church practice that involves intense screaming — for two hours as they tried to expel his "homosexual demons."

As part of an ongoing, two-year investigation into abuse of Word of Faith Fellowship congregants by church leaders, The Associated Press interviewed four former church members who said they witnessed Fenner's assault.

Based on exclusive interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, the AP reported in February that Word of Faith Fellowship congregants 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.

Fenner said he joined the sect with his mother and brother in 2010. He fled after he said he was attacked.

"You can't imagine the emotional toll this has taken on my life. I had to put a lot of things on hold because of this. ... I can't do anything until this is over," Fenner told the AP in a previous interview.

The defense had filed requests to move the trial out of Rutherford County, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains midway between Charlotte and Asheville, due to years of negative publicity about the church's practices. As an alternative, the defense asked to have a jury brought in from another area.

The judge did not describe his reasoning for denying those requests.

"We are going to pick a jury and we are going to pick a jury today," said Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus.

Over the last few years, there have been numerous delays in the case.

At first, the five defendants were represented by the same attorneys — all members of Word of Faith Fellowship. Assistant Prosecutor Garland Byers Jr. filed a motion in 2015 to disqualify the law firm, citing conflicts of interest. A judge agreed, but the church appealed. A year later, though, the church attorneys withdrew the appeal, and the defendants got their own new attorneys.

One of the defendants, Sarah Anderson, left the church in 2015, saying her 1-year-old son was being abused. It's unclear whether she will testify at Covington's trial and if she does, what she will say.

The AP's investigation also revealed that congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse and that two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker were among those who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators. After the AP report, the prosecutors, including one who is a son-in-law of a church founder, left their jobs, and the social worker resigned.

The sect was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman. Under Jane Whaley's leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to its current congregation in North Carolina, and another nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana. It also has affiliations in other countries.

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Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.