US church denies former members' allegations of forced labor

An evangelical North Carolina sect that is the focus of an ongoing Associated Press investigation has issued a statement denying former members' allegations that they were brought to the U.S. from congregations in Brazil and forced to work for little or no pay.

The statement, issued by Word of Faith Fellowship attorney Josh Farmer, comes a week after the AP published reports about what dozens of former members described as a human pipeline from two churches in Brazil to the sect's headquarters in rural Spindale, North Carolina.

"We are appalled to learn of the allegations published by the Associated Press regarding foreign members of our church being 'enslaved,'" the statement read. "Many of these allegations are obviously preposterous on their face and they are all false. It is ludicrous that people now claim they were in an abusive environment at our church but admit that they traveled from Brazil to the United States many different times, returning repeatedly to their place of alleged enslavement."

Word of Faith Fellowship and both churches in Brazil had not responded to numerous requests for comment before publication of the AP's stories.

Many of the former followers interviewed by the AP first traveled to the U.S. when they were very young and described being so indoctrinated that they felt they had no choice but to follow the church's orders.

Last week's stories — based on accounts of dozens of former congregants, a review of police reports and interviews with authorities in Brazil and the United States — also detailed how Word of Faith Fellowship took command of its two Brazilian congregations over the course of many years, instilling its rigid doctrine in Ministerio Evangelico Comunidade Rhema church in Franco da Rocha and Ministerio Verbo Vivo church in Sao Joaquim de Bicas.

The former members who traveled to the U.S. told the AP they were forced to work on church property or at businesses owned by senior sect leaders, and physically or verbally assaulted. The Brazilians often spoke little English when they arrived, and many said they had their passports seized.

Many males worked in construction; many females worked as babysitters and in the church's K-12 school, the former members said. One ex-congregant from Brazil told AP she was only 12 the first time she was put to work.

Word of Faith Fellowship was founded in North Carolina in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam. It has branches in Brazil and Ghana, along with affiliations in other countries.

The revelations of forced labor are the latest in AP's investigation exposing years of abuse at the church. Based on exclusive interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, the AP reported in February that congregants were regularly punched, smacked and choked in an effort to "purify" sinners by beating out devils.

The church has rarely been sanctioned, despite numerous inquiries. Another previous AP report outlined how congregants were ordered by sect leaders to lie to authorities investigating allegations of abuse.