SAO PAULO – Brazilian labor prosecutors have filed suit to shut down a church and school with ties to the U.S.-based Word of Faith Fellowship, saying the church and its leaders "reduced people to a condition analogous to slavery."
Brazilian authorities opened multiple investigations after The Associated Press reported in July that leaders of Word of Faith Fellowship in rural Spindale, North Carolina, created a pipeline of young Brazilian congregants who told the AP they were brought to the U.S. and forced to work for little or no pay.
The focus of the civil suit is Ministerio Evangelico Comunidade Rhema, Word of Faith's branch in the city of Franco da Rocha, along with that branch's church-run school and its two ministers, Solange da Silva Granieri Oliveira and Juarez de Souza Oliveira.
In the March 1 filing in a labor court in Sao Paulo state, prosecutors included extensive excerpts from depositions laying out harrowing details of a wide range of abuses within the Rhema church, including how long the marks from a beating with a ruler were evident on a child's body.
Children and adults alike said they were worked to the point of exhaustion. One member reported sleeping only four hours a night for weeks on end, while others said they worked 12 hours at a stretch, often into the dead of night. All spoke of their fear of punishment, social isolation or separation from their families if they didn't agree to work.
"In some cases, violence was used to ensure the 'voluntary' work," the filing said.
"Throughout the civil investigation, it was crystal clear the power of control and psychological pressure exerted by the pastors," it said.
In addition to asking a judge to dissolve the church and school and distribute its assets among congregants, the prosecutors seek to have the church pay a fine of at least $153,000 to a workers' compensation fund and at least $15,000 to each victim.
Word of Faith Fellowship is a secretive evangelical sect founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam. Over the decades, it has grown to a congregation of nearly 750 people in rural North Carolina, with hundreds more followers extending to Brazil, Ghana and other countries.
Dozens of former congregants in both the U.S. and Brazil have told the AP that Jane Whaley rules all the branches with an iron fist and that church members — including children — are regularly verbally and physically attacked in an effort to "purify" sinners.
An email to the Franco da Rocha church and a message left on Granieri Oliveira's cell phone were not immediately returned, but investigators said church leaders have denied any wrongdoing.
Jane Whaley's attorney, Noell Tin, issued a statement saying, "These allegations are vigorously disputed not only by Ms. Whaley but also numerous members of the Word of Faith Fellowship. The church looks forward to presenting a very different view in the Brazilian courts."
The lawsuit is the most significant legal action taken against the church in Brazil since the AP documented how Word of Faith steadily took over two local congregations and instituted its strict fundamentalist practices.
The prosecutors cited AP's stories in their court filing.
The lawsuit said forcing students to work severely interfered with their education at the Rhema school, with lessons canceled or students pulled out of class. The prosecutors also said that only three of the 25 teachers in the school were officially registered.
The depositions provide many details previously reported by the AP, such as allegations that Brazilians entering the U.S. on tourist and student visas were forced to work, a violation of the visas' stipulations, and that many had their passports seized.
The filing also echoed AP's reporting that congregants were forced to clean churches and the houses of sect leaders, renovate homes, teach in church-run schools and work for companies owned by church members in both countries.
"Our team of investigators felt there was no choice but to take action" because of the mountain of testimony collected, said Andrea da Rocha Carvalho Gondim, one of the prosecutors on the case.
Brazilian prosecutors also are looking into possible improprieties in a land deal involving the church, and education authorities in two Brazilian states have said they are investigating allegations that church schools physically and psychologically abused students and redacted textbooks in violation of state policy. The country's federal police are investigating the allegations of human trafficking of members to the U.S.
A judge will determine the actual amount of the fines and how victims are compensated, said Fabiola Marques, a professor of labor law at the Pontifical Catholic University in Sao Paulo, who is not involved with the case.
Prosecutors also have asked that cleaners who work at the church and teachers at the school be retroactively registered. Marques said that would entitle them to backpay and benefits.
Maria Reis, who has said her son was psychologically abused at the Rhema school, expressed relief at news of the court filing.
"We are very happy with this," said Reis, a longtime member who broke with the Rhema church because of what she called its abusive practices. "Everything that was wrong, everything that was covered up, has to be exposed."
While the case is being examined, prosecutors have asked that the judge take immediate preliminary measures, such as suspending the church and the school and ordering them to stop any forced labor.
In the U.S., state and federal authorities also are investigating Word of Faith Fellowship. An AP report in February 2017 cited 43 former members who said congregants were regularly punched and choked in an effort to "purify" sinners by beating out devils.
The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation said it still has an active investigation, but could not provide an update. The U.S. Attorney's office in North Carolina also said its investigation was ongoing.
Prengaman reported from Boa Vista, Brazil, and Weiss reported from Charlotte, North Carolina. Associated Press writer Holbrook Mohr also contributed from Jackson, Mississippi.