ATLANTA – A pastor and four members of his church were found guilty Thursday of aggravated assault and cruelty to children for whipping two boys in front of the congregation.
The defendants were handed prison sentences ranging from 20 to 90 days. They were also fined amounts ranging from $250 to $8,000, placed on probation and ordered to attend parenting classes.
Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr. also told the pastor, the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., that he cannot "advise or participate in any way in the discipline" of anyone else's children.
The 150 members of the House of Prayer, an independent Atlanta church, have repeatedly said they have the right to beat their children and that the church was being persecuted for its beliefs. The state took 49 children of House of Prayer members last year; all but six have been returned.
The jury deliberated for more than two days.
The other church members convicted were Emanuel Hardeman, Charles Ogletree, David Duncan Sr. and Sharon Duncan.
The Duncans' two boys, ages 7 and 10, were removed from their home after one of them reported the whippings to a teacher. The boys, who were badly bruised on their backs and torsos, told authorities they were restrained by church members and beaten during services.
Prosecutors said Ogletree beat the children, Hardeman held them, and Allen and the parents looked on.
The state Division of Family and Children Services ultimately took 49 children of House of Prayer members; all but six -- the children of the defendants -- have been returned.
Allen, serving as his own lawyer, told the jury that the injuries were not as severe as prosecutors portrayed. He said corporal punishment is sometimes necessary and can prevent violent behavior later in life.
Allen was sentenced to 90 days in prison, 10 years of probation and an $8,000 fine. It was unclear if he would agree to stop organizing beatings at the church.
"I don't have any plans as far as the church," he said after the verdict.
David Duncan was sentenced to 40 days in prison, eight years of probation and a $500 fine. His wife got 20 days in prison, five years' probation and a $250 fine.
They can keep their children if they complete the parenting class.