Five members of an evangelical Christian church in western North Carolina have been charged with kidnapping and assault in connection with an attack on a young gay man, which he says was meant to rid him of "homosexual demons."
Matthew Fenner, now 21, says that in January 2013, "he was threatened with confinement for two days, slapped, strangled and verbally assaulted" by members of the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, reports North Carolina's LGBT outlet QNotes.
In an affidavit he submitted to local law enforcement, Fenner said church members confronted him about being gay, telling him it was disgusting. They then began a ritual called "deliverance," which, he wrote, "meant extremely rough pushing, loud screaming, and other violent measures intended to 'break me free of the homosexual demons.'"
Then one woman grabbed him by the throat and began shaking, punching, and beating him, leaving him with bruises on his collarbone, neck, chest, and shoulders, he wrote in the affidavit. Next, he said, "I had at least 15-20 college age men around me, screaming, shaking me, punching me, hitting my chest, grabbing my head, telling me to repeat different phrases."
The attackers particularly targeted tender spots on Fenner's back and neck that had recently been biopsied, according to a press release from Faith in America, an LGBT-supportive group. To local TV station WSPA, Fenner added, "I honestly thought I was going to die. ... My head was like being flung back, my vision was going brown and black. I couldn't breathe and I'm sitting here thinking if I don't get out of this, I'm probably going to die."
"Fenner has said it took several attempts -- including several stalling tactics from local law enforcement and prosecutors -- to get local officials to take his allegations seriously or allow him to file a formal complaint," QNotes reports.
Finally, though, a grand jury met Monday, and the next day it indicted five church members. Justin Brock Covington, Brooke McFadden Covington, Robert Louis Walker Jr., and Adam Christopher Bartley are charged with second-degree kidnapping and simple assault, Qnotes reports. Sarah Covington Anderson faces the same charges plus one of assault by strangulation. Their lawyer and some fellow church members say they are innocent of the charges.
The Word of Faith Fellowship has previously faced other accusations of abuse and cult-like practices. In one such instance, in 2012 another man said church members held him against his will for weeks because he is gay, and the U.S. Department of Justice initiated a hate-crime investigation, but the man then recanted his story. Now, though, he says he was manipulated into recanting and has left the church, according to the newspaper. Fenner has also left the congregation, although his mother and brother remain in the church and testified on its behalf before the grand jury.
The church's website once boasted that Word of Faith had enabled "drug addicts, alcoholics, homosexuals, etc." to be "delivered" and live "normal lives," the paper notes, but the word "homosexuals" has now been removed.
Word of Faith also runs an unaccredited private school, which had been promised funding under North Carolina's school voucher program, QNotes reports. A state appeals court has ruled that program unconstitutional, however, and a further appeal will be heard by the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Watch the WSPA report below.