Mistrial declared in trial of minister charged with assault on gay congregant

Ex-members describe long-term practice of abuse against "sinners"

RUTHERFORDTON, N.C. — A mistrial was declared Tuesday in the case against Minister Brooke Covington, charged with kidnapping and assault against gay congregant Matthew Fenner of Word of Faith Fellowship. The jury foreman, Perry Shade, 71, was arrested for contempt of court and sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. A retrial is scheduled for July.

The legal battle was initiated in 2013 when Fenner alleged that he was accosted by dozens of church members on Jan. 27, 2013, beaten and abused for hours in an effort to expel the “homosexual demons” that “possessed” him. Fenner isn’t the first; Word of Faith Fellowship members were indicted in 2012 for similar treatment of another gay congregant, Michael Lowry.

The church has been investigated for abuse allegations with few ramifications numerous times since the early 1990’s, the AP reports. For decades, members refused to speak out. Those who left the congregation fled and scattered. In a years-long investigation involving nearly 50 interviews, document analysis and covert recording, the AP released a report in 2015 documenting extensive, institutionalized abuse.

According to the report, one of Word of Faith’s practices is called “blasting.” Blasting involves hours-long verbal and physical assault against individual congregants for the purpose of “purifying” them, literally beating out “demons.” Victims included adults and minors, and went so far as to encourage teachers and students in the church’s K-12 school to strike students who showed signs of demonic influence — smiling and daydreaming, for example.

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“I saw so many people beaten over the years,” said Katherine Fetachu, who spent 17 of her 27 years as a member. “Little kids punched in the face, called Satanists.”

The church leadership is tightly knit, including two former assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker, all three of whom left their jobs after the AP exposé. The attorneys, including a son-in-law of the church founders, were formerly defending the five church members indicted for Fenner’s assault. Accusations of conflict of interest led to their reluctant resignation from the trial.

Before this mistrial, Fenner’s assault case has been delayed by repeated strategies on the part of the defense. Even his first formal complaint against the church was stalled by local law enforcement, Fenner stated. In addition to appeals to prevent the attorneys’ removal, the Fellowship’s legal team filed to relocate the trial from Rutherford County or bring a jury from another region. Their justification was local notoriety and “negative publicity” in the area. The judge denied these requests.

More than four years since Fenner’s assault, the first defendant was facing trial before this incident once again halted the proceedings. Covington, the minister, is accused of directing and participating in Fenner’s assault, initiating the blasting by screaming at him from the pulpit. One witness testifying against Covington, Sarah Anderson, is also being charged, but decided to speak out after Anderson left the church alleging that her one-year-old son was abused.

Anderson testified on June 2 that she herself was the first to slap Fenner, but that nearly 30 church members present then joined in, choking and beating the man while screaming at him about his “homosexual demons.” Anderson said under oath that she has no deal with the prosecutors regarding her own trial for the assault.

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She also shed light on the motivation behind churchgoers’ secrecy. Anderson reports that then-assistant attorneys Frank Webster and Chris Back, both members of the church, explicitly instructed those involved in the assault to tell authorities that nothing happened.

Despite his imminent college graduation and plan to soon begin medical school, Fenner feels paralyzed until the trial concludes.

“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, now 23, told the AP.

Fenner told Daily News that during the two-hour assault, he feared for his life.

“I’m frail and in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Is my neck going to break, am I going to die?'”

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