Prosecutor: Minister ‘directed’ beating of gay congregant

This photo taken May 19, 2017, shows Brooke Covington, a member of the Word of Faith Fellowship church in Spindle, N.C., leaving a hearing at Rutherford County Courthouse in Rutherfordton, N.C. Covington and other church members are accused of kidnapping and assaulting Matthew Fenner, a former church member, because he is gay. Covington, 58, has pleaded innocent to one count each of kidnapping and assault. If convicted, she faces up to two years in prison. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

RUTHERFORDTON, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina minister “directed and participated in” the beating of a congregant who says the assault was meant to expel his “homosexual demons,” a prosecutor said Thursday.

Prosecutor Garland Byers gave his opening statement in the trial of Brooke Covington, a 58-year-old a minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina.

Covington is the first of five church members to face trial in the case. Each defendant will be tried separately.

Covington is charged with kidnapping and assaulting former church member Matthew Fenner. If convicted, she faces up to two years in prison.

Fenner, 23, has said he was leaving a prayer service Jan. 27, 2013, when nearly two dozen people surrounded him in the sanctuary. He said they slapped, punched, choked and blasted him — a church practice that involves intense screaming — for two hours as they tried to expel his “homosexual demons.”

During the assault, Fenner “thought he was going to pass out,” Byers told the jury. “He was severely beaten.”

Covington’s lawyer, David Teddy, painted a different picture.

Teddy said the congregation gave Fenner routine prayer that lasted no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. When the prayer was over, Fenner “hugged everybody and left the church,” Teddy said.

As part of an ongoing, two-year investigation into abuse of Word of Faith Fellowship congregants by church leaders, The Associated Press interviewed four former church members who say they witnessed Fenner being attacked.

Based on interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, the AP reported in February that Word of Faith Fellowship congregants were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a violent form of deliverance meant to “purify” sinners by beating out devils.

Fenner said he joined the sect with his mother and brother in 2010. He fled after he said he was attacked.

“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 previously told AP.

The defense had filed requests to move the trial out of Rutherford County, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains midway between Charlotte and Asheville, due to years of negative publicity about the church’s practices. As an alternative, the defense asked to have a jury brought in from another area.

Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus denied those requests.

The AP’s investigation also revealed that congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse and that two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker were among those who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators. After the AP report, the prosecutors, including one who is a son-in-law of a church founder, left their jobs, and the social worker resigned.

The sect was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman. Under Jane Whaley’s leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to a 750-member congregation in North Carolina, and another nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana. It also has affiliations in other countries.