‘One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults’ Insists It Wants Love: What Ex Members Say Really Goes On

John Cooper was only a toddler — “a little tiny kid” — the first time he remembers hearing Jane Whaley scream at someone else.

“I was freaking terrified of her,” Cooper tells PEOPLE of Whaley, the co-founder of Word of Faith Fellowship in North Carolina.

“I was sitting in a chair, and I was so short I couldn’t even see over the chair in front of me. We were in a sermon and I remember her screaming so loudly into the microphone,” Cooper says.

“The volume of the noise terrified me. But that’s my first memory of her is her at the podium, just screaming at this woman in the congregation that she was upset with,” he continues. “I didn’t even really know who she was at this point. I was just like, ‘Who is this lady?’ I was probably 2 or 3. And then I, over time, learned — ‘Oh, this is Jane.’ “

Cooper is far from the only one who won’t forget her name.

Whaley’s church, which she co-founded with her husband more than 40 years ago, has long been shadowed by allegations it is a dangerous cult that ensnares its members and evades justice.

Church officials adamantly deny this, comparing accusers to bigots and heretics who have conspired together to defile God’s name.

“God is a god of love, God is not a god of abuse. He loves us and he doesn’t allow us to be abused,” Mark Morris, an attorney and minister at Word of Faith, said in a 2017 video posted by the church “refuting serious media lies.” He said the church’s other responses had been twisted or ignored by reporters.

Various members have been prosecuted for fraud, assault and other alleged crimes, however.

In July 2014, some 20 years after he first joined, Cooper became the first in his family to “escape” the church.

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The sixth of nine kids born to Rick and Suzanne Cooper, John was 18 months old when he, his parents and his siblings joined Word of Faith in 1993.

All nine have since left the congregation, but some of their relatives remain. The bruises of the abuse they say they suffered have long since healed. But the memories remain — and Word of Faith is very much still active, with the 80-year-old Whaley still presiding.

“Unlike some other cults that have been written about — the People’s Temple, Jim Jones, David Koresh — those are all gone, right? Those cults have disbanded because of things that have happened; they’ve ended in tragedy. But in this case, this cult still continues, and law enforcement is still looking the other way,” investigative journalist Mitch Weiss tells PEOPLE.

He and Holbrook Mohr, a fellow reporter at the Associated Press, are the authors of Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults, published in February.

Written in three parts, Broken Faith is a detailed account of Word of Faith’s history and practices — including what multiple ex-members described to Mohr and Weiss as coercion and control, violence and manipulation.

“That’s what’s really disturbing,” Weiss says. “You have children that are being abused, continue to be abused, and it seems like nobody — the people with the power — [is] doing anything to stop it.”

According to the AP, a federal prosecutor was once recorded saying, “We had a horrible time trying to make cases against them. For whatever reason, it was always something.”

A former district attorney in the area echoed that, telling the AP in 2017: “Don’t take this the wrong way — and I knew people were being abused down there — but you just got tired going against them.”

The AP previously reported that two local prosecutors were members of the church and gave coaching to other members during law enforcement investigations.

John Cooper and his family are some of the former members who decided to speak out and are profiled in Broken Faith. Others include Matthew Fenner, who said he was beaten for being gay; Suzanne’s niece Danielle Cordes, whose own account of child abuse was investigated when she was 10 years old; and Jamey Anderson, who said he was abused and held in isolation for a year.

In 2017, after an AP article written by Weiss with some of these accounts, the church released a statement denying any stories of abuse.

“People like to focus just on the physical aspect … and that is very vividly striking for people and they want to focus in on that. But for me, I would’ve rather been spanked or punched or beaten or whatever than put on what they call ‘church discipline,’ where you’re basically isolated for potentially months at a time — in some people’s case, years at a time,” John tells PEOPLE. “That is a lot more psychologically damaging to a kid. And that definitely still goes on.”

Both John and his mom, Suzanne, 59, talked to PEOPLE about their experiences with Word of Faith, which was started in 1979 by pastor Jane Whaley and her husband, Sam Whaley, in Spindale, North Carolina.

According to reports, the membership grew over the decades to some 750 — with another 2,000 congregants internationally.

Multiple members of Suzanne’s extended family are still living at Word of Faith and participating in the church’s teachings, including sister Cindy Cordes; Cindy’s husband, Steve Cordes; two of their four children; and Cindy and Suzanne’s nephew Justin.

Their sister Shana Muse and her other kids have left, as have Cindy’s other two children, including daughter Danielle.

“I still hold out hope that they may eventually get out,” John, who is “not religious” now, says of his other relatives.

“If I could say anything to my family, I guess I would say, ‘Be strong and trust your own judgment,’ ” he continues. “When you’re in there, you give up your own judgment — you give up your own moral compass of knowing what’s right and wrong and defer to what Jane says is right and wrong. [But] if I sat face to face with my family, there’s nothing I could say that would help them understand how bad of a situation that they’re in. It’s something people have to discover for themselves.”

‘It Seemed Like a Loving Place’

The Coopers’ journey to Word of Faith began in the ‘90s in Georgia, where Suzanne’s then-husband, Rick Cooper, was a pastor.

She was pregnant with her seventh child when she and Rick moved from their home in Darien to Spindale so Rick could attend the Bible school at Word of Faith, where their children would also be enrolled.

“For the first year or two,” Suzanne says now, “it just seemed like a loving, nice place.”

“They talked about doing the will of God all the time, and they talked about rebellion and about specific issues, such as how you dressed. And they talked about how we shouldn’t wear bathing suits,” she says. “And I listened and some of it made sense.”

“I did want to learn more about God,” she says, “so I did listen, to just learn about it.”

Jane, who had been a math teacher before starting Word of Faith, was not always volcanic.

Suzanne has one memory in particular: She cut her finger while cooking and mentioned it in passing to Jane over the phone. “She took the time, when I left church that night, to take my hand and look at the cut and take me to go get a Band-Aid and put it on my finger,” Suzanne says. “It seemed a little over-loving, over- … I don’t want to say shepherding, but that’s the best word I know.”

Over the years, Suzanne, Rick, John and the rest of the Cooper family — Jeffrey, now 37, Lena, 35, Benjamin, 34, Peter, 32, Chad, 29, Blair, 26, Adam, 23, and 15-year-old Jaclynn — say they realized the truth of the church they had chosen: not only the “pure manipulation” Jane could wield over them but also the abuse called “blasting,” a form of prayer intended to drive out evil. (Church members insist no such form of abuse is tolerated.)

According to the Coopers and other former Word of Faith Fellowship members interviewed for Broken Faith, “blasting” was usually carried out by many congregants surrounding an individual who had broken a rule in a way Jane or another senior church member deemed unsavory.

“There were a ton of rules” and “brainwashing,” John says.

“Blasting” could involve anything from screaming, beating, choking and being held down to being “thrown through a wall” — which John tells PEOPLE happened to a cousin. (“There’s never any abuse,” minister Mark Morris said in the 2017 church video.)

It wasn’t limited to adults, these former members say.

Children and even infants were often on the receiving end, according to former members’ accounts, for transgressions such as crying too loudly or, for older kids, giving in “to the unclean” (sexual thoughts). In fact, John’s confidence that kids are still abused is what motivated him to speak out about his family’s experience at Word of Faith to Weiss, Mohr and others.

He recalls how the “extraordinarily abusive” behavior reached its peak around the time he was in high school and early college and included not only physical but “emotional abuse.”

“After we got out, Lena said Jane began to tell everyone to pray for our destruction,” Suzanne says of her older daughter, who was the last of her children to leave the church, in 2018. “It’s like she [Jane] owns people — they’ll do whatever she says. Lena was like, ‘Oh my God. A church praying for someone’s destruction, for them to be destroyed?’ “

The violence inside the church, Weiss says, is the result of the belief that “devils are the cause of everything bad in your life. They literally believe that a devil can infect you — they can turn you into a drug addict, they can turn you into an alcoholic, they can make you gay — and the only way to get rid of those devils” is by blasting.

In April 2015, nine months after they left the church, John and Jessica welcomed a son, Peyton David. The couple has since divorced, having married at Word of Faith after initially being set up during their junior year of high school.

John says the last straw before he made the difficult decision to leave the only home he had ever known was being denied the chance to attend medical school by Jane because his older brother Peter did not get into the same school — and thus the siblings couldn’t “report on each other.”

Now John works as a doctor of internal medicine in the Navy. He’s determined to bestow upon son Peyton, 4 ½, the “broad” life experiences he never had as a child, like canoeing and hiking, as well as trying to “show by example — to be loving and caring and treat others kindly. Treat others how you want to be treated.”

The Church Responds

Word of Faith has vehemently denied the allegations against it, with an entire section on the church’s website marked “Response to Media Lies” and another called “The Truth About [Word of Faith].”

One statement on the website, attributed to an attorney named Josh B. Farmer, says, in part, “Our church has been the target of religious bigotry and persecution for several decades. One-sided media stories with salacious headlines established the narrative and attempted to hang on us the ‘cult’ label.”

Another statement quoting a member named Jordan Kidd says, “There could not be more loving, caring, and godly people than the people in this church. Their love and kindness has reached to the corners of the globe, and if the media would ever consider to publish the truth, it would really be an incredible story.”

The church blasted a series of previous AP articles as “targeted to incite hate crimes against us,” and warned that they would be made an example of by anti-religious forces who would not stop with them.

The group also publishes radio episodes in what they claim is an effort to share the reality about their congregation and address “the relentless onslaught of attacks and lies spread by the media against the church.”

But Broken Faith digs deeply into a whole other side of Word of Faith.

In the book, Weiss and Mohr detail unemployment fraud at the hands of church members as well as alleged child labor, the church’s global impact and the mysterious 2014 death of a Rutherford County Clerk of Courts elected official named Robynn Spence.

About a year and a half before her sudden death after developing flu-like symptoms, Spence had allegedly been the target of a man who told her he was hired by a church member to kill her because of her opposition of the church’s alleged practices, according to Broken Faith.

A former Word of Faith member named John Huddle left his wife and children behind when he exited the church in 2008 and has still never met his grandchildren. Huddle now writes a blog called Religious Cults Info and in 2015 published a book, Locked In, about his time in Word of Faith.

Fenner, the former member who said he was attacked for being gay, “pressed authorities for nearly two years to bring charges” against those he said were responsible for assaulting him, Weiss and Holbrook say.

In 2014, five members were indicted on assault and kidnapping charges

“They’re doing this to other people,” Fenner told PEOPLE last year, “and this is the only thing I can do to help.”

But Josh Farmer, the attorney for the church, claimed he made the story up.

“We are adamant that no one ever physically harmed Mr. Fenner,” Farmer told local TV station WSPA at the time. “The church does not target members who are gay.”

Years later, Fenner’s case remains in limbo after one minister’s prosecution ended in a mistrial.

“There were several motions filed to postpone the case. The first trial, for Brooke Covington, began in May 2017. That trial ended in a mistrial when a juror brought unauthorized documents to jury deliberations,” Weiss and Holbrook explain to PEOPLE. “Around that time, after the first of the AP series ran, the federal government and the state started investigations. The [district attorney] postponed the retrial until those investigations were completed last year. We are told the case could go to trial in May.”

Another Young Man ‘Disappears’

Weiss says that his and Mohr’s inspiration to write the book — after having teamed up multiple times on various AP articles about Word of Faith — wasn’t born from a desire to cover a “cult,” exactly.

Rather it came from an initial conversation Weiss had with church member Michael Lowry in 2012 — and a follow-up one months later, in which the young man told a very different story.

“We were getting ready to put together a story about Michael Lowry, just a basic story, and what happened was he disappeared,” Weiss says. He later showed up at the home of Lowry’s parents, who told him he needed “to talk to someone from the church.”

So Weiss did. He went onto the private church property and name-dropped a friend he and Jane shared.

Weiss says Jane, a “Southern grandmother” type, took him on a tour of the property (which includes a Holocaust museum) before bringing Lowry up — from the basement — to talk to Weiss, and he was surrounded by other members of the church.

The group looked on as Weiss attempted to reconnect with Lowry who, in a story similar to Fenner, had initially told Weiss he “wanted justice” after being “beaten because he was gay.”

“This wasn’t the same Michael Lowry that I had interviewed a few days earlier. That Michael Lowry was bubbly, he wanted to talk. This one was subdued, almost as if he was on drugs,” Weiss tells PEOPLE, saying that Lowry’s whereabouts are currently unknown. “My first [statement] to him was, ‘Michael, if you’re being held against your will, you can walk out of here with me right now.’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘No, that’s okay.’ “

“[He said] he lied about the church, and that he was addicted to pornography and he’s sorry about everything that happened,” Weiss adds. “So I went back and talked to my editors and at that point, they were reluctant to move forward with the story because he changed everything. And we didn’t really have much else to go on at that point.”

‘Persistence and Courage’

For Weiss, the most “stunning” aspect of studying Word of Faith and the response of law enforcement “was just the way the institutions fail. These are institutions — law enforcement, district attorney — that are there to protect people. And yet in every case, when people came to them for help, they looked the other way. They made excuses for not doing their job. And that’s something that continues to this day.”

Mohr says there was “a lot more to be told” than they were able to fit into one article or even a series of them. Instead, they wanted to “let the story unfold slowly” in a book, so readers understood exactly why these ex-members were “seduced into” Word of Faith in the first place as opposed to just assuming their joining was an “immediate thing.”

Weiss refers to the church’s story as a “cautionary tale that this could happen to anybody at any time.”

“The stories we did for the AP and the book would not be possible if it weren’t for the persistence and courage of the people who left the Word of Faith Fellowship, because they were so fearful of doing this — they were scared of talking out against the church,” Mohr says. “They knew they could be cut off from their families that were still there, and they didn’t know what kind of retaliation they may face. Without them, none of this happened.”

Today, Suzanne Cooper works as an elementary school special education teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, and loves spending time with her eight grandchildren. And there’s one more on the way: Daughter Lena is pregnant with grandchild No. 9.

Suzanne regularly tries texting sister Cindy, though they haven’t seen each other in more than five years. But Suzanne says she wants Cindy to know “that the bridge is not burned” between them.

“The lines are open,” Suzanne tells PEOPLE. Through tears, she adds, “I know if I could tell her anything, [I’d say], ‘She’s gonna regret every minute of every day she stays in there.’ I know that.”

Broken Faith is available now.

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