DA seeks state probe of prosecutors after AP report on church abuse allegations

The entrance to the Word of Faith Fellowship church in Spindale, N.C., seen in 2016 (Alex Sanz)

A district attorney has asked the state to investigate two assistant prosecutors after an Associated Press story that quoted former congregants of a North Carolina church as saying the men derailed criminal probes into allegations of abuse by sect leaders.

David Learner said Wednesday that he wants the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the accusations against his employees, who are members of the evangelical Word of Faith Fellowship church.

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The AP story, released Monday, cited nine former Word of Faith members who said Frank Webster and Chris Back provided legal advice, helped at strategy sessions and participated in a mock trial for four congregants charged with harassing a former member.

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The ex-congregants also said that Back and Webster, who is sect leader Jane Whaley's son-in-law, helped derail a social services investigation into child abuse in 2015 and attended meetings where Whaley warned congregants to lie to investigators about abuse incidents.

"This is long overdue," said Rick Cooper, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent more than 20 years as a congregant at Word of Faith and raised nine children in the church. "I'm glad they're finally taking this seriously."

During the Jan. 1, 2013, mock trial for the four members, Jeffrey Cooper - an attorney who is one of Rick Cooper's sons - said Whaley and other ministers watched Back play the familiar role of a prosecutor trying to trip up defendants during cross-examination. Three of the defendants eventually were acquitted and charges were dropped against a fourth.

Nathan Key, a spokesman for Learner, said in an email that Webster and Back will keep working during the investigation but did not say if they would continue to prosecute cases. He did not respond to follow-up questions.



Under North Carolina law, prosecutors cannot provide legal advice or be involved in outside cases in any manner. Violation of those rules can lead to ethics charges, dismissal or disbarment. Offering legal advice in an ongoing investigation to help a person avoid prosecution could lead to criminal charges.

Back and Webster have not responded to several messages left by the AP about the allegations.

They are assistant district attorneys for Burke, Caldwell, and Catawba counties in western North Carolina. Word of Faith is based in Spindale in nearby Rutherford County.

Last week, the AP revealed decades of physical and emotional abuse inside the church, which has 750 members in Spindale, North Carolina, and nearly 2,000 members in churches based in Brazil and Ghana. Former members described congregants as being punched, choked and thrown through walls as part of a violent form of deliverance meant to purify sinners.

Former church member John Huddle called for state and federal investigations after the AP's stories, saying the severity and intensity of the abuses against church members has grown more alarming.

Huddle questioned why Lori Cornelius, a church member who is a longtime social services worker, also isn't being investigated. During a social services check of complaints that students at the church-run K-12 school were encouraged to beat classmates to cast out devils, former members said Cornelius coached children on what to tell investigators with the help of Back and Webster. That probe ended with no charges.

Telephone messages left for Cornelius' boss, Cleveland County Department of Social Services Director Karen Ellis, were not returned Wednesday. Cornelius would not discuss the allegations when contacted by the AP.

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