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Trial near for sect members accused of beating away demons

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RUTHERFORDTON, N.C. >> It has been nearly 4½ years since Matthew Fenner said he was beaten in a church sanctuary by a group of congregants hell-bent on expelling his “homosexual demons.”

After countless twists and turns, the long-delayed, high-profile case finally appears ready to move forward in North Carolina Superior Court.

Jury selection could begin Tuesday for the first of five Word of Faith Fellowship members charged in the attack. Each defendant will be tried separately.

The first defendant, longtime minister Brooke Covington, 58, has pleaded innocent to one count each of kidnapping and assault. If convicted, she faces up to two years in prison.

The 23-year-old Fenner is bracing himself.

“I’m going to have to relive that night again,” said Fenner, who spent two years pressuring authorities to investigate the allegations against the powerful 750-member evangelical church in Spindale, North Carolina. Ex-members say church leaders believe that possessed congregants must have devils beaten or screamed out of them.

Fenner joined the sect with his mother and brother in 2010. He fled after he said he was attacked on Jan. 27, 2013, but his family members are still inside.

“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,” said Fenner, who graduated from college last year and is planning to go to medical school.

Fenner also is preparing for the possibility of more disappointment. There’s a chance the trial could be delayed again.

The defense has filed motions 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. In the alternative, the defense wants a jury brought in from another area, called a change of venire.

The prosecution has argued that the usual procedure is to try to select a jury in the county where a crime was committed before deciding to move a trial or to bring in an outside jury.

If both motions are denied, or if the judge decides to try seating a jury before making a decision, the trial could begin Tuesday. But if the judge grants either of the motions, the trial would likely be delayed again.

Over the last few years, there have been numerous delays.

At first, the five defendants were represented by the same attorneys — all members of Word of Faith Fellowship. Assistant Prosecutor Garland Byers Jr. filed a motion in 2015 to disqualify the law firm, citing conflicts of interest. A judge agreed, but the church appealed. A year later, though, the church attorneys withdrew the appeal, and each defendant got their own new attorney.

In addition, one of the defendants, Sarah Anderson, left the church in 2015, saying her 1-year-old son was being abused. It’s unclear whether she will testify at Covington’s trial and if she does, what she will say.

Fenner 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.”

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 said they witnessed the Fenner assault.

“They just kept hitting him over and over. It was horrible. … I thought that (Fenner) was going to be the first person they killed,” said ex-congregant Danielle Cordes.

Said another former member, Andre Oliveira: “I saw them throw him around, pin him on the floor. They were screaming at him, hitting him over and over. It just made me sick.”

Based on exclusive 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.

The AP also previously 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 petite 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 its current congregation in North Carolina, and another nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana and affiliations in other countries.

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