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Sexual Abuse in the Name of God: New Bethany Home for Girls

mack ford new bethany home for girls
Mack Ford

As many of you know, I have long been an advocate for those abused at Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) teen group homes. These homes, some of which are still in existence, routinely used violence to force teenagers into submission. Some of the residents were sexually violated. Where was the state, you ask? Sitting on the sidelines, often ignoring the cries of those who were beaten, abused, sexually molested, and raped.

One such home was the New Bethany Home for Girls, owned and operated by IFB preacher Mack Ford. Ford was a protégé of famed abuser Lester Roloff.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune has published numerous articles about New Bethany. If you aren’t familiar with this story, I encourage you read The Long Road: To the Gates of New Bethany and Back. (Link no longer active. To find New Bethany stories, do a search for them on the NOLA website.)

Over the years, the victims of Mack Ford and the staff at New Bethany have tried to bring their abusers to justice. Unfortunately, Ford wears a Teflon suit and nothing seems to stick to him. Two weeks ago, a grand jury declined to charge 82-year-old Mack Ford.

Rebecca Catalanello, in a Times Picayune feature article, had this to say

A grand jury has declined to indict a man accused of raping girls who were under his care at a notorious religious boarding school in north Louisiana decades earlier.

Mack W. Ford, 82, of Arcadia, was the target of what law enforcement officials describe as a year-long investigation into reports he molested young residents at his now-shuttered New Bethany Home for Girls.

A written statement released Tuesday (Jan. 6) by Bienville Parish District Attorney Jonathan Stewart, said “the grand jury was given research and information regarding the statute of limitations with regard to each alleged act and, after deliberation, returned a no true bill.” A no true bill represents a grand jury’s decision not to indict.

Three women who lived at the home in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s traveled from three states to testify before a grand jury Dec. 18 about their experiences with Ford. Other witnesses testified Oct. 15 and Dec. 29, according to state officials.

The women said their grand jury testimony was the closest they felt they had come to achieving justice for the crimes they said were committed against them as young girls in the place Ford once described as “a mission project to the incorrigible, unwanted rejects.” But after a Louisiana State Police investigator notified them by phone Monday evening that Ford would not face charges, the former residents sounded variously dazed, outraged and despondent.

“If he had been indicted for just one thing, it would have been justice for so many people,” said Simone Jones, a 47-year-old police dispatcher in Kansas who told police that Ford raped her in 1982 or 1983. “Why does this man continue to walk free?”

The grand jury convened almost exactly a year after Jones and other former residents journeyed to Bienville Parish to support Jennifer Halter, an ailing woman from Las Vegas, as she fulfilled a dying wish to report Ford, who she said began molesting her shortly after she arrived at the school in 1988 until her 1990 departure. Their trip was documented in an April | The Times-Picayune series that chronicled decades of abuse allegations at the home for which no one was ever prosecuted.

Ford, who still resides at the former New Bethany compound at 120 Hiser Road, has declined to comment about the allegations against him. He could not be reached by phone Tuesday morning, nor could Jesse Lewis Knighten, a nephew who court records show assumed power of attorney for Ford in January 2013.

Halter and Jones said that Mike Epps, an investigator with Louisiana State Police, told them Monday evening that the grand jury decided that the crimes they described were not prosecutable under current law.

“The reason given in the short-term was not that the grand jury didn’t believe us. It was because of the statutes,” Jones said.

Jones told police she was 14 when Ford approached her while she was doing chores, asked her if she was “a pure lady,” unbuttoned his overalls and then forced her to perform oral sex.

Jones said that Epps explained to her Monday that though current law considers oral sexual intercourse to rise to the level of “forcible rape” in some circumstances, at the time she said she was victimized in the early 1980s, the law only considered it “oral sexual battery.” Forcible rape has no statute of limitations, while sexual battery does.

“They let us down again,” Halter said. “I can’t understand why it’s OK for these people to do what they do and walk away like nothing was done wrong. It’s like laughing in our face all over again. What is justice? When is enough enough?”

Halter told police that Ford was chief among her abusers during her time at the home. In interviews with | The Times-Picayune, she described repeated abuse, including frequent sexual contact by Ford during choir trips he chaperoned to churches in nearby towns and states — information she said she also reported to police in 2013.

Louisiana State Police Capt. Doug Cain said Epps would not be able to discuss the investigation or the grand jury’s decision. “We have to respect the court’s decision,” Cain said.

Former residents who were aware of the latest police investigation, recalled decades of abuse allegations recorded by state social workers and local police that never materialized in criminal charges.

“This has gone on for years,” said Tara Cummings, a resident at the home from 1982 to 1983. She said that if the statute of limitations was an issue, the state attorney should not have convened a grand jury to begin with…

…Ford created New Bethany Home for Girls 44 years ago on a plot of land 50 miles east of Shreveport, on more than six acres he bought for $30,000 from a 60-year-old widow, according to court records. The site had served as a penal farm and later a nursing home before he turned it into a home for what he called “wayward” girls.

New Bethany was affiliated with the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church. Residents were subject to strict rules, harsh punishment and maintained restricted access to the outside world, according to interviews, news reports and legal documents.

“We are reaching out as a mission project to the incorrigible, unwanted rejects,” Ford told attorneys in a 1997 court deposition. “Destitute, lonely, prostitutes, drug addicts … These kids haven’t been loved and they haven’t had a chance in life.”

Ford was a high school dropout-turned-tire-salesman who said he was inspired to open the school during a retreat in Arkansas. There, he once said in a court deposition, he met two little blonde 12-year-old girls who had been impregnated by their father and was inspired to help such troubled children.

Until its closure in 2001, the school took in hundreds of children and young women from across the state and country.

To some who heard of New Bethany’s mission and others who encountered the school through its traveling girls’ choir it appeared a worthy charitable cause. But records, interviews, news reports and other documents show residents also went to extraordinary lengths to escape the home.

Stories of physical and mental abuse plagued New Bethany for almost as long as it was open, documents and news stories show. Girls who ran away from the school described brutal paddlings and harsh physical punishment. They were rarely allowed to call home and when they did, their calls were monitored, according to accounts.

Runaways often scaled the tall chain-link fence, crawling over the inward facing barbed wire at the top, and ran through dense woods to find someone who might believe them.

State and local officials escorted girls from the property during several raids. But the home was repeatedly allowed to reopen and reenroll children.

Ford became known for his resistance to outside interference. He filed federal civil rights lawsuits twice after state officials from child protective services and the state fire marshal sought to inspect the facility or question children and staff about their complaints of abuse. A federal judge in 1992 dismissed a lawsuit in which Ford asked the government to keep officials from interfering in New Bethany operations. Seven years later, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision determining there was no evidence that state officials were plotting to shut down New Bethany, as Ford complained…

…Joanna Wright, 54, of Houston, sounded tired when she spoke about the grand jury decision this week.

Wright, a preacher’s daughter, arrived at the home in the mid-1970s at age 14, excited for an experience outside what she describes as her insular, fundamentalist upbringing. But she said Ford soon began molesting her and, in 1977, forcibly raped her on the New Bethany compound.

Wright said news of the non-indictment left her feeling numb. She said she had told authorities about what happened to her on several occasions — she said she told a social worker about it in 1993 and spoke to a district attorney in 1998 — and nothing ever came of it.

But in July 2013, haunted and frustrated by her experience and the experiences of those she knows, Wright reached out to Jump, the assistant district attorney in Bienville Parish, and told her she was ready to make a police report in person.

On July 11, 2013, Jump wrote back:

“We are a long way from being able to arrest him. I have to sift through this stuff and talk to someone who was raped at the home and is willing to testify to that fact. And then determine if I can win the case. I don’t think it would be good for anyone [sic] of the victims to go through with what it would take to convict him if we can’t convict him. I will do my best and anything within my power to see that justice is done. But unfortunately justice for some of the victims will not be served on this earth. He will have to answer to God.”

You can read the entire series of reports here. (Link no longer active. To find New Bethany stories, do a search for them on the NOLA website.)

I am personal friends with a handful of the women who were incarcerated at New Bethany. I know from talking to them that their time at Ford’s group home left horrible, deep scars. Some of the survivors have decided to put together a YouTube video about Mack Ford and New Bethany Home for Girls.

Video Link

Mother Jones published several articles about New Bethany Home for Girls, Survivor Snapshots From Teen-Home Hell and Horror Stories from Tough-Love Teen Home (written by my friend Katheryn Joyce).

Victimized No More is a great repository of information about Mack Ford and New Bethany.




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    Remember Ford ‘s singing group coming to our church. The whole thing was very polished & designed to get an incredible emotional response from the church body. And, my god, it sure did. People crying all over the church & the Holy Ghost really “moved.” It’s no telling how much $$$$$ this douchebag made on this & countless other trips to our church, as well as many others. Ashame that he’s gotten away with having hard working, ordinary, good people in these support him & keep him going while he terrorizes young women & girls under the guise of “helping” them. Disgusting.

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      Each time I read about a church that gave to the ministry, Steve, my eyes get wet and I go back to 1974. That is the year that I traveled with Mac Ford to sing and testify about how great New Bethany was and how Mac Ford basically saved my life. This was the narrative that was pounded into us day after day after day. We were “wanton women”, destined for destitution, prostitution, and a life of criminally induced sorrow. But since God chose us to live at New Bethany, Mac Ford had the responsibility to ensure that we turned our lives toward Christ. We were ALWAYS reminded of how unworthy and filthy we were.

      Knowing the truth and being afraid to speak, then believing (mostly) Mac Ford lies as being “the will of God”, it took decades to reconcile the facade with the truth. Bruce, thank you for helping. Thank you for being a champion in this, exposing these predators and calling them out.

      To think that Mac Ford is still free to live his life without the scars he has inflicted on scores of people is sickening.

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          Jo Wright

          Steve, what city was your church in? We went to Tarboro, Richlands, Asheboro, Gastonia, and places I can’t recall. I am trying to nail down a specific church in Tarboro. Can you help?

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            Yalls group came to our church ‘Red Cross Baptist’ in Climax NC. My Parents ALWAYS threatened me with this place, to the point of trying to put me in the bus after the charade was over. My Grandmother told them I NEVER had to go there and to leave me alone!!! I would have ran away first chance I got… I’m sorry you had to endure this Hell Home

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    Monica W.

    Makes me sick to my stomach that these children, thousands of them from all over have been sent to these places better described as concentration camps. They still exist and children are still being sent to them. Living in the information age, there is NO excuse now for parents who send their kids away without doing a 30 minute google search.

    Most parents who gave their kids over to pedophiles and abusers have to live with their decision, some of them in times past without resources believed they were making the best choice for their child with the assurance of their pastor while some want their kids to believe it was for their best interest. Some adults were not innocent as they had ulterior motives for shipping the kids off and not because the kids were bad. Contrary, the parents, youth pastor, preacher, sunday school teacher, deacon raped these innocent children who felt threatened of being exposed because these “rebellious kids” were not afraid to express themselves.

    I can see how some are willing to pay a lot of money to isolate the child, instill the fear of hell in her while she is blamed for the actions of those abusive adults, totally f***ing with her mind. I have heard too many individual accounts of these stories and I see the similarities. I do not believe these homes were opened with good intentions, not at all!

    Mack Ford and others who run these homes know full well the background of each child placed under his authority, pedophiles know how to pick their victims. We can not expect a child to grow up happy, healthy and well behaved if they were raped, abused and brainwashed.

    Breaking this wide open seems to phase very few people, it is as though, very few care what happens to these children. I am starting to think that holding the parents responsible for their actions and decision of placing their child in these homes may be what it takes to stir the bees nest.

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      Mary Smith aka HoneyBee

      My sentiments exactly.
      The parents of the children should be tried.
      Anyone involved in these terrible acts at New Bethany should contact me. Im ready to stir the nest! Im a native of Bienville Parish..and would like for justice to be served in this situation. Ford may have passed..but many others involved are still alive. Justice must not be denied these individuals who have been scarred for life! Contact HoneyBee at 9409990015

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    master Splenter

    I remember going to new Bethany I remember the doe bossier girl I remember jumping on a bus with mack ford on a gray hound that was his bus to travel and the hell and torture I went thru i will never forget..

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    You godless bastards have shown more genuine love, understanding, and compassion than the hundreds of thousands of god-filled bastards I met in church!

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    I Was One Of The Many Bethany Home survivors I Was There In The 7O’s Left In The Mid 80s Many Of Us Are Left With A Life Time Of Scars I Can Remember How We Wore Red White And Blue No Television No Radio Nothing To Connect Us From The Out Side World But A Tall Fence With barbed wire That Separate Us From The Out Side World…

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      What year were you there? Do you recall when the fence went up?
      Your name is new; did you find the New Bethany groups? If you need anything, just holler.

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    I know there are these posts of abuse and harm. My question was everyone treated the same? Were certain people singled out? I had not heard of this place before.

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      New Bethany Home for Boys & Girls began in 1971 and was in trouble with the law by 1974. A Google search of Mack+Ford+New+Bethany will reach more information than most want to know.

      All kids got the same harsh religious rhetoric. We were told we were whores, Jezebels, and drug addicts. I thought Mack Ford was talking about someone else.

      Physical abuse was rampant and some of us avoided that fate but we all watched as others were beaten.
      Sexual abuse was the norm for some of us and others had no idea that sexual abuse was ongoing. Once his wife found out, Thelma moved into the dorm with the girls. That was in 1991 and the place didn’t close until early 2000.

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    Tani Wolpert

    I was at NB in the 80’s I only stayed one year, but my sister Rhonda went for one year, came home and then went back with me and my brother. I was only 8-10 at the time, one of the youngest residents there. My sister stayed when we left, my parents wouldn’t take her back. She was thrown out to the streets of LA when she turned 18. I later learned this and much more, the sexual abuse…she was essentially a “bad girl” so was passed around quite a bit. I was physically abused there, so was my brother and sister. There was no end to the depravity or horrifying situations you could find yourself in.

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    Laura B. Hall

    We live with this daily. It will never go away. He ruined so many lives that could have been different. I took a step back
    several years after writing many letters to the governor senators representatives of the state of Louisiana. I left in 1985. I worked with SLED and DHS in Walterboro, SC to successfully shut his boys home there that had been moved from La. It took me many years to step foot in a church door again. I don’t understand how early years ago our system, Law Enforcement, failed so many young people. there was more than enough stories in the 80’s to have gotten justice within the statutes. SAD!! A lot of people will have to live with this. We are Strong!

    Laura (Blake) Hall

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