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What Should We Do When Religious Freedom Leads to Child Abuse?

pastor gerald harris
Gerald Harris, pastor Crossroads Baptist Church, Sellersburg, Indiana

The fracas in Kentucky over Kim Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples has brought to the forefront the debate over religious freedom. Does a Christian and a church have the absolute right to practice their religion as they wish? While all of us would agree that religious freedom is one of the pillars of American democracy, is there ever a time when a church should be regulated? Should churches be free to practice their religion without ANY interference from federal, state or local government?

Consider the recent report of child abuse and neglect in Indiana. Authorities arrested Gerald Harris, pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church, Sellerburg, Indiana and church member Christopher Williams after it was reported that they were physically abusing students at Well of Grace Boarding Academy.

The Courier Journal reports:

A Sellersburg, Ind., pastor and fellow church workers are accused of beating multiple children in their care with a wooden paddle.

Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Jeremy Mull said the abuse occurred at Crossroads Baptist Church, led by Pastor Gerald Harris. It operates a boarding academy complete with dormitories and classrooms for mostly out of state students, he said.

While parents, teachers and caretakers are allowed to discipline children “in a legal way,” Mull said, the bruising allegedly seen on the children constituted criminal abuse.

“That’s the point where, in my opinion as a prosecutor, it crosses the line from appropriate discipline to a criminal battery,” he said.

Harris, 47, and Christopher Williams, 21, were both arrested earlier this week and face preliminary charges of battery and neglect of a dependent, said Clarksville Chief of Police Mark Palmer in a news release. Clark County Jail records indicate both live at the church.

Clarksville police and Child Protective Services did a welfare check at the church, 6109 Appleleaf Lane, Tuesday and interviewed children ranging in age from 8 to 19. They told investigators of “various forms of punishment,” Palmer said.

Five children told police they were “whipped with a wooden paddle,” according to a probable cause affidavit released Thursday.

An 8-year-old boy said Williams tied a rope around his waist and jerked him around “for not behaving.”

An 11-year-old boy with “very serious bruising” on his buttocks and legs told investigators he was also hit with the paddle by both Williams and Harris when he wet his bed.

The pastor allegedly made one 16-year-old stand before the other boys to be whipped with the paddle after Harris told him to keep reading his Bible and believed the teen gave him a smirk, the boy told police.

Students at the academy were also told they could not use the bathroom once the lights were turned off at night, according to the affidavit.

Kentucky law enforcement tipped off Clarksville Police after they learned of children from the boarding academy who were selling candy bars in Owensboro, Ky., Mull said. One of the children allegedly told a customer he feared he would be whipped if he didn’t sell enough candy.

All children have since been removed from the church and returned to their parents or Child Protective Custody, Mull said.

Williams appeared Thursday afternoon in Clark County Circuit Court in Jeffersonville, Ind., where he was advised of his rights by Judge Andrew Adams. Supporters of Williams who appeared in court declined comment. He is next due to appear in court Tuesday afternoon.

Harris bonded out of jail, Mull said, but will likely appear early next week in court when formal charges are filed against both. A probable cause affidavit represents only one side of the case.

Further charges could be filed as the investigation continues, Mull said, though he said he does not believe more adults harmed the children.

Mull said he currently knows little about the school, such as when it began operations, how out-of-state parents found out about the school or how many total students attended. “We’re looking at exactly what the arrangements were for keeping the kids, what the philosophy was, what the reasonings were for kids being here,” Mull said.

Clarksville Building Commissioner Ilpo Majuri also visited the property Tuesday and ordered the owners to cease 24/7, residential operations, he said. Owners of the church had come before the city at a board meeting a few years ago stating they were thinking of opening a school on the premises, but no rezoning ever occurred, Majuri said.

“I think they are trying to comply,” he noted…

…Katherine Taul said two boys from the school stopped by her Versailles, Ind. office in January selling candies and giving out cards with the church’s name and number.

“I wish I had asked the boys more questions,” she wrote to The Courier-Journal. “I remember trying to research the place, but wasn’t able to find much, which I also thought strange.”

According to the school’s Facebook page, the Well of Grace Boarding Academy “is a boys home under the authority of Crossroads Baptist Church.”

Its stated goals include “reaching school age boys heading down the paths of destruction” and “watching the transformation of unwanted, and seemingly ruined lives into Godly young men.”

Indiana government officials are outraged over the abuse charges and are vowing to investigate. However, since churches are free to do whatever they want under the umbrella of religious freedom, it should not surprise anyone that there are churches, following the teachings of the Bible about discipline, that promote, advocate, and demand using violence to correct wayward children.

In hollers and out-of-the-way places, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches and pastors, channeling the spirits of child abusers Lester Roloff and Mack Ford, continue to use child abuse, deprivation, and violence to educate and discipline wayward, rebellious teenagers. And it will continue to go on until the government does something about it.

As long as religious freedom trumps child welfare these kind of things will continue to happen. As long as pastors, churches, and parents are not held criminally liable for ritual child abuse, we will continue to hear of stories like the one mentioned above.

In many states, Ohio included, churches are free to operate schools and boarding homes without any government oversight. In Indiana, Hephzibah House, known for ritual child abuse, has been repeatedly investigated, yet its doors are still open. Until federal and state government put child welfare FIRST, Baptist preachers, thinking they have a direct pipeline to God, will continue to teach parents that God commands them to abuse their children; they will continue to operate “ministries” that beat the devil out of rebellious children.


Gerald Harris started Crossroads Baptist Church in 2006, taking over the building that had belonged to Bible Independent Baptist Church.

From the Well of Grace Boarding Academy Facebook page:(link no longer active)

Here is our goals at Well of Grace Boarding Academy:

  • Reaching school age boys heading down the paths of destruction.
  • Telling them of Christ and teaching them the Word of God.
  • Helping them to have victory over addictions and their reckless living.
  • Training them to be involved in the local church ministries.
  • Teaching discipline, character, respect, and good work ethics.
  • Restoring their home relationships.
  • Watching the transformation of unwanted, and seemingly ruined lives into Godly young men.

Simply drawing and giving Water From the Well. John 4: 1-14

“It is easier to BUILD Boys and Girls than to REPAIR Men and Women!” -Dr. Clarence Doyle


  1. Avatar

    At least the ‘tough love’ (sic!) camps put their violence up-front and brag about beating down the little vipers for the good of all. These miserable pricks just use the code phrases.

  2. Avatar

    No, we should NOT tolerate the abuse of the very young done in the name of God, or in any other name for that matter!

    If we cannot stand what fanatical Wahabi clerics want to do to young women, then we should not tolerate what IFB preachers like to do to children and/or teenagers, for that matter.

    What’s with this Lester Roloff guy and his ilk — he and they are so much like the Ayetollah Roholla [Ruhollah] Khomeini !!

  3. Avatar

    A LOT of people hit their kids and feel quite comfortable doing it. I was hit as a child but not beaten and I do recognize a very big difference even though it is my belief that the same kind of harm is at the bottom of both behaviours. Those of us who are willing to disrespect babies, toddlers and children this way have not understood something very basic about respect. Most child hitters would never, not ever think of hitting an adult this way. That is the meditation that might begin to allow people to respect all and not just some of us.
    Men like those in this blog article take paddles to children because they like it… It feels good to ‘teach’ a youngster. Some of them even admit a sensual thrill and are apt to seek it.
    What happens when you force someone to comply? When you assault them and call it love? Youngsters learn that disrespect is what they deserve. Some parents talk in a shallow fashion of how well they ‘turned out’ after having been regularly hit as kids. Gimme that ol’ time religion! One day, some day our little ones will be better respected. First though, more people need to learn basic respect for themselves and not stoop to assault, even if they think it is love.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    I wish we could be like the countries that outlawed spanking and other forms of abuse. I do know that Idaho and Indiana, along with most of the Deep South, have very strong religious freedom laws that supersede the welfare of children. A church with Burmese congregants there had an incident where a little boy had his back cut to ribbons, after his mother used a metal coat hanger to punish him for bad grades, or some other minor failing. She didn’t do any time, because she said the Bible permits beating children. And in Idaho, an inbred family sect allowed a baby with a bowel blockage to scream for days, until he died. The medical examiner said that the belly was like concrete, and testicles were swollen and black ! Religious freedom should never equal mistreatment of any living thing, for religion’s sake.

  5. Avatar
    Jadyn Finnegan

    Hey Bruce, I was one of the young men removed from this home. I was surprised to see that people actually cared about this case and it means a ton. At the time it didn’t feel as though justice had been served, and it has led to years of anger. However the things made known to the public are nothing compared to the things that actually happened. I’m willing to answer any questions that people may have.

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