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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 (re-education camps). These homes, some of which are still in existence, routinely used violence to force teenagers into “Biblical” submission. Some of the residents were sexually violated. Where was the state, you ask? Sitting on the sidelines, often ignoring the cries of those 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, who died February 11, 2015, was a protégé of famed abuser Lester Roloff.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune published numerous articles about New Bethany. Unfortunately, many of these stories are no longer available.

Over the years, the victims of Mack Ford and the staff at New Bethany have tried to bring their abusers to justice. Unfortunately, Ford wore a Teflon suit, and nothing seemed to stick to him. Weeks before he died, a grand jury declined to charge 82-year-old Mack Ford.

Rebecca Catalanello, in a Times-Picayune feature article, had this to say (link no longer active):

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 NOLA.com | 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 NOLA.com | 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.”

I am personal friends with a handful of the women who were incarcerated (and I mean incarcerated — against their will) at New Bethany. I know from talking to them that their time at Ford’s group home left deep, horrible, lasting scars.

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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 — both written by Katheryn Joyce.

Victimized No More is a great repository of information about Mack Ford and New Bethany. Sadly, many of its links are broken due to the Times-Picayune removing (or moving) Mack Ford and New Bethany stories from its site.

Times-Picayune articles:

New Bethany Home for Girls endured 30 years of controversy, leaving former residents wondering why

New Bethany Home for Girls: Timeline

Previous posts about Mack Ford and New Bethany Home for Girls

Teen Group Homes: Dear IFB Pastor, It’s Time for You to Atone for Your Sin

The Dogma that Followed Me Home by Cat Givens

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

28 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Steve

    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.

    • Avatar
      Kittybrat

      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.

        • Avatar
          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?

          • Avatar
            Cassandra

            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

  2. Avatar
  3. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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

  4. Avatar
    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..

  5. Avatar
    Jo

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

  6. Avatar
    GreyWholf

    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…

    • Avatar
      Jo

      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.

  7. Avatar
    keith

    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.

    • Avatar
      Jo

      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.

  8. Avatar
    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.

  9. Avatar
    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

  10. Avatar
    kittybrat

    Here I am, a 62-year-old grandmother still crying after reading this. The scars from being at New Bethany will never fully heal. I can only rest easy knowing my children and grandchildren will NEVER know the horrors of a place such as this. They will NEVER have the mental anguish of sitting through a sermon telling them they are filthy rags and worth nothing, and that it is good that they are beaten and abused. This abuse, you see, is God’s will, right? They won’t even know the questioning of their own consciences during a damn alter call… the mental gymnastics and cognitive dissonance in full play.
    I am crying. I have not graced the gates of New Bethany since 1974, yet here I am weeping and sick. I’m sick for all the abuse that not only I endured, but that has hurt children for decades and still continues in other places to this day. We can NEVER stop fighting. Though we are wounded ourselves, we cannot stop. There are children to save from these horrors, dammit.

  11. Avatar
    theologyarchaeology

    I do not know why you publish stories like this. They do not prove that Christianity is false or make a case that you are right. What it does show is that the Christian life is very difficult to live, that Christians are targeted by evil and often succumb to temptation or have not conquered their sins.

    You are doing a disservice to your readers by posting only your tainted and slanted side of the issue

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      My God, David, you really are a piece of shit. I predicted you would leave a comment like this. You did not disappoint.

      The Christian life is “difficult “ to live, thus it’s understandable if pastors sexually molest and rape children or take sexual advantage of vulnerable church members? Really, David. How many children have you sexually assaulted? I know how I answer this questions. NONE! I’m a kind, thoughtful, loving human being. All without your Jesus, whom, according to you, is powerless to stop Christian sexual predators. Why would I ever want to worship your Jesus? No thanks.

      This blog is not an atheist blog — it never has been. Why are you so afraid of my POV?

      What in this post is tainted and slanted? Why not deal with facts David instead of attacking me personally?

      Let me warn you that you will be consigned to Bruce Hell forever if you dare to go after the victims as you did those sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby and Ravi Zacharias. I have a hard and fast rule: attack/marginalize victims of abuse and you will NEVER comment on my blog again. I am personal friends of some of the women who were savaged by Mack Ford and other workers at New Bethany.

    • Avatar
      Sage

      Tee ass runs his horrid mouth. You.are a vile, disgusting hateful prick who hides behind a computer. When you defend anyone who is a rapist and abuser, especially one who abuses underage kids, you become worse then the asshole you defend. I can assure you that if you ever said anything like this to my face, you would never make that mistake again.

      I wonder why you are adamant in defending abusive men??? Hmmmm

      Bruce, this little fuck has nothing of value to say. I suggest you relegate him to the gutter in which he belongs.

    • Avatar
      GeoffT

      Theol, there is more hypocrisy in this single comment than you will ever see on most non-Christian blogs. Perhaps you could point to a single Christian publication that doesn’t give a ‘tainted and slanted’ view? I’m not holding my breath.

Want to Respond to Bruce? Fire Away!

Bruce Gerencser