New Bethany Home for Girls in Arcadia, La., opened in the early 1970s as a religious reform school for, as its founder said, “the incorrigible, unwanted rejects” who “haven’t been loved and haven’t had a chance in life.”
Over the next three decades, law enforcement officials repeatedly investigated claims of physical and psychological child abuse at the school.
Joanna Wright was 16 years old when she first arrived at New Bethany in the 1970s. She says she had been sexually abused as a child and hoped the school would be a refuge. But she says when she got there, she was raped by the man in charge of the school.
“I thought something was really wrong with me, that I must be a really bad person because this keeps happening to me in life,” Joanna told Tara Cummings, who came to New Bethany when she was 12, in a StoryCorps interview. “I started to think, ‘How could I dismember my body and spread the pieces around so that God couldn’t find me and put me back together to punish me?’ ”
The two spoke in 2016 at Joanna’s home in Cypress, Texas.
“I used to wish that I would come back as a cotton ball or a Coke can, completely inanimate so I could feel nothing,” Tara said.
The women attended the school at different times, but they crossed paths when women began speaking up about the abuse they say they endured at New Bethany.
Several women who attended the school have come forward in recent years alleging abuse — including sexual, physical and psychological — by the same man.
Joanna, now 58, and Tara, now 47, were part of a group of women who in 2014 testified in front of a grand jury that the man who ran the school abused them. In January 2015, the grand jury did not indict him, The Times-Picayune reported at the time. He died the following month. NPR is not naming him because he cannot respond to the accusations. While he was alive, he repeatedly denied any kind of abuse at the school.
The school closed in 2001. Over the years, Joanna told people of the abuse, the first being her father. He made her take a lie detector test, she says.
I always wondered, ‘What do people see in me that makes them think it’s OK to abuse me?’ And that was something that I carried even into adulthood,” Joanna said.
“It put a fear in me that I’ve never shaken. I don’t know that I ever will. You know, I always thought, ‘There has to be other girls, I can’t be the only one.’ And so I’ve always blabbed about it,” she says.
Tara, on the other hand, kept quiet about the abuse.
“I was a really good liar. Always being the preacher’s kid and putting on a perfect front. I think I was trying to move on. But to get out of the hiding was a game changer for me,” she said.
Tara says Joanna helped her learn how to stop hiding.
“I know you don’t believe in divine path,” she told Joanna, “but I was at a fork in the road. And knowing you has changed my life.”
Lester Roloff, the man responsible for countless pain, suffering, heartache, and abuse
Kimi Cook was 15 years old when she arrived at Lester Roloff’s Rebekah Home for Girls in Corpus Christi, Texas. Eager to end the teenager’s relationship with an older boyfriend, her parents pitched the place as an accelerated boarding school. Cook—who had previously done well on tests despite cutting classes at her San Antonio public school—eventually agreed to a month-long trial period.
Within hours of arriving, Cook learned she was no longer allowed to wear jeans, listen to rock music, or use tampons. She would also be required to attend church daily, memorize and chant from the Bible, and scrub her room early each morning. Disobedience was met with strict punishment ranging from revoked snack privileges to receiving “licks” with a wooden paddle, being put in an isolated closet, or being forced to kneel on linoleum for hours on end.
When she was allowed phone calls, Cook pleaded with her family to save her from what she remembered describing as a “jail” and “prison camp.” But three months in, she learned that no help was coming. As Cook recalled, a relative “explained to me that by signing the admittance paper, I had signed myself over into the care of the Roloff homes.”
By the time Cook started there, in 1983, the Southern Baptist Rebekah Home for Girls had already been the subject of state investigations spanning the previous decade, instigated in part by parents who witnessed a girl being whipped at the facility. In fact, Roloff had already temporarily closed the school—and the other homes he operated in Texas—after being prosecuted by the state on behalf of 16 former Rebekah Home for Girls residents. (Roloff grew even more notorious for exclaiming in court, “Better a pink bottom than a black soul.”)
Roloff himself died in 1982, but by then he had established a strong tradition of exploiting the religious freedom loophole to shield suspect youth residential facilities from outside scrutiny. Somehow, that same loophole still exists across much of America today.
Cook escaped the school she hated when her older brother was killed in a car accident 11 months into her stay. The home was closed again in 1985 following pressure from the state, but reopened yet again in 1999, after Governor George W. Bush introduced religious exemptions for youth residential home regulations. The school operated until 2001, when a supervisor at Rebekah was convicted of unlawful restraint; finally, Texas laws were changed to require licensure for all youth homes—including religious ones.
Though Texas laws were changed amid the Roloff saga, many other state governments around the country lack the legal power to oversee religiously affiliated residential schools. Unlike personal religious exemptions, where an individual might argue that a law requiring, say, medical intervention, vaccination, or anti-discrimination violates his or her religious freedom, these facilities don’t need to apply for special treatment. In many states, such exemptions are written directly into the laws meant to regulate residential youth facilities—that is, religious schools are never subject to the rules in the first place.
In 2010, Clayton “Buddy” Maynard’s Heritage Boys Academy in Panama City, Florida, closed following allegations of racial discrimination and severe corporal punishment. When the prosecution lost witnesses in 2011, a criminal case against Maynard was dropped; in 2012, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Maynard was once again housing children at Truth Baptist Church in Panama City. This past May, a GoFoundMe page raised $500 in support of Maynard and the “Maynard Family Children’s Home.” Currently, he appears to operate the Truth Baptist Church in Panama City and, according to his Facebook profile, a “Truth for Troubled Youth Ministries.” (VICE was unable to reach Maynard for comment for this story.)
The same whack-a-mole pattern of scattershot oversight can be found across much of the country. Bobby Wills’s Bethesda Home for Girls in Mississippi closed in the 1980s following allegations of beatings with wooden boards, with operators moving on to the now closed Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy in Missouri. Alabama’s Reclamation Ranch was raided a decade ago following allegations of torture, yet founder Jack Patterson—who, according to his Facebook page, is a proud disciple of Roloff—continues to run an addiction-focused rehabilitation facility under the same name, now associated with Lighthouse Baptist Church. (Patterson has denied allegations of abuse at his facilities.) Yet another Baptist pastor, Michael Palmer, battled legal oversight over multiple decades and across multiple state and country-wide jurisdictions: In 1991, Palmer closed Victory Christian Academy after the state of California pushed for licensure.
One former student who attended Victory Christian described extended abuse at the school, including something called the “Get Right Room,” a small space where girls were punished with a version of solitary confinement. “You were brain-washed into thinking the abuse was good because the staff and the Lord loved your soul,” recalled Cherie Rife, now a holistic health practitioner in Irvine, California. Alleging that she was singled out for being a lesbian, Rife pointed to the religious justification that loomed above it all: “[Their] Baptist interpretation was used for fear and control and shaming.”
Palmer later helped found Genesis by the Sea, a facility located in Baja California that was closed in 2004 by the Mexican government; though the ensuing investigation asserted that claims of abuse were unsubstantiated, the school never reopened. Instead, Palmer redirected his attention to the Florida Panhandle and yet another residential reform home for girls: Lighthouse of Northwest Florida, which he closed in 2013 following an investigation into allegations of rape at the facility.
As Newsweekreported, Restoration Youth Academy in Prichard, Alabama, was yet another home operating under a modern incarnation of the Lester Roloff approach until 2012. The facility remained free from oversight until Charles Kennedy, the now retired captain of the Prichard Police Department, received a phone call from the mother of a boy who said he’d been abused at the facility. When I spoke with Kennedy, he recalled what he found at the home: a naked boy locked in a closet, widespread allegations of physical abuse, severe exercise, and sadistic mind games. Staff had even encouraged a suicidal student to shoot himself with a gun he didn’t know wasn’t loaded, Kennedy said.
I hope you take the time to read all of Cappello’s story. As sickening as the story is, other Baptist group homes escaped Cappello’s investigatory eyes. These homes continue to this day to psychologically and physically harm vulnerable IFB teenagers. I have written several posts on these homes:
What follows is an excerpt from a Newsweek article by Art Levine titled, The Harrowing Story of Life Inside Alabama’s Most Sadistic Christian Bootcamp. I hope you will take the time to read the entire article. It serves as a reminder of the fact that the practices and methodologies of men such as Mack Ford and Lester Roloff still influence Evangelicals churches and pastors, encouraging yet another generation of Christians to violently abuse children in the name of God. We must not rest until every last one of these type of homes are closed and their operators prosecuted, convicted, and given a long prison sentences.
It was October 2011, and Captain Charles Kennedy, a veteran policeman, was in the main office at the Restoration Youth Academy (RYA), a Christian home for troubled teens in Prichard, Alabama, when he caught a glimpse of something shocking on a close-circuit monitor: a naked boy crouching in a 6-by-8-foot isolation room as a light bulb burned overhead.
Kennedy had been waiting for William Knott, the program’s manager, to return with some paperwork, and when he walked back into the office, Kennedy asked about the boy, whose name he later learned was Robert. He wanted to know what the boy had done to deserve such treatment. Knott, a squat, powerfully built ex-sailor, calmly explained his rationale: “He’s got an attitude. He’s only been there for a day, and he’ll be there for another day or two.”
“Can’t you give him some clothes?” Kennedy asked.
But Knott offered only a vague answer.
Kennedy had been investigating RYA for little more than a week, spurred by a few complaints by parents of kids in the program. RYA’s executives had promised parents “hope for their teenagers’ future, when hope doesn’t seem possible,” as its website declared. And many were grateful for that. “I was scared I would find my son hanging from a rope or dead from a needle,” says Leslie Crawford, from South Portland, Maine, who paid $1,500 a month to send her truant, drug-using son to RYA.
But what Kennedy had found behind the school’s forbidding metal gates disturbed him. He’d come after hearing from two mothers who were alarmed that their kids had been facing severe punishment. Knott had provided a tour of an empty classroom inside interconnected mobile homes and an adjoining cafeteria filled with quiet, unsmiling children. Afterward, he had allowed Kennedy to speak alone with one of the boys whose mother had called him. That’s when he learned firsthand about the teenagers’ accusations of abuse. As he investigated, he found that many of the school’s “cadets” were afraid to talk. But those who did left Kennedy with the impression that he had stumbled across something terrible. The boys, for instance, told him they were often grabbed out their beds in the middle of the night and forced to fight one another until one was beaten to a pulp. All of them were subjected to a brutal, daily regimen of exercises, sometimes stark naked—pushups, jumping jacks and running in place. Drill instructors, including Knott, frequently punched them, choked them and body-slammed them as they worked out. On his first day in the program, one boy claimed, Knott crouched down next to him, and, after yanking his head up by his hair, started pounding his skull against the floor while shouting, “You will exercise until I get tired!” Another told Kennedy he had been held upside down in shackles and hit with a belt, an allegation later supported by an eyewitness letter by another teen. (Newsweek has either provided anonymity to the minors in the program or changed their names to protect their privacy.)
Kennedy wanted to protect the cadets from abuse, but he also knew he lacked the hard evidence needed to make an arrest. So for the next week or so, he periodically returned to RYA, which is how he found himself with Knott, asking about the naked boy named Robert in the isolation room. The officer was concerned. The United Nations considers the use of solitary confinement as punishment to be torture. But the police officer knew what he’d just seen wasn’t illegal in Alabama if it took place over a relatively short time span. He also knew these institutions bar the young people they control from unmonitored communication with family and outsiders—and most states, including Alabama, don’t even protect workers who report child abuse from being fired. The result: Abuse isn’t reported until long after it was committed, which makes prosecutions nearly impossible.
As Kennedy continued checking on Robert, the boy eventually told him about his stay in isolation. Knott and the school’s founder, John David Young Jr., the pastor of Solid Rock Ministries in Mobile, were frustrated by Robert’s “poor” attitude and persistent depression while in solitary confinement; and they were determined to change his behavior. So after days in solitary confinement, they dragged him from the isolation room to Knott’s bedroom, where Knott handed the boy a .380 automatic pistol. “If you’re so determined to kill yourself,” Knott said, “you should put the gun next to your head and pull the trigger.”
“I pulled it, and it went click,” Robert told the officer.
Kennedy was appalled. He immediately confronted Knott and Young about this sadistic bit of theater, but they didn’t deny the boy’s accusation. In fact, Knott went to his nearby bedroom and returned with the gun and placed it Kennedy’s hand. “I was just teaching him a lesson,” he said.
“I knew then I was dealing with crazy people,” says Kennedy. “You don’t do that to a human being.”
But the insanity had only begun.
The template for these schools is Roloff’s Rebekah Home for Girls in Corpus Christi, Texas, which he created in the 1960s and that became the centerpiece of a chain of religious reformatories. Roloff’s program involved vicious corporal punishment and locking kids in isolation rooms where his sermons were played endlessly. Over more than two decades, the controversial preacher was arrested a few times and his Rebekah school relocated to various states in part to sidestep any state laws mandating oversight, such as one in Texas requiring inspection of all child-care facilities. Yet Roloff faced few consequences, even though one lawsuit featured affidavits from 16 girls saying they were whipped with leather straps, severely paddled and handcuffed to pipes. “Better a pink bottom than a black soul,” Roloff famously declared at a 1973 court hearing.
The stern spirit of Lester Roloff lives on in the resistance by church leaders—often abetted by local politicians—to any government oversight under the guise of separation of church and state. Nine states, including Florida, Alabama and Missouri, have wide-ranging “faith-based” exemptions protecting various church programs and schools from direct government oversight (while 26 states have no requirements for any private schools, religious or secular). Regulations in the U.S. are so loose that controversial organizations are rarely sanctioned despite allegations of rampant abuse. Some programs such as Teen Challenge, the world’s largest fundamentalist treatment chain for adults and youth, are often subsidized by taxpayer dollars—despite many public accusations of abuse and neglect. (Over the years, Teen Challenge has denied any wrongdoing or misconduct.)
As Kennedy says of the nation’s unmonitored religious programs: “They’re hiding behind a cross, but there’s for damn sure evil going on.”
Lucas Greenfield was prepared to scale the razor-wire topped fence surrounding Restoration Youth Academy if it meant his freedom.
While an instructor was busy, Greenfield seized his chance. He was nearly out the door when another student ratted him out.
His punishment for the attempted escape was “isolation,” an empty 8×8 room lit by a lone bulb that burned overhead day and night.
He was clad only in his underwear. That was the rule. Instructors let him out, briefly, twice a day to use the bathroom. Sometimes he got to take a shower. Mostly he just sat or slept.
Greenfield, then 14, spent two months in isolation.
“When you’re inside a tiny room where all you can see is four walls,” he said, “you start – I won’t say hallucinating, but you start going crazy.”
His thoughts ran in dark circles: “What’s the best way to kill myself? Is there any way out of this? This is ridiculous. I hope I die.”
Restoration Youth Academy was a Christian bootcamp-style residential school for troubled youth, squatting in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in Prichard, the worn-down working-class city on Mobile’s north side. Owner and Pastor John David Young and instructor William Knott tightly controlled how the “cadets” – boys and girls ages 10-17 – ate, slept, learned and exercised.
Despite multiple investigations by the Mobile County district attorney’s office and the Alabama Department of Human Resources, and despite complaints of abuse from some students – vehemently denied by Knott and Young – it took officials five years to close down the school.
An investigation of Restoration Youth Academy in 2012 by the Mobile Press-Register found that multiple school employees had criminal records. Prior to joining the academy in Prichard, Knott was a drill instructor at a similar troubled-teen boot camp in Lucedale, Mississippi, that was plagued with lawsuits and allegations of abuse and torture. It was eventually closed.
Restoration Youth Academy and Saving Youth Foundation were affiliated with churches pastored by Young. As church schools, they were exempt from state regulation or oversight. The state kept no records on them. State law didn’t require they file any registration papers to show that they existed.
Alabama law (Code of Alabama 16-1-11.1) says state regulation of any religiously affiliated school would be an unconstitutional burden on religious activities and directly violate the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment. State law also says the state has no compelling interest to burden nonpublic schools with licensing or regulation.
While Alabama does have a few basic reporting requirements for private schools, it exempts those that are church schools in every instance. Teachers do not have to undergo background checks and schools do not have to be inspected. While many church-affiliated schools do choose to pursue licensing or accreditation by outside agencies, it’s not a mandate in Alabama.
“This is not a church versus state issue,” he said. “The state has the right to tell these people that they can’t hurt kids. They’re causing these children lifelong damage and we allow it.”
He said, “If I get these children declared as domestic animals, I could get them protection I can’t get them as human beings,” said Kennedy.
All of the students interviewed told of boxing matches at the school. Knott or one of the other drill instructors would frequently force two cadets to box each other, sometimes in the middle of the night.
Students said the fights were often mismatched by design, pitting a small boy against a much larger boy. Neither had the option to refuse.
“They’d have the bigger kid beat the [expletive] out of the other kid,” said Greenfield, the boy who spent two months in isolation. “They’d make us form a big circle. You can’t get out and you can’t get back in.
“They would always have somebody, normally me, pray before we’d have the boxing match. Will (Knott) told me to pray nobody got killed. I was like, really? You’re the one making them fight.
“So I would never say ‘die’ in the prayer; I’d pray nobody gets severely bashed up.”
Physical abuse from Knott, Young, Moffett and other instructors was common at the schools, according to Greenfield and others.
“Basically everything revolved around a beating,” said Angelina Randazzo, who was sent to the Prichard school when she was 14. “They made people kneel on rocks to cut up their knees. Made people be out in the sun all day, out in the mud, didn’t give anybody water. I’ve gotten shoes thrown at me, hit in the face, thrown at a wall.”
Greenfield bears scars on the backs of his ankles he said are from being forced to wear shackles.
“They would handcuff and shackle us, kids who were at risk of running away or harming another person, and make us wear it all day,” he said. “They handcuffed this one kid to his bed.”
On February 22, 2017, Pastor John David Young, “boys’ instructor William Knott, 48, and girls’ instructor Aleshia Moffett, 42, received 20-year sentences to be served concurrently for each of three counts of aggravated child abuse.”
If I were to ask you what it is that Independent Fundamentalist Baptists value most, many of you would say things such as: Jesus, the B-I-B-L-E, hard preaching, and potlucks. However, these four articles of the IFB faith pale in comparison to the one thing valued above all others: the virginity of teen girls and never-married women. Valued above Jesus? Yes, even above Jesus. Intact hymens are the holy grail of the IFB church movement. This fact is best illustrated by a dating couple who came to an IFB pastor and asked if they only had butt sex would that mean the woman was still a virgin? The pastor, of course, told them that anal sex was the same as vaginal sex. But why would this question even be asked? Why would anyone think that anal sex (or oral) was not “real” sex. Because in IFB churches the only hole God made for sex is judiciously protected against insertion of anything besides tampons. No penises, fingers, vegetables, or battery operated devices allowed. (And on the extreme end of the IFB church movement, there are pastors who believe that married couples should only engage in vaginal sex, missionary position, while thinking how wonderful it would be if Bro. Billy Bob’s sperm hooked up with Sister Mary Lou’s eggs.)
From their teen years forward, IFB girls hear repeated warnings about having premarital sex and losing their virginity. These girls are told that only whores have premarital sex and that those who let boys score with them are like dirty rags fit for the trash. I have heard countless sermons — and preached a few myself — that focused solely on causing fear, guilt, and shame. While the young horn dogs of IFB churches, along with their wandering-eyed fathers, hear purity sermons from time to time, most of such sermons are directed at what IFB churches believe is the weaker sex. Women are reminded that they are the gatekeepers. It is up to them to protect not only their own holy virginity, but that of the boys and men. This is why there are so many rules about how women dress. The goal is to destroy their visage and beauty, those things that cause teenage boys to have wandering thoughts about youth group girls instead of their pastor’s weekly Biblical tirade.
Despite the Baptist burkas, hot-and-heavy sermons, and puritanical rules governing dating and male/female interaction and physical contact (there are no gays in IFB churches), unmarrieds do have sex. And thanks to Just Say No sex education, some girls do become pregnant.
In IFB churches, there’s nothing worse than one of the church girls getting pregnant. Whether the girl is fourteen or twenty-three, it matters not. Becoming pregnant without the benefit of marriage is a deep black stain, not only on the mother-to-be, but also the church, the girl’s parents, and her pastor. By spreading her legs before marriage and “allowing” Deacon Noah’s son to plant his seed, she has repudiated everything her church, parents, and pastor believe about the sanctity of sex.
With such extreme thinking, wouldn’t it be best for all sexually aware IFB girls be put on the pill? This way, the threat of embarrassment and scandal for IFB churches, pastors, and parents is eliminated. Makes sense, right? Why not take preventive measures, especially since any honest IFB preacher knows that more unmarrieds than not will eventually do the dirty deed. When I was asked this very question years ago, I told the questioner that allowing girls to use birth control was akin to saying to them that it was okay to have sex. This same logic was used for drinking alcohol, using drugs, and other behavior deemed a sin. JUST SAY NO was the only proper response to temptation and sin. It didn’t matter that most married adult IFB church members failed to just say no. All that mattered was maintaining the virginal illusion that when young IFB couples walked down the aisle, their lives were living testimonies to the rightness of the IFB doctrine and practice.
I want to conclude this post with several anecdotal stories from my days as a student at Midwestern Baptist College and as a young IFB pastor.
As many of you know, the college I attended in the 1970s had (and still has) a strict no-contact-with-the-opposite-sex policy. If you are not familiar with this policy, please read Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six Inch Rule. While an infinitesimally small number of unmarried students kept the six-inch rule, the rest of us broke the rule with gusto. While some students were able to keep their virginity intact, other students scampered around the bases and slid into to home. Those caught breaking the six-inch rule were usually campused (not permitted to leave campus) on first offense. Further offenses, pregnancy, or whispers of sexual romps in cars, motel rooms, or the dormitory laundry room were harshly met with immediate expulsion. Not only were offenders shamed in front of their fellow students, many of whom were guilty of the very same sexual “crimes,” they were shipped home to their IFB churches, parents, and pastors to be face further humiliation.
My first ministerial position post-college was as the assistant pastor of a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) congregation in Montpelier, Ohio. During my seven-month stay at Montpelier Baptist Church, one of the girls in the church became pregnant. The pastor decreed that she and the father of the baby were to immediately wed. (My sister went through a similar circumstance, marrying at the age of fifteen.) Not only were they to wed promptly, but only immediate family could attend the wedding and the girl would not be permitted to wear a white dress. The pastor told the pregnant girl that the color white was reserved for girls who were virgins on their wedding days. Her mistake was confessing her sin. Had she quickly and quietly run to the altar as other church women had done, she could have worn white and maintained the virginity illusion.
Years later, I attended a church service where a “loose” pregnant teen was brought before the church congregation and made to publicly profess her wickedness. Once she was sufficiently shamed, church members came to the weeping, shaking girl and embraced her, praising God for cleansing the girl from her sin. I have no doubt that many of these hugging super saints were guilty of the very same sin years ago. Sufficiently distanced from their own mortal sins, these holy saints of God likely felt no irony or guilt as they continued the shaming ritual.
Some IFB churches choose to make to pregnant teens disappear. IFB parents who find out their daughters are pregnant will usually immediately (and frantically) contact their pastors to find out what they should do. Knowing that their daughters “sins” will sully church testimonies (and abortion is not an option), parents often choose to ship their pregnant teens to IFB group homes. These homes, which are frequently little more than prisons or reeducation camps, purportedly turned whores, sluts, and fornicators into blood-washed, white-as-the-driven-snow lovers of Jesus, the King James Bible, and the IFB way. Often, their babies are given up for adoption.
I hope readers who were raised in the IFB church will share their own experiences in the comment section. To outsiders, what I have written here sounds out of this world, but these stories and practices are repeated in countless IFB schools, colleges, churches, and homes. Since the IFB church movement prides itself on being the same today, yesterday, and forever (if it was good enough for Jesus and Paul, it’s good enough for me), the shaming rituals and abuse of years ago are often practiced today. As long as church teenagers keep having sex, there will be bastard children and women to ritually humiliate. Indeed, the IFB God is an awesome God.