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IFB Preacher Mack Ford is Dead

mack ford new bethany home for girls
Abuser and molester Mack Ford is dead.

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

Notorious child abuser and molester, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher Mack Ford died February 11, 2015. Ford, for many years, operated New Bethany Home for Girls in Louisiana, along with group homes for boys in other states.  If you do not know anything about Ford, please read Sexual Abuse in the Name of God: New Bethany Home for Girls.

I have mixed feelings about the death of Ford. On one hand, I am glad the son of a bitch is dead. Others like him: Olen King, Ron Williams, and Jack Patterson, to name a few, are getting old, and death will soon come calling for them too. Lester Roloff,  the man who taught these abusers everything they know about establishing and operating IFB re-education camps, died in a plane crash in 1982. Death will someday come for all of these abusers and the world will be better off without them.

I feel sorry for the dear friends of mine who were abused by Mack Ford and the staff at New Bethany. Like hound dogs on the trail of a rabbit, they did all they could do to bring Mack Ford to justice. Now, he is beyond their reach. Like Bob Gray, a lifelong child molester and pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, Ford died before he could know what it was like to be locked up with no hope of escape. I want my friends to know that I appreciate their doggedness, their willingness to continue to go after those who abuse and molest in the name of God.

There is still much work to do. As long as there are unregulated, unlicensed Christian group homes open for business, we must continue to expose their evil work. We MUST convince state and federal legislators and regulators that these types of homes are dangerous, and are a threat to the safety and welfare of anyone sent to them. While no one would suggest that licensing and regulation is a cure-all, it is the first step in cleansing the land of abusive group homes. We can do better, and we must!

Rebecca Catalanello of the Times Picayune had this to say:

The man who founded New Bethany Home for Girls, where some former students said they were victims of abuse, has died.

Mack Ford, 82, was found dead inside his home shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday (Feb. 11) by a relative, Bienville Parish Coroner Don Smith said.

Ford’s death appears to be from natural causes, but Smith said his office will be conducting an autopsy.

Ford, a high school dropout turned Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher, opened New Bethany in 1971 on a former penal farm turned convalescent home off Louisiana Highway 9 in Arcadia, La., about 50 miles east of Shreveport.

Over three decades until it closed its doors in 2001, New Bethany took in sometimes hundreds of girls a year, according to newspaper accounts and court documents. Ford marketed the school as a home for wayward youth — “a mission project to the incorrigible, unwanted rejects,” he told attorneys in 1997. “Destitute, lonely, prostitutes, drug addicts.”

But many of the former residents who found themselves behind the barbed wire gates of the compound have relayed — to police, media, social workers and others — stories of harsh, physical and mental abuse that included beatings, solitary confinement, and, more recently, sexual abuse…

…Simone Jones, 47, one of the women who said Ford molested her when she was a teenager, said that she learned of his death late Wednesday from Michael Epps, the Louisiana State Police investigator who spent a year looking into the sexual abuse allegations that he took to a grand jury.

“I’m angry,” Jones said. “No justice … There are hundreds of people who are never going to see any type of justice be done.”

Ford’s death comes four days after the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office began investigating whether there may be a connection between New Bethany and an unidentified woman who was found on Jan. 28, 1981, in a wooded area stabbed to death.

The woman, now known as “Bossier Doe,” was wearing shoes and socks not unlike those required of New Bethany residents at the time. A name, “D. Davies,” was written inside her shoes with marker, just as former residents say they had to do.

State officials attempted to close the school in 1980 after Ford refused state inspection. They later raided New Bethany in 1988 and again in 1996 following complaints of abuse at the home — efforts that Ford fought in court, maintaining the state was violating his civil rights because it opposed his fundamentalist Christian views.

“The bureaucrats don’t want us to teach them our faith,” he said in a 1988 sermon following the state’s removal of 28 residents from the home.

But neither he nor anyone else at the girls’ home was ever prosecuted for any of the reported abuse, despite numerous confirmed reports documented by state social workers.

In addition to the girls’ home, Ford opened several boys homes, including in Longstreet, La., and Waltersboro, SC. In both of those locations, abuse allegations resulted in criminal charges, though not against Ford.

In 1981, Longstreet school manager L.D. Rapier was arrested and charged with cruelty to children after four boys ran from the home and told authorities they’d been beaten. The charges were eventually dropped.

In 1983, South Carolina authorities closed the Waltersboro home after they found a 14-year-old sleeping in a windowless padlocked cell, where he had been for several days. Two employees there were charged with unlawful neglect of a child and kidnapping, and they eventually pleaded to a lesser charge of false imprisonment.

Ford continued to live at the former New Bethany compound, located at 120 Hiser Road, in Arcadia, until his death…

…Ford’s estranged son-in-law, former Louisiana College vice president Timothy Johnson, said that Ford’s wife, Thelma Ford, resides in a nursing home.

Thelma and Mack Ford would have been married 66 years this year, according to court documents. Together, they had seven daughters, and adopted two more children, a boy and a girl.

Johnson said that Ford’s family members are unlikely to speak publicly about Ford or his legacy largely because of the great backlash they may face by former New Bethany residents and other critics.

“To do so gets you written about as being complicit or protecting a rapist,” Johnson wrote in an email message…

…Teresa Frye, 47, a resident at the home in 1982, said she was still processing news of Ford’s death on Thursday morning.

For years, Frye has been involved in an ongoing effort to help reconnect former New Bethany students and to raise awareness about the conditions so many children faced in similar boarding homes.

“I’m numb,” Frye said. “But I’m starting to get angry.”

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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.

NPR Story on Mack Ford, Sexual Abuse, and New Bethany Home for Girls in Arcadia, Louisiana

mack ford new bethany home for girls
Mack Ford, Bethany Home for Girls, a Lester Roloff disciple and ritual child abuser. He is now rotting in the grave.

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

What follows is an NPR Morning Edition story titled Finding Strength In Shared Stories Of Childhood Sexual Abuse, featuring my friends Jo Wright and Tara Cummings:

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.”

Transcript

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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.

New Bethany Home for Girls: The Dogma that Followed Me Home

guest post

I first published this post by my dear friend Cat Givens years ago. Edited for spelling, grammar, and readability.

When I was growing up in northeast Ohio, my family attended a Baptist church. It was one of those places where you’d meet every Sunday morning and then again Sunday evening. Bible study on Wednesday night. Soul-winning every Tuesday evening. Thursdays were youth group nights, and on Friday or Saturday we may have some other activity and then back again on Sunday.

We learned about heaven and hell. They preached a lot about hell.

I can remember being taught as a young child to tell everybody I came in contact with about Jesus and how to be saved. If I neglected to tell someone, then on Judgment Day this would happen: the person I did not tell would be led before the Lord God. I would be sitting behind God with the rest of the saved people. God would turn the person I neglected away, saying he did not know them. As they were led away, they would see me behind God and scream, “WHY? Oh, WHY didn’t you tell me?” And as they were led away to be cast into eternal fire, damned for all eternity, their blood would be dripping from my hands. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid, huh?

I was a bit of a rebel in my teens, and I’d run away when I got the chance rather than face the consequences at home for my actions. Finally, when I was almost fifteen, my parents were at their wit’s end. I was in the Detention Home for running away yet again, and they sought out help from the “experts”. A nice lady at the United Way told my parents that doctors were having success with rebellious children by hospitalizing them and giving them intense psychotherapy.

My parents met with the doctors, then the doctors met with me. “Yes, they could help me,” they assured my folks. They told Mom and Dad I could be transformed into a willing obedient child and would change my “criminalistic way of thinking”.

I was sent to a local hospital’s psych ward, housed with mostly adults (this was 1974, and there were no children’s wards at that time here). I was locked up with a bunch of strangers. I was shot full of “behavior modifying” drugs which made my physical movement robotic. I also received electroshock therapy treatments. Thanks a lot, Dr. Vallaba! Some of the men abused me while I was in there. I thought I fell in love with a man who said he and Bob Dylan shared a soul.

After the doctors had used up all my parents’ insurance money, they wanted to send me to another hospital in Connecticut. However, Mom and Dad had been talking to the preachers. They had another idea. Off to a girl’s home in Louisiana for me: New Bethany Home for Wayward Girls. I would remain there for a year.

Surely, this would save my soul and make me a compliant teenager, my parents and preachers thought. Unfortunately, at New Bethany, the same type of hellfire and brimstone attitude prevailed. I was not allowed to wear pants, as that was considered a sin. I couldn’t listen to any music besides Southern Gospel, as that was also a sin. I couldn’t talk about my past, as I had no past. I had to be called by my first and middle name because I was to become a new person.

There was an Evangelical preacher who ran the place, Rev. Mack Ford — an acolyte of Lester Roloff. He and his wife, Thelma, founded the home, taking in rebellious teens from all over the country. They also took in the unwanted girls whose parents abandoned them there. We were required to comply with every rule. Not doing so resulted in us getting whipped with a belt. That was the easy punishment. If a girl acted out, often she would be forced, after lights out, to stand in the hallway on her tiptoes with eggs or tomatoes under her heels. If she slipped and squished one, she’d get a whipping with a belt or hit with the switch. Runaways from the home were usually caught, and then, after a sound whipping with a belt from Bro. Mack would be handcuffed to their beds, and a ‘trusted girl” would be given the key. Their meals were served at their beds. These rebellious girls were only uncuffed for bathroom and shower breaks. Once Bro. Mack determined they had sufficiently repented, the cuffs were removed.

Everything we did was strictly controlled. We were told not to trust our conscience, as the Devil could be in there, so only trust the Bible. And trust Bro Mack.

Every day after chores, we would have chapel. There we would learn about hell, how the love of God brought us to this place, and how we must repent of our evil ways and change. Then we had breakfast. After more chores, off to school — a trailer down the street with one teacher and learning packets. It was an ACE school . . . Accelerated Christian Education. (Please see My Life in an ACE School.) After school, it was time for chapel again, and then lunch. Then chores and free time, and then chapel and supper. Even our bathroom breaks were timed, and we actually had to count the toilet paper sheets, begging for more through the bathroom door if we needed it. We were often awakened in the middle of the night. Sleep deprivation — what Brother Mack called “breaking down the will” — was the norm. I could go on and on, but I think the picture is clear. This was a brainwashing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) cult, and we were the subjects.

After nearly a year, I got to come home. And yes, I was changed. I was a good little obedient Baptist teenager who addressed her parents and all adults as “sir” and “ma’am.”

At my new Christian high school, I was more conservative than most of the staff! We would only have chapel once a week at this school, unless it was “spiritual emphasis week.” During “emphasis” week, we would have chapel every day. Chapel was where we were told about how the devil tries to get every teen to be worldly and do evil. We were ripe for the danger of hellfire! We must be saved. We must repent if we do anything displeasing to god. I recall Mr. Russell, the gym teacher, leading us in prayer, asking God to kill us rather than let us live to set a bad example!

Throughout high school, I loosened up quite a bit. I still believed the dogma, but wasn’t quite so hung up on the rules. I began to read the Bible for myself. It didn’t read the same on my own as it did with a preacher interpreting it for me.

After graduation, I began to think more for myself.  I sought out a therapist who helped me overcome the guilt and confusion.  Gradually, I was losing the dogma and forming my own spirituality. I found god in nature and other human beings. I read about other religions and philosophies, realizing there are many paths to enlightenment. I enjoyed comparing the teachings of my youth to the myths and stories from other cultures and religions. I saw beauty and truth in many forms and rejected the hellfire and brimstone from my upbringing. Or so I thought.

I recently found a movie that was shown to us “wayward girls” at New Bethany. It was about the communist takeover of the United States. I really wanted to see this film again as an adult without expecting a great revelation and insight. The movie, along with another about hell, arrived the other day and I watched them. The acting was way over the top, and the subject matter was absurd. There on the screen, a little boy had a bamboo stick driven through his ears so he could no longer hear the gospel. Communists on horseback terrorized citizens, and the blood and guts spilled! Demons tormented people in hell, and worms ate at the burning flesh of the damned.

What happened next is what shocked me the most. As the choir sang “Just As I Am” and the preacher pleaded with the congregation to come to the altar and get right with God, I felt uneasy and a little sick. Fear and dread took hold, and then the panic! What if it was true? Would my children go to hell and be tormented for all eternity because I chose to raise them as free thinkers?

Mind you, this is NOT how I believe, yet here it was, all this dread and fear and worry. I felt horrible and confused. It was as if a great wave had pummeled me, and I was breathless! I contacted a woman raised similarly and found that she, too, suffered from this occasionally. First, we discussed brainwashing and conditioned response, and then I began to examine more carefully what had happened to me (and others).

It was twenty-plus years of dogmatic teachings that took my emotions and spilled them out in front of me like many dice. I realized that this memory’s emotional effect needed to be changed. I found discussing these reactions with my therapist to be helpful, as were his words of encouragement.  I reminded myself that it was out of love for my children I chose to NOT subject them to this stifling negative dogma. And I’m glad of it, as I would never want them to feel the way I did right then!

What good is spirituality if it does not lift one up? I examined what I actually do believe, and did some reading from some positive authors. I watched the movies again with my husband, and we laughed and shook our heads. The effect was more benign but not gone away completely, so I shall work on these memories some more, bringing in more humor and love. Still, I am amazed this dogma has followed me for so many years.

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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.

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

lester roloff
Lester Roloff

In the 1970s, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher Lester Roloff began what later would be called the IFB teen home industry (re-education camps). In 1958, Roloff started The Lighthouse for Boys, a home  for “delinquent boys to be isolated from drugs and liquor until they were delivered.” Marie, Lester Roloff’s wife had this to say about The Lighthouse:

“the Lighthouse has been a haven for boys no one else wanted- boys who were one step from reform school or the penitentiary. … The boys come in all sizes and shapes, but they have one thing in common regardless of their age- they are old in sorrow, sadness, and hostility. … At first the boys cover their inward hurts with belligerence and a bravado that they do not actually possess. These boys are almost without exception bereft of parental love and guidance. Some are actually homeless while others have rebelled against parental authority and have gotten into serious trouble with the law.”

In 1967, “while preaching at a gospel meeting in the Fort Worth, Texas area,… Roloff became aware of a need for a home for unwed pregnant girls.” A short time later, Roloff started the Rebekah Home for Girls near Corpus Christi, Texas. Marie Roloff described the girls at Rebekah Home this way:

“as we began working with these girls, we realized that many of them were unwanted and consequently unloved. Lester said, ‘No wonder children have become embittered and even criminals at an early age. They’ve never seen love in those who gave them birth. The right kind of love would lock and stop the wheels of divorce, delinquency, murder and war and turn this hell on earth into a haven of peace, rest, and joy for these children.”

Countless IFB churches and pastors supported Roloff in his attempt to bring order, discipline, and righteousness into the lives of rebellious teenagers. When parents were frustrated with their “rebellious” teenager and didn’t know what to do, The Lighthouse for Boys and Rebekah Home for Girls became the go-to places to send their children. Their pastor assured them that Brother Roloff knew how to “fix” their offspring. (Please see the Texas Monthly feature article, Remember the Christian Alamo.)

Many parents, churches, and pastors didn’t understand that Roloff and his staff used violence to beat children into submission. After the homes closed for the last time in 2001, The Texas Monthly reported:

…The Rebekah Home took in fallen girls from “jail houses, broken homes, hippie hives, and dope dives” who were “walking through the wilderness of sin,” he told his radio listeners. Roloff remade these “terminal cases” into Scripture-quoting, gospel-singing believers. Girls who had been saved harmonized along with his Honeybee Quartet at revivals and witnessed to the power of the Lord on his radio show. He showed off his Rebekah girls at every turn, and he was amply rewarded: Each day, packages arrived at Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises laden with checks, cash, jewelry, the family silver—whatever the faithful could provide.

Discipline at the Rebekah Home was rooted in a verse from Proverbs: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.” The dictum was liberally applied. Local authorities first investigated possible abuse at the Rebekah Home in 1973, when parents who were visiting their daughter reported seeing a girl being whipped. When welfare workers attempted to inspect the home, Roloff refused them entry on the grounds that it would infringe on the separation between church and state. Attorney General John Hill promptly filed suit against Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises, introducing affidavits from sixteen Rebekah girls who said they had been whipped with leather straps, beaten with paddles, handcuffed to drainpipes, and locked in isolation cells—sometimes for such minor infractions as failing to memorize a Bible passage or forgetting to make a bed. Roloff defended these methods as good old-fashioned discipline, solidly supported by Scripture, and denied that any treatment at Rebekah constituted abuse. During an evidentiary hearing, he made his position clear by declaring, “Better a pink bottom than a black soul.” Attorney General Hill bluntly replied that it wasn’t pink bottoms he objected to, but ones that were blue, black, and bloody…

…The Rebekah Home was bent on driving sin from even the wickedest of girls and making them see the light of God. Jo Ann Edwards was brought to the Rebekah Home in 1982, after running away from home at the age of thirteen. “I was an acolyte at my church before I went there, and God was very close to me in my heart,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Victoria, where she is the mother of five children. “But that place turned me against Him for a while and made me very hard. I thought that even He had left me.” As a new girl, she was scrutinized by “helpers,” the saved girls who handed out demerits for misbehavior. Demerits were given for an endless host of wrongdoings: talking about “worldly” things, singing songs other than gospel songs, speaking too loudly, doodling, nail biting, looking at boys in church, failing to snitch on other sinners. Each demerit earned her a lick, which the Rebekah Home’s housemother administered with a wood paddle. The beatings left her black and blue. “I got twenty licks my first time, and I was hit hard—so hard that I couldn’t sit for days,” Jo Ann said. “I begged [the housemother] to stop. When she was done, she hugged me and said, ‘God loves you.’ She told me to go back to the living room and read Scripture and sing ‘Amazing Grace’ with the other girls.”

Only Rebekah girls who had proven their devotion by repeatedly testifying to God’s grace could avoid Bible discipline. Some girls were genuinely troubled teenagers who had gotten mixed up with drugs or prostitution; others had been caught having sex; many were guilty of nothing more than growing up in abusive homes. Tara Cummings, now 31 and a mortgage consultant in Chicago, was sent there by her father, a preacher, whose beatings had left her badly bruised. Even she was not immune to judgment. “I was told that I was a reprobate, that I was beyond help and was going to hell,” she said. She was treated to the full range of the Rebekah Home’s punishments, which were not limited to lickings. “Confinement” meant spending weeks hanging her head without speaking. “Sitting on the wall” required sitting with her back against a wall and without the support of a chair, even as her legs buckled beneath her. But kneeling was what she most dreaded. Kneeling could last for as long as five hours at a time; she might have to kneel while holding a Bible on each outstretched palm or with pencils wedged beneath her knees. Only girls seen as inveterate sinners received the full brunt of the home’s crueler punishments. “You had to be saved,” Tara said. “It didn’t matter if you didn’t feel moved to do that—you did it to survive.”

The worst form of punishment, the lockup, was reserved for girls who had not yet been saved—who had talked of running away or who had proven to be particularly intractable. The lockup was a dorm room devoid of furniture or natural light where girls spent days, or weeks, alone. Taped Roloff sermons were piped into the room, and the near-constant sound of his voice was the girls’ only companionship. Former Rebekah resident Tamra Sipes, now 34 and working in advertising for a newspaper in Oak Harbor, Washington, remembers one girl who was relegated to the lockup for an entire month. “The smell had become so bad from her not being able to shower or bathe that it reeked in the hallway,” she said. “We could do nothing to help her. I remember standing in roll call one day waiting for my name to be called off, and I was directly across from the door. She was singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to herself in such a pitiful voice that I couldn’t help but cry for her.”…

You can read the entire Texas Monthly article here.

Though Roloff died in a plane crash in November 1982, the Roloff homes remained in operation until Wiley Cameron, Roloff’s right-hand man, closed them in 2001. When  asked about charges of abuse, Cameron stated:

We feel it’s a Bible mandate, like the Samaritan, to help people in the ditch. If we have to get down in the ditch to help people, sometimes we get a little dirty doing it. Put another way, We get troubled kids and we use unconventional methods. We have never abused one person—all of these years, there has never been one case of child abuse that’s been proved in court. There have been allegations, but some people construe abuse where there was not abuse.

In IFB circles, Lester Roloff was quite popular. He and the traveling singing groups from the Rebekah Home for Girls made countless appearances at IFB preacher’s conferences and churches. As a young pastor, I heard them several times. Roloff appealed to pastors to support his work through his preaching and the singing of the Honey Bees, Rainbow Quartet, and Rebekah Choir. Pastors, thrilled that there was a place where troubled church teenagers could get godly, Fundamentalist Christian help, made sure Roloff had a steady stream of teenagers to “help.” This stream would later number 500 or more children under the care of  Roloff’s “ministries.”

The above video from 1979 was recorded at  Piney Heights Baptist Church, now Lakeside Baptist, in Clearwater, South Carolina. Bill Reese pastored the church for over 50 years. Please listen carefully to this video. Look at the girls in the singing group. What do you see? Happiness? Joy? Where are their smiles? Listen as Roloff calls his charges terminal cases, and dividends paid out to stockholders. Listen, as Roloff and Reese brag about how God is using them in a mighty way.

My wife and I grew up in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement, attended Midwestern Baptist College, an IFB institution operated by Tom Malone, and pastored several IFB churches in the 1970s and 1980s. Lester Roloff and the great work he was doing in Texas and his battle against the evil government were topics of frequent discussion. We never heard one person speak negatively about Roloff. While we heard rumors about the charges of abuse, these rumors were dismissed as government attempts to destroy Roloff’s work or the words of jealous men who weren’t as blessed by God as Brother Roloff was.

Influenced by Roloff, many IFB pastors started up group homes to help rebellious teenagers.  New Bethany Home for Girls was one such enterprise. In 1971, Mack Ford opened New Bethany. Following the Roloff blueprint, administrators used physical violence to break the will of rebellious teenage girls who were incarcerated against their will at New Bethany. Girls were also sexually violated, molested, and raped. As with Wiley Cameron in 2001, Ford denied anything untoward happened at New Bethany. He died on February 11, 2015, having never been brought to justice.

It’s time for IFB churches and pastors to atone for their sins. It is now known that IFB teen group homes routinely used violence to harm the vulnerable boys and girls sent to them. In some instances, sexual abuse took place, and serial predators committed criminal acts. In addition, IFB churches and pastors provided these homes with a steady supply of children (and money), children whose lives were often scarred forever by their experiences at these homes. Just as the man who drives the getaway car for a robbery crew is an accessory to robbery, IFB preachers are culpable in the abuse that took place at The Lighthouse, Rebekah Home for Girls, New Bethany Home for Girls, New Bethany Home for Boys,  Hephzibah House, and other similar red-education centers.

Where are the IFB pastors who are willing to admit their culpability? Where are the preachers who are willing to air the dirty laundry of the IFB church movement publicly? Countless boys and girls had their lives ruined by men like Lester Roloff and Mack Ford. Thanks to the Internet, the stories of abuse, rape, and violence are readily accessible. So when will a noted IFB pastor, one of the big dogs, decide to publicly and completely expose IFB teen group homes for what they are/were: money-making businesses that abused and molested children in the name of God?

Here and there, often under the radar, IFB teen group homes are still in operation. Exempt from state and federal laws, these homes are free to follow Roloff’s plan for making rebellious teenagers submissive. In some cases, these current Roloffs and Fords use their homes to take sexual advantage of vulnerable boys and girls. So why is there not an IFB pastor willing to stand up and say ENOUGH? Is their hatred of the government blinding them to what went on in these homes and what continues to go on until this day?

Thankfully, I can say that I never had a part in sending a child to one of the IFB teen group homes. It almost happened once, but the parents decided against it. In the 1980s, Ron Williams and a group from Hephzibah House came to the church I pastored in southeast Ohio. By then, I had doubts about the IFB church movement, so nothing came of Williams’ visit to our church.

While my hands are relatively clean, I know a number of pastors who promoted and supported men like Lester Roloff, Mack Ford, Jack Patterson, Olen King, Ron Williams, and others whose names are lost to me. Countless IFB churches and pastors continue to materially and financially support unlicensed teen group homes that use violence to break “rebellious” teenagers. Why do they continue to do so? Why do they lend their support to abuse and violence?

For further information on IFB teen group homes (please use the contact form to send me any other links that should be added to this list):

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

Jo Wright, Victimized No More

Kathryn Joyce, Horror Stories from Tough-Love Teen Homes

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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.

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Bruce Gerencser