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.”
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.”
As you know, I spend a lot of time writing about my past: people, places, and events that are very much a part of the fabric of my life. I try to be as truthful and accurate as possible when I recount the past, but I am ever aware of the fact that I am giving an account of things as I remember them. Having read a good bit about the brain and memories, I know my retelling of my past may or may not be accurate. As best I can remember, I try to give an honest accounting of my life.
I have a younger brother and sister, and it is amazing how differently we each view events that happened in our childhood. Who is right? I’ve come to understand, we all are. The story we tell depends on where we were standing at the time. As a 15 year old boy and the oldest son, my view of our parent’s divorce , is much different from that of my 11-year-old sister. The same can be said about many of our shared seminal experiences.
I live with a lot of guilt. I am prone to depression and I can be quite pessimistic. I have faced long, deep bouts of depression, times where I have felt that death would be too good for me. With my words, theology, and religious practice, I hurt people. Or so I think. I’ve come to have these feelings because I am looking back at my past with the eyes of a 58-year-old man. How could I have been Bruce Gerencser, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher? Who is that man, I ask myself. Thanks be to Zeus he no longer exists, having been slain by reason and maturity, but I still live with the memories of the past.
I am Facebook friends with several of the kids who were members of Somerset Baptist Church, a congregation I pastored from 1983-1994. I was their pastor through the formative years of their life. Not only did they sit under my preaching 3 times a week, they also attended Somerset Baptist Academy, a private Christian school I started in 1989. I often feel I hurt them and let them down. I think back to how narrow I was over things like certain kinds of clothing, music, physical contact between the sexes, movies, and TV. If these children hated me, I wouldn’t blame them. Thankfully, they don’t.
When I talk to these former students, I hear their perspective on our shared experiences. All of them are in their 30s now and many of them are married and have children. Several of them are gay. Their religious persuasions run from atheism to liberal Christianity. None of them retained the fundamentalist Christianity of their youth. From their vantage point they recall things quite differently from the way I do. Several of them recall my wife teaching them to read. One man mentioned going back to the old church grounds and playing another game of kickball for old times sake. Again, what we remember depends on where we were standing at the time.
I recently re-read several posts I wrote about fundamentalist Baptist evangelist Don Hardman and his wife Laura. (please see Laura’s Light by Laura Hardman, A Book Review and The Preacher: The Life and Times of Donald A. Hardman, A Book Review) As I read these posts I felt twinges of guilt and sadness. When I was a pastor, I had no closer friends than Don and Laura Hardman. I loved them like they were family. When they came to our church it was the highlight of the year. For 15 days we would focus on God and his Word. Every day Don and I would go out evangelizing and street preaching. The church loved the Hardmans and graciously gave of their money and food to help them.
From my vantage point as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I have nothing but good memories and feelings when I think of Don and Laura Hardman. I never saw them fight and I never had a cross word with them. Even when we parted company for a few years over my Calvinistic beliefs, we remained friends. In the early 2000s, the Hardmans came to Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio, a church I was pastoring at the time, and conducted a week long meeting. We had a great time, but I knew that I could not have them back. While they remained right where I met them in 1987, I had changed. My view of God, the Bible, politics, culture, and other Christian sects was evolving. Yet, we remained friends until 2008, when my deconversion permanently fractured the relationship.
Here I stand in 2015, no longer a Christian, now an atheist. My view of the past is clouded with the tincture of time. While I still have fond memories of evangelist Don Hardman’s protracted revival meetings, I have come to see that the preaching and the theology behind it was psychologically controlling and damaging. This is how I view much of my preaching as well, especially the first 15 years or so. Over time I matured. I began preaching expositionally and I turned from a Bible-quoting, hellfire-and-brimstone-preacher to more of a teacher of the Bible. Oh, I was still quite passionate about God, the Bible, and how we ought to apply it to our lives, but I was much more careful about using the Bible in context and letting the text speak for itself. While the Hardmans remained steadfast and unmovable throughout our friendship, my understanding of them changed. Again, my vantage point changed, resulting in me viewing the Hardmans differently.
Polly, my wife, and I have known each other for almost 40 years. Last July we will celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary. A year ago, I uploaded a bunch of old pictures to Facebook: family pictures; pictures from the Somerset Baptist Church, and pictures from Our Father’s House. As I uploaded these photos I began to weep. The memories of years gone by flooded my mind; memories of the people I pastored and the children I taught at Somerset Baptist Academy; memories of my wonderful wife and our little babies. Good memories. Wonderful memories.
Now, having a different perspective, I view the events recorded in these pictures differently. Is this maturity? I don’t know. Time changes how we view the past. What were once wonderful memories are now clouded by what I now know about the emotional and mental manipulation I perpetrated on those who called me Pastor. As I have shared before, I am in a unique position. I am both a victim and a victimizer. I followed in the footsteps of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers who emotionally and mentally scarred my life. Victimized by their manipulation, I in turn victimized those who were members of the IFB churches I pastored. It’s an ugly cycle of abuse that I was fortunately able to put an end to during my latter years in the ministry and subsequent post-Jesus life.
So it is with Polly. While she and I walked side by side through the years we spent in the ministry, Polly’s viewpoint is very different from mine. I was the leader of the church and the center of attention. People, for the most part, respected me, loved me, and supported my work as a pastor. For Polly it was different. Like many pastor’s wives she was my gofer. She did what others didn’t or wouldn’t do. No one in the nursery? Polly filled in. Entertain people every Sunday for 20 years? Polly did it without a complaint, even when her pastor husband forgot to tell her so and so was coming over for dinner. She quietly submitted to a life as the helpmeet of a poorly paid, Type A, constantly-working, never-home, Baptist preacher.
Polly did without. Our entire family did without, but Polly more so than me the children and I. She never said a word. She quietly lived in ramshackled houses and drove cars that were better suited for a demolition derby. She made do with what she had. This much I know, I do WISH there was a heaven, because Polly deserves a huge mansion right next door to Dottie Rambo’s Log Cabin.
However, since there is no heaven, all I can do is make sure that Polly has the best life possible for the rest of this life. She deserves it!
It should come as no surprise then that Polly remembers the past much differently from what I recall. One time I said, wouldn’t you like to go back to __________church? Immediately she replied, No I wouldn’t. I was surprised by her quick and negative response. I asked, why not? I then quickly learned, from where Polly was standing, that her view of this church was very different from mine. Who is right? We both are.
I have written a good bit about the abuse that went on, and continues to go on, in Baptist group homes. (please see Sexual Abuse in the Name of God: New Bethany Home for Girls, Teen Group Homes: Dear IFB Pastor, It’s Time for You to Atone for Your Sin and The Dogma that Followed Me Home) The stories that some people share from their time in these facilities break my heart. I want to personally find these abusive miscreants and beat the shit out them. They deserve to have punishment heaped upon them. They hurt people that I love and respect, and the fact that these dear friends of mine still suffer from the abuse received from men like Mack Ford angers me to this day. Every once in a while, someone will come along and leave a glowing testimony from their time in the same facilities. They loved their time there. They were helped and their life is the better for it. How can this be? Surely, someone is lying, right? Not at all. While it is possible that someone is lying or they are living in denial, more often than not, the difference is simply a matter of where the person was standing in relation to the person, place, or event.
Time shapes how we view the past. For me, I am finding that the further a person, place, or event is in the past, the fonder my memories are. I suspect that’s how we as humans cope with life. The tincture of time often brings healing, and it also allows us to gain enough distance from the negative things in our past that they no longer feel harmful or threatening. While time rarely heals all wounds, it does allow us the space and distance necessary to be at peace with those things that cut us to the quick. Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for.
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 eve. 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 about 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 this god with the rest of the saved people. God would turn that person I neglected away, saying he did not know them. As they would be lead 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 the eternal fire, damned for all eternity, their blood would be dripping from my hands. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid, huh?
In my teens, I was a bit of a rebel, and I’d run away when I got the chance, rather face the consequences at home for my actions. When I was 14, almost 15, my parents were at their wits’ 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 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 with mostly adults (this was 1974, and there were no children’s wards at that time here). There 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. But Mom and Dad had been talking to the preachers. They had another idea.
Surely, this would save my soul and make me a compliant teenager. At this girls’ home, the same type of hellfire and brimstone attitude prevailed. I was not allowed to wear pants, as that was a sin. I could not listen to any music besides gospel, as that was a sin. I could not 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. Mac Ford. He and his wife, Thelma founded the home, and they took in rebellious teens from all over the country and also took in the unwanted girls who would just be abandoned there. We were all to comply with every rule or get 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 tip toes with eggs or tomatoes under her heels. If she slipped and squished one, she’d get a whipping or get hit with the switch. Runaways from the home were usually caught and then, after a sound whipping with the belt from Bro. Mac, she’d be handcuffed to her bed and a ‘trusted girl” would have the key. All meals were served her at her bed, and only was she uncuffed for bathroom and shower breaks. Once Bro Mac determined she had repented, she was off the cuffs.
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 Mac.
Everyday after chores, we’d have chapel. There we would learn about hell and how the love of god brought us to this place and how we must repent 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. After school it was time for chapel again, and then lunch. Then chores and free time, then chapel and supper. Even our bathroom breaks were timed and we actually had to count the toilet paper and beg for more through the bathroom door if we needed it. We were often awakened in the middle of the night. Sleep deprivation and what Brother Mac called “breaking down the will” were the norm. I could go on, but I think the picture is clear. This was a brainwashing southern Baptist 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 southern Baptist obedient teenager who addressed my parents and all adults as “sir” and “mam”.
At my new Christian high school, I was more conservative than most of the staff! At this school, we would only have chapel once a week, unless it was “spiritual emphasis week”. During the “emphasis” 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 hell fire! We must be saved. We must repent if we do anything displeasing to god. I recall Mr. Russell, the gym teacher, leading us in a 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, and it did not read the same on my own as with a preacher interpreting for me.
After graduation, I began to think more for myself. I sought out a therapist who helped me let go of 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” back at the girl’s home. It was about the communist takeover of the United States. I really wanted to see this film again, as an adult without the expectation of 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 plead 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 to 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 who was raised similarly, and found that she, too, suffered from this occasionally. We discussed brainwashing and conditioned response, then I began to examine what had happened.
It was twenty plus years of dogmatic teachings took my emotions and spilled them out in front of me like so many dice. I realized that this memory’s emotional effect needed to be changed. So I set to work, discussing with my therapist these reactions, and he encouraged me. I reminded myself that it was out of love for my children I chose to NOT subject them to the 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.
I wonder, has anything like this ever happened to you?
Gerald Harris, pastor Crossroads Baptist Church, Sellersburg, Indiana
The fracas in Kentucky over Kim Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples has brought to the forefront the debate over religious freedom. Does a Christian and a church have the absolute right to practice their religion as they wish? While all of us would agree that religious freedom is one of the pillars of American democracy, is there ever a time when a church should be regulated? Should churches be free to practice their religion without ANY interference from federal, state or local government?
Consider the recent report of child abuse and neglect in Indiana. Authorities arrested Gerald Harris, pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church, Sellerburg, Indiana and church member Christopher Williams after it was reported that they were physically abusing students at Well of Grace Boarding Academy.
A Sellersburg, Ind., pastor and fellow church workers are accused of beating multiple children in their care with a wooden paddle.
Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Jeremy Mull said the abuse occurred at Crossroads Baptist Church, led by Pastor Gerald Harris. It operates a boarding academy complete with dormitories and classrooms for mostly out of state students, he said.
While parents, teachers and caretakers are allowed to discipline children “in a legal way,” Mull said, the bruising allegedly seen on the children constituted criminal abuse.
“That’s the point where, in my opinion as a prosecutor, it crosses the line from appropriate discipline to a criminal battery,” he said.
Harris, 47, and Christopher Williams, 21, were both arrested earlier this week and face preliminary charges of battery and neglect of a dependent, said Clarksville Chief of Police Mark Palmer in a news release. Clark County Jail records indicate both live at the church.
Clarksville police and Child Protective Services did a welfare check at the church, 6109 Appleleaf Lane, Tuesday and interviewed children ranging in age from 8 to 19. They told investigators of “various forms of punishment,” Palmer said.
Five children told police they were “whipped with a wooden paddle,” according to a probable cause affidavit released Thursday.
An 8-year-old boy said Williams tied a rope around his waist and jerked him around “for not behaving.”
An 11-year-old boy with “very serious bruising” on his buttocks and legs told investigators he was also hit with the paddle by both Williams and Harris when he wet his bed.
The pastor allegedly made one 16-year-old stand before the other boys to be whipped with the paddle after Harris told him to keep reading his Bible and believed the teen gave him a smirk, the boy told police.
Students at the academy were also told they could not use the bathroom once the lights were turned off at night, according to the affidavit.
Kentucky law enforcement tipped off Clarksville Police after they learned of children from the boarding academy who were selling candy bars in Owensboro, Ky., Mull said. One of the children allegedly told a customer he feared he would be whipped if he didn’t sell enough candy.
All children have since been removed from the church and returned to their parents or Child Protective Custody, Mull said.
Williams appeared Thursday afternoon in Clark County Circuit Court in Jeffersonville, Ind., where he was advised of his rights by Judge Andrew Adams. Supporters of Williams who appeared in court declined comment. He is next due to appear in court Tuesday afternoon.
Harris bonded out of jail, Mull said, but will likely appear early next week in court when formal charges are filed against both. A probable cause affidavit represents only one side of the case.
Further charges could be filed as the investigation continues, Mull said, though he said he does not believe more adults harmed the children.
Mull said he currently knows little about the school, such as when it began operations, how out-of-state parents found out about the school or how many total students attended. “We’re looking at exactly what the arrangements were for keeping the kids, what the philosophy was, what the reasonings were for kids being here,” Mull said.
Clarksville Building Commissioner Ilpo Majuri also visited the property Tuesday and ordered the owners to cease 24/7, residential operations, he said. Owners of the church had come before the city at a board meeting a few years ago stating they were thinking of opening a school on the premises, but no rezoning ever occurred, Majuri said.
“I think they are trying to comply,” he noted…
…Katherine Taul said two boys from the school stopped by her Versailles, Ind. office in January selling candies and giving out cards with the church’s name and number.
“I wish I had asked the boys more questions,” she wrote to The Courier-Journal. “I remember trying to research the place, but wasn’t able to find much, which I also thought strange.”
According to the school’s Facebook page, the Well of Grace Boarding Academy “is a boys home under the authority of Crossroads Baptist Church.”
Its stated goals include “reaching school age boys heading down the paths of destruction” and “watching the transformation of unwanted, and seemingly ruined lives into Godly young men.”
Indiana government officials are outraged over the abuse charges and are vowing to investigate. However, since churches are free to do whatever they want under the umbrella of religious freedom, it should not surprise anyone that there are churches, following the teachings of the Bible about discipline, that promote, advocate, and demand using violence to correct wayward children.
In hollers and out-of-the-way places, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches and pastors, channeling the spirits of child abusers Lester Roloff and Mack Ford, continue to use child abuse, deprivation, and violence to educate and discipline wayward, rebellious teenagers. And it will continue to go on until the government does something about it.
As long as religious freedom trumps child welfare these kind of things will continue to happen. As long as pastors, churches, and parents are not held criminally liable for ritual child abuse, we will continue to hear of stories like the one mentioned above.
In many states, Ohio included, churches are free to operate schools and boarding homes without any government oversight. In Indiana, Hephzibah House, known for ritual child abuse, has been repeatedly investigated, yet its doors are still open. Until federal and state government put child welfare FIRST, Baptist preachers, thinking they have a direct pipeline to God, will continue to teach parents that God commands them to abuse their children; they will continue to operate “ministries” that beat the devil out of rebellious children.
Gerald Harris started Crossroads Baptist Church in 2006, taking over the building that had belonged to Bible Independent Baptist Church.
From the Well of Grace Boarding Academy Facebook page:(link no longer active)
Here is our goals at Well of Grace Boarding Academy:
Reaching school age boys heading down the paths of destruction.
Telling them of Christ and teaching them the Word of God.
Helping them to have victory over addictions and their reckless living.
Training them to be involved in the local church ministries.
Teaching discipline, character, respect, and good work ethics.
Restoring their home relationships.
Watching the transformation of unwanted, and seemingly ruined lives into Godly young men.
Simply drawing and giving Water From the Well. John 4: 1-14
“It is easier to BUILD Boys and Girls than to REPAIR Men and Women!” -Dr. Clarence Doyle
Thanks to a DNA match, we now know that the Bossier Doe is Carol Ann Cole from Kalamazoo, Michigan, a 17-year-old girl who went missing 34 years ago. NOLA.com reports:
After 34 years, Carol Ann Cole is found.
The missing Michigan teen is a DNA match for a young woman found dead with stab wounds in the woods of north Louisiana on Jan. 28, 1981.
Bossier Parish Sheriff Julian Whittington announced the news Thursday (March 5), two weeks after Cole’s parents submitted their DNA samples at a police station near Kalamazoo, Mich., in response to leads developed through Facebook.
“It’s been a long 34 years, one month and five days of waiting for the Cole family, Whittington said. “I’m here to tell you the waiting is over and Carol Ann is coming home.”
A few feet away stood Linda “Jeanie” Phelps, 48, Carol Ann’s little sister who has spent decades searching for her blonde-haired, blue-eyed sibling — the one she said loved Shaun Cassidy and always kept her out of trouble.
“All I can think right now is wow. I finally found Carol Ann,” said Phelps, who traveled from her home in Kalamazoo to be present for the announcement. “Definitely not the way I wanted to find my sister…There was a sense of relief, but also a deep sadness.”
Phelps said she never gave up on finding her sister and thanked those who didn’t give up to find out who Bossier Doe was…
…Carol Ann went missing after she moved from Michigan to San Antonio, Texas, with her mother, Sue Cole in 1979 or 1980.
Cole said she was having difficulties with her daughter and decided to place her in a girl’s home outside of San Antonio. Cole said she was informed Carol Ann ran away from the residence near her 17th birthday, Nov. 5, 1980 — but Cole said she has no recollection of where the home was and what it was called.
The last contact the teenager had with her family, according to Phelps, was when she placed a collect call from a residence in Shreveport to her paternal grandmother in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The family was later told that Carol Ann was babysitting there.
Phelps and longtime family friend Patty Thorington have been searching for Carol Ann for decades. And despite their efforts to file a missing persons report with various police agencies over the years, Phelps said they were only recently able to get information about Carol Ann formally entered into a national missing persons database. A formal missing persons report was made Feb. 4, according to Bossier Parish Sgt. Dave Faulk…
…Detectives have called John R. Chesson, the Vinton man who found Bossier Doe while hunting in 1981, a “person of interest” in Bossier Doe’s death. Chesson is now in prison after being convicted in the 1997 murder of his estranged wife’s former mother-in-law.
Bossier Parish detectives also have been investigating whether their victim had any ties to New Bethany Home for Girls, a religious girls home roughly 40 miles from where the body was found. A photo that surfaced from New Bethany includes an image of a young woman who Phelps believed resembles Carol Ann. But until now, Phelps has said that without the results of the DNA tests in hand, the possibility has has brought only more questions and grief.
Sgt. Faulk said the agency will be following all leads to gather information about who killed Carol Ann. He said that to date there is “no solid indication” that she was at New Bethany. Asked about Chesson’s significance in the current investigation, Faulk said that anytime someone finds a body, they are a person of interest…
It remains to be seen if Cole spent any time at New Bethany Home for Girls. The report notes that Cole was sent to a group home in San Antonio, Texas, leading to speculation that she might have been in one of Lester Roloff’s infamous group homes.
Bossier Parish detectives believe they may have a major break in the case of an unidentified woman found stabbed to death in the woods 34 years ago. And they have requested a DNA sample from a relative of a Michigan woman whose last contact with her family was more than three decades ago.
“Bossier Doe fits more closely than anything we have ever found” in the search for Cole, Thorington said Wednesday (Feb. 18). But after years of false leads, Thorington said she is holding out for more conclusive evidence.
Lt. Bill Davis said detectives have requested a DNA sample from one of Cole’s relatives. The results could take weeks, he said. In the meantime, New Bethany Home for Girls has become a strong source of leads for the investigation, Davis said.
Two days after detective Lt. Shannon Mack of Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office launched the Bossier Doe Facebook page, she started reaching out to former residents of New Bethany Home for Girls after someone who was familiar with news coverage of the New Bethany school suggested it might hold some clues.
The unidentified stabbing victim was believed to have been in her mid-teens to early 20s when she was killed in late 1980. Her body was found four to six weeks later, on Jan. 28, 1981, by hunters about 40 miles northwest of New Bethany off Louisiana 157. She was fully clothed and wearing athletic socks and shoes with the name “D. Davies” written in marker on the inside — not unlike the clothing that former New Bethany residents say they were required to wear.
Davis said Wednesday that detectives have not conclusively determined that Cole attended New Bethany. Cole turned 17 in November of 1980. When Thorington learned about New Bethany, she said she posted a photo of Cole to a Facebook page for former residents to see if anyone there recognized her…
“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.”
“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.
What many parents, churches, and pastors didn’t understand, was 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.”…
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 uncounted appearances at IFB preacher’s conferences and churches. As a young pastor, I heard them several times. Through his preaching and the singing of the Honey Bees, Rainbow Quartet, and Rebekah Choir, Roloff appealed to pastors to help support his work. Pastors, thrilled that there was a place where troubled church teenagers could get godly, 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 is from 1979, 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 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 teen age 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 February 11, 2015, having never been brought to justice.
It’s time for IFB churches and pastors to atone for their sin. It is now known that IFB teen group homes routinely used violence to break the will of those sent to them. In some instances, sexual violence took place and criminal acts were committed by serial predators. IFB churches and pastors provided these homes with a steady supply of children; children whose lives were often scarred forever. Just as the man who drives the get-away car for a robbery crew are accessories to robbery, IFB preachers are culpable in the abuse that took place at The Lighthouse, Rebekah Home for Girls, New Bethany Home for Girls, Hephzibah House, and other similar homes.
Where are the IFB pastors who are willing to admit their culpability? Where are the preachers who are willing to publicly air the dirty laundry of the IFB church movement? 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. 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. 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 SE Ohio. By then, I was beginning to have my 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, and Ron Williams, and others whose names are lost to me. Just the other day I mentioned in a post that the home church of IFB evangelist Don Hardman supports Ron Williams, Hephzibah House and Olen King, Second Chance Ranch.
Uncounted IFB churches and pastors continue to support unlicensed teen group homes that use violence to break “rebellious” of teenagers. Why do they continue to do so? Why do they lend their support do abuse and violence? Perhaps it is time to publicize the name of the churches and pastors who don’t have a problem with using violence to subdue a teenager or don’t have a problem with sexual assault or rape. If you, dear reader , run across information that clearly connects an IFB church or pastor to one of these homes, please let me know.
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):
Notorious child abuser and molester, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher Mack Ford is dead. 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, 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 that were abused by Mack Ford and the staff at New Bethany. Like hound dogs on the trail of a rabbit, they have done 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 type of homes are dangerous and 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! (please read Is a 34 Year Old Murder Case Connected to New Bethany Home for Girls?)
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.”
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.”
A composite drawing from LSU FACES Laboratory shows what investigators believe a woman found dead on Jan. 28, 1981, may have looked like before she was stabbed to death four to six weeks before her body was located in a wooded area in east-central Bossier Parish.
Her stab-pocked body was found in the woods off a public logging trail in north Louisiana on Jan. 28, 1981. She was in her late teens or early 20s and had been dead for four to six weeks, a coroner determined. There were scribbles on her sneakers, including a name written on the inside: “D. Davies.” It looked like she had removed the braces from her teeth.
In 34 years, no one has identified the body of the 5-foot-6 blonde found off Louisiana Highway 157. But now Bossier Parish law enforcement officials are investigating a potential link between the woman they now call “Bossier Doe” and a notorious girls home 40 miles away.
Lt. Shannon Mack, lead detective in Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office cold case No. 81-018329, said she first learned of New Bethany Home for Girls in Arcadia, after creating a public Facebook profile for Bossier Doe on Friday (Feb. 6) in an attempt to generate more leads. She has since reached out to former New Bethany residents for help.
Open from 1971 to 2001, New Bethany marketed itself as a boarding school for troubled girls. Youth came from across the country, some court-ordered, others by request of parents or guardians. Bienville Parish law enforcement and nearby residents became accustomed to encountering runaways from the strict, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist home, located behind barbed wire fences in a rural area off of Louisiana Highway 9.
Simone Jones, 47, a former resident who herself scaled the fences and ran to law enforcement seeking an escape, said that when Mack reached out to her about the 1981 case Sunday, her mind started spinning.
Jones, who was at the home from 1981 to 1984, said that while she doesn’t remember anyone by this name or description, details about Bossier Doe’s case were reminiscent of New Bethany:
Girls were required to write their names in marker on the insides of their shoes and on all their clothes, as it appeared someone did inside the victim’s shoes. When Bossier Doe was found, she was wearing size 7 Evonne Goolagong brand, a washable canvas sneaker sold by Sears. Other names were scribbled in ink on the outside of the shoes, including “Resha,” “David” and “Dena & Michael Brisco.”
Bossier Doe was wearing white athletic socks with blue and yellow stripes, Mack said. The New Bethany uniform at the time included white athletic socks with stripes on them. Jones said the uniform required the stripes be red or blue. “But there were other colors around,” she said.
To date, law enforcement has found no indication anyone by this young woman’s description was ever reported missing. It’s well-established that many of the girls of New Bethany were often disconnected from their families — either by force of the school’s rules, by circumstance that led them there, or both. In 2013, for example, Bienville Parish Sheriff John Ballance told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune that after he encountered an 18-year-old runaway from New Bethany in 1975, he contacted her father by phone and was told the man wanted nothing to do with her.
Here’s another detail that raised interest of the former New Bethany residents.
Bossier Doe had bonding residue from braces on her teeth, Mack said, which led investigators to believe either she or someone else had removed her braces without the help of a professional.
Teresa Frye, 47, another former resident who Mack reached Sunday, said that detail stood out to her. When Frye arrived at New Bethany in 1982 from North Carolina, she was taken to have her braces professionally removed earlier than her orthodontist had instructed. Frye said she believes it was done so that she wouldn’t require additional medical care while at the home.
Many former New Bethany residents interviewed by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune since 2013 have described being denied medical care, a complaint that was also documented in a child welfare investigation in the 1980s. It would not be implausible, said Jones and Frye, for a resident to attempt to remove her own braces.
Mack said she is looking to speak with anyone whose memory might be jogged by the details of this girl’s death…
As many of you know, I have long been an advocate for those abused at Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) teen group homes. These homes, some of which are still in existence, routinely used violence to force teenagers into submission. Some of the residents were sexually violated. Where was the state, you ask? Sitting on the sidelines, often ignoring the cries of those who were beaten, abused, sexually molested, and raped.
One such home was the New Bethany Home for Girls, owned and operated by IFB preacher Mack Ford. Ford was a protégé of famed abuser Lester Roloff. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has published numerous articles about New Bethany. If you aren’t familiar with this story, I encourage you read The Long Road: To the Gates of New Bethany and Back. (Link no longer active. To find New Bethany stories, do a search for them on the NOLA website.)
Over the years, the victims of Mack Ford and the staff at New Bethany have tried to bring their abusers to justice. Unfortunately, Ford wears a Teflon suit and nothing seems to stick to him. Two weeks ago, a grand jury declined to charge 82-year-old Mack Ford.
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 at New Bethany. I know from talking to them that their time at Ford’s group home left horrible, deep scars. Some of the survivors have decided to put together a YouTube video about Mack Ford and New Bethany Home for Girls.