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  NEWS | FEATURE

For the love of God
Religion and Charisma often a volatile mixture in churches

BY MARA SHALHOUP

The power of God makes people do strange things. Pam Sweeney says she's seen firsthand what that power can do.

Back in 1992, Sweeney, her husband and five other members of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit were accused of slandering their place of worship. The church's $24 million lawsuit against them claimed they were spreading rumors of extramarital affairs between clergy and congregants, and were urging members to leave the church.

Church leaders, worried about a mass exodus from the 15,000 member church, did some damage control. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed (it was dropped within six weeks), church founders and brothers Don and Earl Paulk distributed handouts. Penned by the Paulk brothers, the fliers said those who chose to rat on the church would "do so at the peril of their own souls."

It's not surprising that people heeded the warning. The Paulks, especially Earl Paulk, are gifted orators, skilled in making thousands of people heed their words.

Bishop Earl Paulk, when traveling on speaking tours, can demand $40 per head. His sermons are featured on Trinity Broadcasting Network. His $18 million cathedral can seat 7,700 people. And because his church is nondenominational, Paulk answers to almost no one but God. Last week, though, he was served with a lawsuit from a former congregant, who claimed she was molested by Paulk when she was a child.

Regardless of whether the allegations are true, it is undeniable that Paulk wields tremendous power.

"It must be difficult to have 5,000 people eating out of your hand and not let it go to your head," says Samuel Hill, a retired University of Florida professor who wrote the books Southern Churches in Crisis and Encyclopedia of Religion in the South. "The combination of great size and radical independence -- that is an earthquake waiting to rupture."

From the outside, the House of Prayer, a small modest building on a gravel lot, could not stand in starker contrast to the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. But inside, there lies a common dilemma. Hill says the problem with churches like the House of Prayer and the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit is that they have no guardians peering over their shoulders. Established religions, with long histories and defined rules and governing bodies, seem less apt to produce cults of personality.

"One of the advantages of belonging to the Assemblies of God or the Southern Baptists or the Roman Catholic Church is there is some kind of community of concern that holds you in check," Hill says. "But these [non-denomination churches] are loners. And I would guess they become power-hungry people. They'd almost have to be."

But whereas the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit needed a lawsuit to call into question the possibility of abuse of power, police came to investigate the same claim at the House of Prayer.

Police say that for years the pastor of the northwest Atlanta church advised his ministry to hold down certain children and, while on church property, belt them hard enough to leave welts. The Bible, the House of Prayer's pastor reportedly told the parents, authorizes such whippings.

When the state learned last month of this alleged abuse, officials removed more than 40 children from the homes of adult members of the House of Prayer, and the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr. and four church members were arrested for cruelty to children. A fifth member was arrested for battery and reckless conduct.

The arrestees, now out on bond, call their charges religious persecution. They say their intent is to raise well-behaved children. According to Allen, two ways to raise good children are to beat them during church services and marry 14-year-old girls to men in their 20s. Allen has helped arrange the girls' trips to Alabama, where it is legal for a person under 16 to be wed. That way, the church can keep young women from becoming "potential whores."

When a judge told the parents a few weeks ago that they could have their sons and daughters back, as long as they follow a few rules, the parents said no.

They follow God's rules, they said, not the court's.

Hill says the power dynamic is different at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. It's likely more difficult to maintain control over so many people. Likewise, so much power vested in so few can be hard to resist.

A half dozen women have publicly alleged over the past 10 years that Cathedral of the Holy Spirit pastors wooed them into extramarital affairs. One woman, speaking to a CNN reporter in 1992, said a pastor promised their affair "would not be wrong in the eyes of God." The pastor told the woman, she said, that "such a relationship would, in fact, be beneficial to the church."

Jessica Battle was 13 at the time this was going on. It had been two years since Earl Paulk had molested her, according to the lawsuit filed April 10. The lawsuit says Earl Paulk had been "caressing her, fondling her sexual organs, performing oral sex on her, and having sexual intercourse with her" from the time she was 7 until she was 11. The lawsuit also alleges he forced her to have sex with him when she was 17.

The church has referred all phone calls to the Brokaw Company, an L.A. public relations firm that manages stars like Bill Crosby and Loretta Lynn. Consultant David Brokaw, hired by Earl Paulk, released a two-sentence statement on Paulk's behalf and declined further comment. The statement reads: "The Bishop is widely known to preach the life and resurrection of Christ and conducts his personal life in the same manner. The woman's mother and grandmother are in agreement that the filing is totally without merit."

Those members of the congregation who are willing to talk say that the allegations against Paulk are false and can do nothing to mar his character.

"These little things don't outshine the good this man has done," says Robert Bowling, a 17-year member of the church. "He's done great good, not just for me but for a lot of people."

John Williams, Bowling's deacon, sums up his and the congregation's feelings for Paulk: "The humanity that he has for mankind has been unsuppressed. We have a very large ministry here, and the ministry is fully supportive."

Sweeney, a friend of Battle's father, says she remembers Battle as a child -- and she remembers Battle's mother and grandmother as unyielding supporters of the church (Battle's grandmother is a pastor there).

Sweeney says there had been talk among some church members years ago that Battle was being molested and that someone even called the DeKalb County police to report the alleged abuse. But nine years passed with little more than a peep.

Sweeney says she was happy to leave the church nine years ago, even after spending 18 years there. She and her family have not regularly attended church since.

"It kind of changed our whole spiritual outlook," says Sweeney. "I've definitely come to a better, deeper, richer spirituality. But it has nothing to do with religion."



04.18.01

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  • Bishop Earl Paulk is being sued by a former congregant who claims she was molested by Paulk.
    (credit: Rebecca Beard)


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