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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."
MORE IN NEWS
in the Chattahoochee forest
After a five-year break
from timber harvests, a less environmentally friendly
administration threatens to resume logging in Atlanta's
billion worth of tunnel vision
After years of city
screw-ups, sewer activists are wary of an expensive plan to
finally fix Atlanta's sewers
race on silver screen?
Documentary goes behind the
scenes of Kahn's failed campaign
how's it gonna go down?
Mayoral hopeful's campaign
For Atlanta's three wretched teams, the favorite
time of year
censors campaign against Southern Co.
sewage spills, fish kills cost Cobb $85K
Club to file clean air suit against EPD
Lethal soda cans a hoax