Members of the House of Prayer say when they spank their children, they're following God's law.
A Fulton County grand jury charged Friday that they have broken man's law.
The jurors indicted 11 members of the small northwest Atlanta church on charges of cruelty to children and aggravated assault. The charges capped a nearly yearlong investigation into allegations of abuse of the congregation's children, 49 of whom the state took into protective custody. All but 10 have since been released from state custody. Among those indicted is the House of Prayer's pastor, the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr. If convicted on the felony charges, the church members face possible prison terms of one to 20 years.
PHOTO: Photo: Ben Gray / AJC
Rev. Arthur Allen Jr.
The charges stem from an incident near the end of the church service on Feb. 22, 2001. Two boys -- David Duncan Jr., then 10, and Ricky Wilson Jr., then 7 -- were suspended in the air and whipped by several adult church members, leaving open wounds on their torsos, according to the 14-count indictment. Both boys' parents are among the 11 charged.
"This is not a normal whipping," Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard said as he announced the indictments Friday. "These are severe and extreme beatings. We think that is a clear line of demarcation."
A defiant Allen declared he and other church members would plead not guilty when they are arraigned next month in Fulton Superior Court.
They will defend themselves against the charges without a lawyer's help, the pastor said.
"I will call for a trial by jury," Allen, 69, said Friday outside the church he founded 37 years ago. He said he had learned about the indictments while visiting his wife, Trina, at Grady Memorial Hospital, where she is being treated for a kidney infection. The 26-year-old woman is pregnant with the couple's second child, her seventh.
"I have mixed emotions," the pastor said of the indictments. "I'm kind of surprised that Paul Howard and the grand jury or whoever didn't use better judgment."
But, Allen said, "I'm delighted for the opportunity to face these charges, to resolve everything one way or another. My faith is still in the Lord. I'm not wavering."
The indictments won't immediately affect the custody of any of the children, said Andy Boisseau, a spokesman for the state Division of Family and Children Services.
The state will move forward as planned with efforts in Juvenile Court to terminate the parental rights over eight children. If the court agrees, those eight children would be put up for adoption. Two others are scheduled to be released from state custody soon.
List of those indicted, according to the Fulton County district attorney:
The Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., 69
Eddie B. Barnett Jr., 25
David Duncan Sr., 44, and his wife, Sharon Duncan, 40. They are the parents of alleged victim David Duncan Jr.
Emanuel Hardeman, 36
Michael Oglesby, 27
Charles Ogletree, 30
James Smith Jr., 44
David Wilson, 30
Ricky Antonio Wilson Sr., 32, and his wife, Yolonda Elaine Wilson, 28. They are the parents of alleged victim Ricky Wilson Jr.
Boisseau said state officials will not take the other 39 children into custody for a second time. They were seized from their homes last spring, some in emotional scenes repeatedly played on Atlanta television stations. The children were released after officials acknowledged they had no evidence indicating that more than three children had been abused.
"Number one, an indictment is not a conviction," Boisseau said. "I don't think we would take any action with respect to the children who are back home. We'd have to start the whole process over."
The pastor and 10 members of the church were arrested in March and April, shortly after school teachers noticed injuries on the two boys and called social workers and the police.
Allen, who exerts strong influence over his congregation, has never denied the boys were whipped. But he and other church members say such spankings are necessary to maintain discipline. And they have charged that law enforcement and social services agents have interfered with their religious freedoms by seeking to impose limits on how they punish their children.
District Attorney Howard said the two boys were punished after "some minor reports of some children not cooperating or being generally disobedient -- kids being kids."
Six men were charged with holding and beating the children. The grand jury accused Allen of "encouraging, advising and procuring" the men to whip the boys. "This activity was directed by Reverend Allen," Howard said.
The district attorney met with Allen on Dec. 4, hoping to mediate the case without taking it to trial. "I was not able to persuade Reverend Allen to change his philosophy regarding the punishment of children," Howard said, so the criminal case moved forward.
Allen declined Friday to discuss specifics of the charges.
But when a reporter asked if he had stopped having children spanked in church, he didn't hesitate to answer.
"No," Allen said. "Neither in church nor in the homes nor at schools. We're going to continue this practice as long as it's lawful."