Social worker accused of hiding religious sect abuse resigns
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A veteran social worker accused of coaching congregants and their children on what to say during a 2015 child abuse investigation of her secretive religious sect has resigned, an attorney for a child welfare agency said Friday.
Andrea Leslie-Fite said Lori Cornelius left her position at the Cleveland County Department of Social Services. The development came less than two weeks after The Associated Press published a report that quoted former members of the Word of Faith Fellowship sect saying that Cornelius and two assistant district attorneys — all members of the church — had helped undermine abuse investigations. The prosecutors resigned their posts and are under investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.
SBI spokesman Patty McQuillan said Friday the agency isn’t currently investigating Cornelius or the Rutherford County Division of Social Services. But she said that could change.
Leslie-Fite did not answer questions about the circumstances of the Cornelius departure. In her letter of resignation, Cornelius cited to various unspecified reasons. Leslie-Fite added only that the resignation had been submitted earlier in the week, effective Friday.
In her letter, Cornelius did not mention the cover-up allegations that stem from an investigation of abuse at the secretive sect located in Spindale, North Carolina, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In its ongoing investigation, the AP has reported that the 2015 social services investigation included complaints that students at the church-run K-12 school were encouraged to beat classmates to cast out devils. Former members also said Cornelius coached children on what to tell investigators with the help of assistant prosecutors Frank Webster and Chris Back. Back is the son-in-law of sect leader Jane Whaley.
That DSS probe ended with no charges.
“In my opinion, the Cleveland County DSS allowed Mrs. Cornelius an undue graceful exit,” said John Huddle, who left the church in 2008. “In light of the allegations made in the extensive AP investigation, we should hope that in the future that any ‘wealth of knowledge’ would be put to a more positive outcome. Now, we again ask for the comprehensive investigation that these events warrant,”
Ben Cooper, an attorney who left Word of Faith in 2014, agreed that investigators needed to look into Cornelius’ role in the case.
“She was really important behind their entire strategy of beating the system on the last DSS investigation,” said Cooper, 30 who grew up in the church with his eight siblings. “I think this is a tremendous step. They are finally holding the church’s leadership accountable. But more needs to be done.”
Rutherford County DSS director John Carroll said Friday his agency has no plans to reopen the 2015 investigation.
On March 8, District Attorney David Learner asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into allegations by nine former Word of Faith Fellowship members that his assistants Webster and Back had provided legal advice, helped at strategy sessions and participated in a mock trial for four congregants charged with harassing a former member.
Two days later, Lerner said they no longer worked for him. “I cannot allow the integrity of the office to be called into question,” he said in a statement. “My administration is dedicated to the fair and impartial administration of criminal justice.”
Late last month, the AP revealed decades of physical and emotional abuse inside Word of Faith, which has 750 members in Spindale, and nearly 2,000 members in churches based in Brazil and Ghana. Former members described being punched, choked and thrown through walls as part of a violent form of deliverance meant to purify sinners.
Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers — even crying babies — who were vigorously shaken, screamed at and sometimes smacked to banish demons, according to on-the-record interviews with 43 former members. Those interviewed said congregants also were subjected to a practice called “blasting” — an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.
Many of those interviewed by the AP initially were reluctant to break their silence because they had hidden their pasts from new friends and colleagues, and because they remain afraid of Whaley.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org