Some are saying the Word of Life Church in New York is a cult after a 19-year-old man was beaten to death inside the church by his parents and other members of the congregation in a so-called “spiritual counseling session.” As reported by CNN, the fatal beating of Lucas Leonard was reportedly because the young man wanted to leave the community. The shocking incident happened in New Hartford, northwest of the city of New York.
Lucas Leonard and his brother Christopher, 17, were beaten for hours with a power cord and a belt by their parents and several members of the Christian church. Lucas died the next day and Christopher, seriously wounded, was hospitalized, but his condition is improving. Police have said church members were trying to get the brothers to confess their sins and seek forgiveness, the Daily Mail reported.
Parents of the victims, Bruce, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, were charged with first-degree manslaughter. Four other members of the church, including Leonard’s 33-year-old daughter, Sarah Ferguson, were also indicted for the attack. Their hearings will be held at a later date. The six accused have pleaded not guilty.
Now, former members of the church are speaking out against the bizarre “religious” rituals that went on at the Word of Life Church.
“We all had known for years and we just left it alone,” Scott Martin, a retired local cop, told the New York Daily News. “It’s a cult, I don’t care what they say, it’s a cult.”
Fred Aiken, who lives just a block away from the church, told the publication that dogs howled all night inside the now-shuttered church, but were never seen outside and “church members used to build fires on the roofs, and there was chanting and weird rituals.”
“Everyone wants to know what was going on in there,” Aiken said.
Chadwick Handville, who left the church over ten years ago, told the Associated Press that things took a turn for the worse after the founder of Word of Life Church, Jerry Irwin, returned after a period of absence and reclaimed his position as pastor.
“What was off the wall was his attitude toward others,” Handville recalled. “It wasn’t happy. He accused every male of lusting after his wife.”
Although some former members say the church is indeed a cult, others insist it is not. A former Word of Life church member, who chose to remain anonymous, knew the Leonard boys and although she admitted that the allegations were shocking, she said the church isn’t a cult but a “makeshift family” that had been together for 25 years.
“We weren’t originally isolated from the community,” she said.”I realize this situation makes it look like this, but if you listen to the teachings, they are accurate to the Bible.”
An expert in the field, Rick Ross, who is a specialist on destructive cults and movements, told Inverse that the church’s insular behavior and power structure is perfectly tailored to the psychology of classic cult behavior.
“This is an old-school group,” Ross explained. “It’s typical in many ways. They’re very isolated, they’ve cocooned their members and homeschooled the children. Besides a web site to sell pedigree yorkies, they were very isolated. That’s a common characteristic in cults to make sure they are the only ones influencing the member’s judgements.”
Don Gerace, attorney for Bruce Leonard, has entered a not-guilty plea on behalf of his client. Gerace said the prosecution has failed to prove Bruce Leonard’s intentions of inflicting serious harm to his child. Meanwhile, the legal representative for Deborah Leonard, Devin Garramone, claims Deborah was not responsible for her son’s injuries and was powerless to stop the “intervention.”
[Image via YouTube screenshot]