Oct 18, 2015

Congregants Were Abused and Shamed at Church Where Fatal Beating Occurred, Ex-Member Says

New York Times
October 16, 2015

The founder and longtime pastor at Word of Life Christian Church shamed congregants from the pulpit, dredging up old sins and recounting them at Sunday services in humiliating detail, a former member said.

He demanded they redo the floors and fix the plumbing in his living quarters, day after day for hours, until they felt numb from sleep deprivation. Members who raised questions were put on church discipline and forbidden to speak to others.

And the founder, Jerry Irwin, taught hate, using racial slurs during sermons, according to the former member, Chadwick Handville.

In the aftermath of the brutal beating at Word of Life Christian Church in central New York that left one teenage congregant dead and his younger brother seriously injured this week, investigators have been trying to understand how that violent episode may have grown out of what some described as a church culture of secrecy and isolation.

Mr. Handville, who defected from the church in 2000 after a decade of praying and working there and who now lives in Phoenix, offered the first detailed public account since the teenager’s death of what happened behind the church’s locked gates and thick row of hedges.

“Everybody who’s gone there is a victim of abuse,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday. “This was a cult. This was not a church; I don’t care what words they use on the building. The spirit of that place was not freedom.”

He added, “It ruined a lot of lives.”

Mr. Handville, 47, a licensed massage therapist and writer who remains deeply religious, said he had been a member of Word of Life Christian Church for several years when Mr. Irwin returned to New Hartford, N.Y., in the early 1990s and retook control of the church, which occupies a three-story former schoolhouse. (Mr. Irwin had founded the church in the 1980s before he briefly moved away and ceded leadership, Mr. Handville said.)

The pastor kicked out the old, gentler leadership and made himself answerable to nobody, Mr. Handville recalled.

“Soon he became the only authority in that church, the sole authority,” he said. “Then things broke down: respect for each other, respect for the law, respect for other people.”

Mr. Irwin decided to take over the third floor of the former schoolhouse as living quarters for himself, his wife, Traci Irwin, and their children, Mr. Handville said. He said that the pastor forced congregants — there were roughly 30 serious followers — to do the physical labor required to overhaul the space and add a play area for the children.

That included redoing the floors, plumbing, electrical wiring, gas lines and structural work, Mr. Handville said. Mr. Irwin also demanded that parishioners mow the grass, paint walls and perform routine maintenance work. He often forced them to break building codes and flout guidance from inspectors, Mr. Handville said.

Mr. Handville said he would sometimes arrive at the church after trying to spend time with his wife or children, or from working his day job, only to be forced into more hours of physical labor at the church. Depriving congregants of sleep appeared to be part of a plan to control them.

“They sleep-deprive you because you become open to suggestions, usually what they’re teaching you,” Mr. Handville said. “They’re breaking you down so they can build you up the way they want to.”

Mr. Irwin died several years ago. He handed leadership to his wife, who the authorities said was the current spiritual leader; congregants call her Mother.

Their daughter, Tiffanie Irwin, 29, is the pastor. The authorities said she called the teenage brothers to a counseling session at the church after Sunday services because she was concerned the older brother, Lucas Leonard, 19, would leave the church.

Mr. Leonard was pronounced dead the day after being beaten, and his brother, Christopher Leonard, 17, remained hospitalized with serious injuries. Their parents, Bruce T. Leonard, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, have been charged with first-degree manslaughter. One of Mr. Irwin’s sons, Joseph Irwin, 26, was among four other church members who were charged with assault in the beating.

Messages left for members of the Irwin family this week have not been answered, and a lawyer for Joseph Irwin did not respond to a message left for him on Thursday.

Mr. Handville recalled Bruce Leonard and his wife as frequent targets of Mr. Irwin’s abuse, even though he said the elder Mr. Leonard was a hard worker who loved his children and always made time for them.

“They were always on church discipline,” Mr. Handville said of the Leonards. “They were always bullied spiritually.”

He said church discipline meant that Mr. Irwin forbid other congregants to sit next to offenders at church, to talk them or to go to their houses for dinner.

“You were kind of being shamed or shunned, what Jerry would call out of a rebellious state,” Mr. Handville said. “He used that technique often.”

He said he never knew Mr. Irwin to strike or hurt members, and said he never saw anyone physically abused at the church.

But, Mr. Handville said: “I felt threatened spiritually, I felt threatened emotionally. He was very manipulative and very sly.”

The church emphasized serious Bible study. Mr. Handville said at one point he had half of the book memorized. But, he added, “There were sometimes racial slurs.” He said Mr. Irwin would also “speak harshly” to congregants at regular services, speaking about past sins in an effort to humiliate them.

“We were always told we were so rebellious,” Mr. Handville said. “I think that was so that we would do what we were told — plain and simple.”

When parishioners challenged Mr. Irwin’s methods or asked him unwanted questions, as Mr. Handville did toward the end of his tenure, Mr. Irwin lashed out, he said.

Mr. Handville said he was put on church discipline shortly before he left. He and his family were living in a mobile home owned by another parishioner, who evicted them under pressure from Mr. Irwin, he said.

He has since moved to Phoenix and made a clean break with the church, undergoing counseling and relearning a gentler form of Christianity, he said. He said he forgave Mr. Irwin for the pain he inflicted upon the church.

But Mr. Irwin apparently did not forget him; Mr. Handville heard from other members that he remained the target of angry Sunday sermons even after he left.

Kendra Szabo contributed reporting from Phoenix, and Susan C. Beachy contributed research.


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