Oct 18, 2015

Is it a cult? Authorities urge caution before assuming

Micaela Parker
Utica Observer-Dispatch
October 17, 2015

Taberg resident Bruce Barnard stood on the sidewalk in front of Word of Life Christian Church on Thursday because he wanted to see if there was “a cult inside.”

It’s how many hamlet residents referred to the church at 3354 Oneida St., the location of a violent “counseling session” that caused the death of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard and the beating of his 17-year-old brother Christopher Leonard.

“I want to see if this is a Waco, Texas, thing,” Barnard said, referring to the David Koresh-led Branch Davidians religious sect in Waco that led to 1993 raid on the center where Koresh and 79 others were found dead after shooting and a major fire. “I want to see if there’s a cult inside the church. I want to see it.”

Related content Conditions 'deplorable' for pets at the Leonard Clayville homeWitness: Father whipped sons multiple timesGRAPHIC: Who's who in the Word of Life church familyAfter standing in front of the building for several moments, he seemed to make a determination: “This is a cult.”

New Hartford Police Lt. Timothy O’Neill, however, said it's not that simple. He said the police, nor any other entities, have the authority to declare the group a cult.

“I think people tend to form opinions, usually not very generous ones, of people who are different and keep to themselves,” O’Neill said. “They were (secluded). They weren’t actively interacting with the rest of the community.”

The boys’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard of Clayville, have been charged with manslaughter in Lucas’ death.

Four other members of the church — Joseph Irwin, 26, of Chadwicks; David Morey, 26, and Linda Morey, 54, both of Utica; and the Leonards’ daughter Sarah Ferguson, 33, also of Clayville — are charged with felony second-degree assault.

Even a former Denver police officer who now consults police agencies on so-called cults said he couldn't make such a determination either without information “from inside.”

Mark Roggeman has been researching cults since about 1976 and was a board member of the Cult Awareness Network in the early 1980s.

“My question is: Is this the first time this has gotten this bad?” he asked. “I have known so many cases where there have been severe beatings (for some time.) If ex-members are saying this has never happened before, and as ex-members they could tell you a lot especially if they had problems, that would tell you a lot.”

Roggeman described the commonalities of cults, which include isolating themselves to remote locations, using psychological techniques or physical shows of force to maintain their control over their followers, as well as claims from their leader that they are God or can communicate directly with a higher power. He said ex-followers would be treated as lower than human or satanic.

Meanwhile, the New Hartford Police Department sent out a news release Saturday in response to a New York Times report that said it received a statement given to police by the church’s deacon Daniel Irwin that alleges at the end of a church service on Oct. 11, World of Life Pastor Tiffany Irwin, who is Daniel Irwin's sister, accused someone in the congregation of practicing witchcraft.

Lucas Leonard admitted to the accusation, the Times reported, saying that he “wanted church elders to die and had considered making a voodoo doll of a church leader.”

The New Hartford Police Department’s release emphasized that both Lucas Leonard and Christopher Leonard are “true victims,” and that the attacks were initiated in response to their desire to leave the church. The release also stated that there is currently no evidence to support allegations that Lucas Leonard was engaged in such activity.

In an interview with the O-D on Thursday, Chadwick M. Handville, a former church member now living in Arizona, detailed his experience with the church, calling it a controlling and domineering institution. But he noted that as far as he had been aware, no one was physically injured by church authorities while he was a member in the 1990s.

He said members were sleep deprived, manipulated and lied to. Jerry Irwin, the founder of the church and father of defendant |Joseph Irwin, would publicly berate parishioners who questioned his authority and had them ostracized from the rest of the group, he said.

Local authorities have no information or knowledge to say that counseling, while a church practice, was conducted in the manner and level that resulted in the death of Lucas Leonard and hospitalization of Christopher Leonard.

“Can I absolutely say this is the first time people were beaten? I can’t,” O'Neill said. “We get bits and pieces from people; there hasn’t been a lot of forthcoming information. The counseling was a practice within the church. This kind of behavior, beatings, we have no knowledge of information to suggest this has been happening before now.”

He said that while current members of the church have not been cooperative, former members have been coming forward and communicating with police.


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