An Indiana pastor and other church employees are accused of beating children in their care with a wooden paddle as punishment.
Gerald Harris, pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church in Sellersburg, was arrested earlier this week on battery and neglect charges, reported the Courier-Journal.
The 47-year-old Harris operates a boarding academy for mostly out-of-state students, and while parents, teachers and caregivers are permitted to discipline children, prosecutors said the pastor and his staff crossed the line to “criminal battery.”
Police and Child Protective Services discovered the alleged abuse after conducting a welfare check Tuesday at the Well of Grace Boarding Academy, where investigators interviewed children ages 8 to 19 years old.
Five children claimed workers “whipped” them with a wooden paddle, which authorities said caused “serious bruising,” and an 8-year-old boy told police that an employee tied a rope around his waist and jerked him around as punishment for misbehavior.
That employee, 21-year-old Christopher Williams, was also arrested.
The pastor is accused of whipping a 16-year-old boy with the paddle in front of other students as punishment for smirking when he was ordered to continue reading from the Bible.
Authorities in Kentucky alerted police in Indiana after one of the students complained about the abuse while selling candy in Owensboro.
The child told a customer that he feared he would be whipped if he didn’t sell enough candy, the newspaper reported.
All of the children have been removed from the church and returned to their parents or placed in child protective custody.
Investigators said they still don’t know much about the school, when it began operations or how parents learned of it.
The school’s Facebook page indicates it serves boys who are “heading down the paths of destruction” through “addictions and their reckless living,” and administrators say they teach discipline and work ethic to transform “unwanted and seemingly ruined lives into Godly young men.”
City officials in Clarksville said the church had applied for a zoning change several years ago to open a school, but no change was made to the regulatory code.
Neighbors have reported seeing boys doing yard work and visiting area towns to sell candy with the church’s name on it.