Before this week, few people knew about what went on inside the brick walls of the Word of Life Christian Church in the village of Chadwicks, within the town of New Hartford, New York. But the recent beating to death of Lucas Leonard, a teenage church member, has begun to pull back the veil on the mysterious group, and details from law enforcement of the incident are consistent with what academics call “religious abuse” and possibly cult-like practices.
Police say that following Sunday Mass on October 11, six church members, including the 19-year-old’s parents Bruce and Deborah Leonard, beat him so he would confess his sins during a “counseling session.” The beating was so bad that family members eventually took Lucas to a hospital, where he died from blunt force trauma to his abdomen, back, thighs and genitals. Law enforcement later found that his brother, Christopher, also showed signs of assault. He too was hospitalized.
Deborah and Bruce Leonard face manslaughter charges and are each being held in lieu of $100,000 bail. A felony hearing was scheduled for Friday. Four more church members, including the boys’ half sister, face assault charges.
Mary Alice Crapo, author of the nonfiction book Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free From Churches That Abuse, says the details of the Word of Life incident are “absolutely” consistent with those from accounts she has studied and indicate a fringe or cult-like abusive church. “In their minds, they’re thinking they’re helping him. And even though the parents cringe, they really don’t want to do it, they feel bad about it, they’re also pressured by that group.”
In the early 1990s, around the time when about 80 people at a religious compound occupied by the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, died during a standoff with law enforcement, experts in psychology, sociology and religion began writing about what they called religious or spiritual abuse. Cult-like churches are not always as overt as the Branch Davidians. Such abuse can happen anywhere—from small Bible-study groups to mega-churches, the experts say.
In 1991, the Spiritual Counterfeits Project published a 37-question checklist to help people discern if their churches or religious groups were abusive, with questions like: “Does your church interact with other churches?” “Does your church staff avoid secrecy?” “Are your children happy to attend church?”
“If you’re in that church, it’s so subtle,” says Crapo, who is the survivor of what she describes as a New Age cult. “People don’t understand their minds. They think, Oh, my mind’s strong, I’d never believe that.”
The New England Institute of Religious Research describes “aberrational Christian or Bible-based” groups as following “some [religious] principle of greater strictness, more single-minded dedication, or more intense renunciation of the world and its attractions.” Such groups often take scripture out of context, the institute says, separate members from the outside world and practice “spiritual elitism.”
In his 1992 book Churches That Abuse, Ronald Enroth identifies several characteristics of abusive churches, including controlling leaders who manipulate members and impose on them rigid lifestyles, and who make it difficult for members to leave. One victim told Enroth she felt leaving the church would “endanger her salvation, as well as the salvation of her outside friends and family.”
Religious abuse “is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honor in our society by virtue of their role as religious leaders,” Enroth wrote. “The perversion of power that we see in abusive churches disrupts and divides families, fosters an unhealthy dependence of members on the leadership, and creates, ultimately, spiritual confusion in the lives of victims.”
Little is known about the Irwin family, which reportedly ran Word of Life in Chadwicks. But its mysterious practices are consistent with accounts in Enroth’s book.
“I had never heard of [the church] before, and I’ve lived here in the area for 67 years,” says an employee at a church in New Hartford, who asked Newsweek not to name her or her church because she did not have permission to speak to the press.
“The parishioners at my church have always been puzzled by what kind of a church that is,” says Reverend Terry Sheldon of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Chadwicks. “People said nobody came in, nobody went out. So it was quite a mystery building.”
According to The New York Times, a prosecutor said Thursday the beating may not have involved the confession of sins, but rather may have occurred because Lucas planned to defect.
Difficulty leaving is a key aspect of abusive churches, experts say. Lois Gibson, an abusive church survivor who now runs support groups through her website Spiritual Abuse, says the mentality is, “You will be doomed if you leave. They’re not like a healthy church where if somebody decided to leave for whatever reason, they wouldn’t feel like they were leaving the ‘truth’ or leaving God or something bad was going to happen to them.”
Since she started her website in 1997, Gibson says she has heard from hundreds of people who said they were the victims of abusive churches across the United States and abroad, including Canada, Australia and England.
If the beatings did in fact involve confession, that too could be a sign of cult-like practices. “Confessions are really, really powerful in the mind to control people,” Crapo says. Gibson agrees, saying sometimes church leaders will later use confessed information against members in order to blackmail them.
The lengthy Word of Life beating, as police have described it, matches victims’ accounts from Enroth’s book. One victim told Enroth, “‘There was punching, hitting, children were whipped with belts, women were whipped with belts.’ This behavior was defined as ‘love’ for the victim, because, ‘if you really love someone, then you’re going to pay the price for that person to be set free.’”
Another account from Enroth’s book said public confessions would last “anywhere from four to 20 hours. These sessions usually usually took place at night.… These intimate details, including those related to one’s sexual behavior, were [later] brought up over and over again to produce feelings of deep guilt.”
Even the lawyer for Deborah Leonard, Devin Garramone, says the signs point to cultlike practices, of which he says his client was a victim. “In my meeting with my client, right away I had the distinct feeling that this woman had some sort of trauma about her. She was very meek and timid.” She was a member of the church for decades, Garramone says, “so that’s a long time to get indoctrinated.”
Garramone adds, “She’s very distraught and she breaks down and cries sometimes when I get into what went on. She’s reckoning with a lot and I think this may be the first time in a long time that she’s been on her own away from the church and she’s dealing with a lot. Maybe she’s realizing for the first time how manipulated she had become.”
Donald Gerace, a lawyer for Bruce Leonard, paints a different picture of the church and its practices: “Everything I’ve learned about the church…has indicated that the church has regular Sunday services: It has Bible study; it has an outreach program to provide food to disadvantaged individuals; it has regular annual events.”
Referring to his client, Gerace adds, “What had occurred was as a result of a revelation to him by his son regarding some of his son’s past behavior, and it’s an unfortunate and tragic event affecting the lives of many people now.”