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6 N.Y. church members arrested after teen dies in assault

2015-10-28 Source:CNN Author:CNN

According to CNN on Oct. 15, 2015, A counseling session on the spiritual state of two brothers turned physical at Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, New York, resulting in the death of a young man and serious injuries to his brother, New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra said Wednesday.

The Leonards enter court for their arraignment on Tuesday.Photo: AP

Their parents, Bruce T. Leonard, 65, and Deborah R. Leonard, 59, each face one count of first-degree manslaughter, a Class B felony. The Leonards were each ordered held on $100,000 bail at arraignment Wednesday. Four other church members were charged with second-degree assault, also a felony.

Family members took Lucas Leonard, 19, by car Monday afternoon to a hospital in nearby Utica. New Hartford police said Leonard was injured during an assault and was pronounced dead Monday at the hospital.

Leonard's 17-year-old brother, Christopher, was hospitalized in serious condition after suffering blunt force trauma injuries also, police said.

The assaults occurred after a Sunday night service at the church, which is located about 250 miles north of New York City. The congregation held what Inserra called a "counseling session" for the two brothers.

But the session became violent, the police chief said.

"Both brothers were continually subjected to physical punishment over the course of several hours in the hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness," he said.

On Monday, Lucas Leonard was taken to the hospital after church members found he wasn't breathing, Inserra said. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

An autopsy showed Leonard suffered multiple contusions from blunt force trauma to the torso and extremities, Inserra said.

"It was determined that the combination of injuries and the duration of assault contributed to his death," Inserra said, adding that the cause of death was pending further examination.

Police were originally called to the hospital and told that Leonard had been shot. Inserra said the shooting report was unfounded. Police learned of the assaults after interviewing church members.

Authorities found several children in the church and called in child protective services.

According to New York Post, “I’m really afraid. In my heart, I don’t think this is the first incident,” said Eva Monaghan, who lives around the corner from Word of Life. “Over all the years, I can’t imagine this is the first thing. Maybe nothing as bad. Around town, it’s considered a cult.”

According to Washington Post, when asked about claims that it was a cult, Inserra told reporters: “I’ve heard that term on the street and I’ve even read it in the news.” But, he said, a police investigation hadn’t yet shown it to be true.

According to Newsweek, 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.”

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.

Ronald Enroth ,the author of Churches That Abuse, which published in 1992, said in his book that public confessions would last “anywhere from four to 20 hours. These sessions 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.”