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Patty Leon: It was happening right here, in our own backyard
Patty Leon new

I watched the A& E documentary series called “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath” when it was being aired on TV. Remini, best known for the TV series “The King of Queens” and “Kevin Can Wait,” was speaking out against the Church of Scientology and its methods of “disconnecting” family members who left the church from those who remained.

 Her mother was a member, and Remini was in the church from age 8 until 2013. She uncovered their manipulation tactics, the brain-washing techniques, and the leader’s power-hungry need for greed and money at the expense of the church members. 

I had heard all about Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who is serving a life sentence for raping the underage children he “married” while leading many of his male followers to do the same — of course, in the name of God. As the sole individual in the FLDS Church with the authority to perform marriages, Jeffs was responsible for assigning wives to husbands. He also had the authority to discipline male church members by “reassigning” their wives, children and homes to another man. Despite being in jail, it is reported that Jeffs continues to run the church to this day.

David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, told his followers he was the Messiah and that all women, including underage girls, were his spiritual wives.

We’ve seen what Jim Jones did to his People’s Temple followers. We’ve seen what happened to the followers of Heaven’s Gate.

These were not churches; these were all cults.

Keith Raniere, the former leader of another cult called NXIVM, was convicted in June 2019 on charges of sexual exploitation of a child, sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and more. He was sentenced to 120 years in prison.

We’ve all heard about cases such as this, but when it is planted right in our own backyard, we tend to want to shut our eyes to the truth. But I saw it happening and couldn’t believe it was happening in Hinesville. In Liberty County.

I wasn’t the only one, though.

In May 2017, I met a small but powerful group of former members of House of Prayer. Someone had called the newspaper and told me there was a protest going on that I should check out. That is when I met Gladys Jordan, Jenessa Wright, Denise Stanley and Diana Carrasquillo. Soon after, I met former pastors Ray Yorke and Arlen Bradeen and other former members.

The few in the inner senior circle of church leader Rony Denis were doing many of the same things these other cults did. The allegations included manipulating the vulnerable, shaming folks into doing what they wanted, brainwashing their followers, assigning and reassigning wives to men, using the benefits of veteran members for personal wealth and gain, buying homes in church members’ names by forging documents without their knowledge — the list keeps going. I listened, I researched, and I reported on this.

In one instance, I reviewed court documents describing a case in which a current church member testified she had not filed a tax return in 32 years because she was a servant of the church and a housewife. Yet this same woman, with zero income, according to her own court testimony, was able to secure a mortgage to purchase a $500,000 home in the city. I had mortgage companies call me to say something is fishy — duh!

These homes were/are being bought in members’ name and then RENTED out to other members. They are refinanced often, pulling any and all equity and lining the church leader’s pockets. These homes then end up in foreclosure and typically are bought in another member’s name, where the circle continues. I know, because they were listed in our Classifieds section of the paper.

Kids were taught at the church. Kids were “graduating” but unable to attend college and post-secondary education because their school diplomas were not worth a cent.

Young girls were sent with Denis to his Florida mansion, where they were allegedly abused for talking about boys. I spoke directly to one of the young girls this happened to. But when you call yourself a church, seem to function (to the outside world) as a church and preach the word of God as most churches do, the outside world doesn’t see the crimes that might be happening inside the church itself. I’m glad House of Prayer and some of its affiliate churches are being investigated by the FBI. I hope they have stuff that sticks. But I also have questions. I spoke with people who had the authority to look into many of these allegations — and nothing ever happened.

Things the make me go, “Hmm.” I’m not done yet.

Patty Leon is senior editor of the Coastal Courier.

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