Fulton County Sheriff Jackie Barrett said she will make it a priority to track down three House of Prayer members who have refused to forswear the lash in disciplining their children.
"That doesn't mean we stop looking for people who have warrants for rape, robbery and murder -- but I don't want this one to linger," Barrett said of the high-profile case.
On Friday, Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford reissued arrest warrants for the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr. and David and Sharon Duncan after the three skipped a court hearing to determine if their probation for child cruelty should be revoked.
Their lawyer, Manny Arora, said he hasn't been able to find his clients. Several members of the close-knit church of about 130, including dozens of children, said the pastor wasn't in church Sunday. And, on both Thursday and Friday, church members said they hadn't seen him recently and refused to say when they'd last spoken to him.
The 70-year-old Allen's apparent absence is unusual because he has run the independent church on Hollywood Road, in a poor part of northwest Atlanta, for more than 35 years and is deeply involved in his followers' lives. Now the outspoken pastor's phone is disconnected. Neither Allen nor his wife, Trina, who have seven children under the age of 18, answered the door at his house Thursday evening or Friday afternoon. Allen's Jaguar was parked in the driveway of his modest blue stucco house, and a note left on it Thursday remained there Friday.
Meanwhile, the Duncans have vacated their house on Culpepper Street in Atlanta, leaving behind clothing, toys and furniture on the lawn. Church members, including a brother-in-law, said they don't know the whereabouts of the family, which includes at least eight children under 18.
"It certainly seems like the Duncans, at least, have absconded," Bedford said. Bedford said he wanted to listen to what Allen and the Duncans have to say before making a decision on whether to send them to prison.
Allen preaches a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child theology and oversaw whippings of children at the church when he deemed the punishment was warranted. Last October, a jury convicted him, the Duncans and two other church members of cruelty to children after two boys, then 10 and 7, showed up at at school with welts. The older boy is one of the Duncans' sons.
Judge Bedford sentenced Allen to 90 days in jail and 10 years on probation, David Duncan to 40 days in jail and eight years on probation and Sharon Duncan to 20 days in jail and five years on probation.
Probation officers testified Friday that Allen and the Duncans had refused to go to anger-management counseling because they objected to Bedford's order that they abstain from whipping their children with a belt. Bedford had ordered that any corporal punishment only be administered by open hand on clothed buttocks.
David Duncan, a 45-year-old welder, said the court was interfering with his religious right to discipline his children with a belt, said Keith Raikes, the Duncans' probation officer. "He would not go to counseling because of his religious convictions," Raikes said. "He said if he had to go to jail ... he would do so."
Allen and his church were thrust into the spotlight in March 2001 when the state Division of Family and Children Services took 49 children from six church families after teachers reported the welts on the boys, who had been whipped in church.
DFCS will not play a role in the search, spokeswoman Renee Huie said Friday.
"It's really in law enforcement's hands now," Huie said. "DFCS doesn't have any role unless the children are found and DFCS is called in. . . . The children are not under our jurisdiction."
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