Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 17, 2001

Church faces abuse probe over whipping of children
By Alan Judd, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Authorities are investigating a massive case of alleged abuse by parents of as many as 60 children from the same northwest Atlanta church.
The Rev. Arthur Allen

Already, state social workers have removed 19 children from the homes of three members of the House of Prayer, 1194 Hollywood Road. Another church member said Friday evening that social workers had indicated they soon would take 11 of his children.

Atlanta police and social workers are looking into reports that church members systematically held down their children while beating them with belts and other objects - allegedly under the direction of the pastor, the Rev. Arthur Allen.

Allen acknowledged Friday that in 1993, a DeKalb County judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail for child abuse after he ordered a church member to beat her teenage daughter for having sex in a building where a Bible study group was meeting.

Friday evening, Allen took a defiant stance in the gravel parking lot of his church, as 75 church members crowded around and shouted encouragement under the glare of television lights.

The Bible, Allen said, gives parents the authority to "whip" their children.

"We believe in corporal punishment for unruly children," Allen said. "If something is reported in here, the parent saying they cannot handle the child, then I suggest they give the child a whipping."

"That's right," members of the congregation murmured.

"It's usually a belt - what I used to get in school," Allen added.

If authorities think he and his congregation committed a crime, he said, "Lock us up."

No criminal charges have been filed.

But authorities stressed Friday that their probe is far from complete.

"The case is continuing under active investigation," said Renee Huie, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources. "We are going to interview other children and other families. If it appears that other children have been abused, then we would seek an order from a judge" to remove them from their homes.

"This is a highly unusual situation," Huie said, noting that investigators are concerned that as many as 60 children may have been abused.

"Given the pastor's view on discipline in the church," she said, "we thought it would be wise to continue to investigate and see if others have been abused."

The alleged abuse came to the attention of authorities on Feb. 28, when a first-grader at Atlanta's C.W. Hill Elementary complained to his teacher about back pain.

The teacher found welt marks and called in social workers, said Seth Coleman, an Atlanta Public Schools spokesman. After an investigation, three social workers came to the school on March 9 and took the first-grader, his younger and older sisters and three other children from another family, Coleman said.

A 7-year-old boy told detectives that his uncle whipped him with a "big switch" at the church while three other men held him down, according to a police report. The beating left him with bruises on his abdomen and back, the boy said.

A 10-year-old boy told police that an adult beat him on his back at the church as another adult held his arms and two men held his legs. The boy said that Allen, the pastor, was "watching and telling them when to stop," according to the police report.

None of the children who have been placed in foster homes required hospitalization, authorities said. But Georgia law defines child abuse as punishment that leaves welts or marks, Huie said.

Nevertheless, Allen said the lack of serious injury proves that no abuse occurred.

"One of the teachers that reported the allegation stated she noticed some red marks on one of the children," Allen said. "Now the policeman reported yesterday that the child was brutally beaten. Now it's reduced to red marks. . . . The doctors didn't give him any medicine and said he did not need any treatment. It was not a severe beating."

The church has had all the children in its congregation examined by doctors, Allen said, and "the doctors haven't reported one case of abuse."

Allen, 68, founded the church about 35 years ago, and many of the members who gathered there Friday evening said that they grew up in the congregation. About 130 people, many of them children, regularly attend services there.

Allen said children from the congregation have been beaten at church, at school and in their homes. He said he tells parents to restrain their children "so that they would not hit the child in any vital spots to hurt the child."

Church members said the punishment is appropriate.

"We don't overly abuse our children," said Tabitha Houston, 18, who was married two years ago with what she described as Allen's "approval."

Houston's father, James Smith, said he ordered social workers off his property Friday after they threatened to take away his 11 children living at his home.

"My children are big," Smith said. "It's hard to whip them. Sometimes they move around." He denied abusing the children.

"It's the church they're after," he said of investigators. "I'm in the church. They're going after anything to get something on the church."

David Duncan, the father of the 10-year-old boy who described his beating to police, declined to answer questions about how his children were disciplined.

"The only thing I can say," Duncan said, "is, Jesus is Lord."

Staff writers Joshua B. Good, S.A. Reid and Ron Martz contributed to this report.

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