SPINDALE, North Carolina — When Rutherford County’s child protection agency seeks to investigate allegations of abuse at Word of Faith Fellowship, it runs smack into two major obstacles: a habitual lack of cooperation from church members and a court-ordered compromise that limits what can trigger an inquiry and how social workers can question minors.

Word of Faith has been investigated numerous times over the course of decades without serious consequences, in large part because church leader Jane Whaley orders congregants to lie to and mislead authorities, according to dozens of former followers interviewed by The Associated Press.

In 1995, for example, the State Bureau of Investigation interviewed Whaley, sect leaders and dozens of former members about abuse allegations. Investigators determined congregants — including children — had been mistreated, but the district attorney ultimately declined to prosecute, saying any case would be undermined by most victims’ recalcitrance.

Whaley and a dozen church families sued the Rutherford County Department of Social Services in 2003, contending they were being targeted because of their religious beliefs. The agency settled the lawsuit two years later, agreeing to a list of stipulations dictating how it can investigate reports of child abuse.

Word of Faith received guarantees that abuse inquiries could no longer be solely based on objections to such core practices as “blasting,” when congregants surround a church member and shriek for hours in an attempt to expel demons.

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