LOUISVILLE — A Sellersburg, Ind., pastor and fellow church workers are accused of beating multiple children in their care with a wooden paddle.
Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Jeremy Mull said the alleged abuse occurred at Crossroads Baptist Church, led by Pastor Gerald Harris. It operates a boarding academy complete with dormitories and classrooms for mostly out of state students, he said.
While parents, teachers and caretakers are allowed to discipline children "in a legal way," Mull said, the bruising allegedly seen on the children constituted criminal abuse.
"That's the point where, in my opinion as a prosecutor, it crosses the line from appropriate discipline to a criminal battery," he said.
Harris, 47, and Christopher Williams, 21, were both arrested earlier this week and face preliminary charges of battery and neglect of a dependent, said Clarksville Chief of Police Mark Palmer in a news release. Clark County Jail records indicate both live at the church.
Clarksville police and Child Protective Services did a welfare check at the church Tuesday and interviewed children ranging in age from 8 to 19. They told investigators of "various forms of punishment," Palmer said.
An 8-year-old boy said Williams tied a rope around his waist and jerked him around "for not behaving."
An 11-year-old boy with "very serious bruising" on his buttocks and legs told investigators he was also hit with the paddle by both Williams and Harris when he wet his bed.
The pastor allegedly made one 16-year-old stand before the other boys to be hit with the paddle after Harris told him to keep reading his Bible and believed the teen gave him a smirk, the boy told police.
Students at the academy were also told they could not use the bathroom once the lights were turned off at night, according to the affidavit.
Kentucky law enforcement tipped off Clarksville Police after they learned of children from the boarding academy who were selling candy bars in Owensboro, Ky., Mull said. One of the children allegedly told a customer he feared he would be whipped if he didn't sell enough candy.
All children have since been removed from the church and returned to their parents or Child Protective Custody, Mull said.
Williams appeared Thursday afternoon in Clark County Circuit Court in Jeffersonville, Ind., where he was advised of his rights by Judge Andrew Adams. Supporters of Williams who appeared in court declined comment. He is next due to appear in court Tuesday (Sept. 8) in the afternoon.
Harris bonded out of jail, Mull said, but will likely appear early next week in court when formal charges are filed against both. A probable cause affidavit represents only one side of the case.
Further charges could be filed as the investigation continues, Mull said, though he said he does not believe more adults harmed the children.
Mull said he knows little about the school, such as when it began operations, how out-of-state parents found out about the school or how many total students attended. "We're looking at exactly what the arrangements were for keeping the kids, what the philosophy was, what the reasonings were for kids being here," Mull said.
Clarksville Building Commissioner Ilpo Majuri also visited the property Tuesday and ordered the owners to cease 24/7 residential operations, he said. Owners of the church had come before the city at a board meeting a few years ago stating they were thinking of opening a school on the premises, but no rezoning ever occurred, Majuri said.
"I think they are trying to comply," he noted.
Mike Staggs, who operates a mobile home community next to the church, said he sometimes sees the boys out mowing grass or doing other chores on the church property. A few boys came by his office last month selling candy, he said.
"But we never saw anything out of the ordinary," he said.
Katherine Taul said two boys from the school stopped by her Versailles, Ind., office in January selling candies and giving out cards with the church's name and number.
"I wish I had asked the boys more questions," she wrote to The Courier-Journal. "I remember trying to research the place, but wasn't able to find much, which I also thought strange."
According to the school's Facebook page, the Well of Grace Boarding Academy "is a boys home under the authority of Crossroads Baptist Church."
Its stated goals include "reaching school age boys heading down the paths of destruction" and "watching the transformation of unwanted, and seemingly ruined lives into Godly young men."
(Glowicki reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.)
LM END GLOWICKI