Kids in Care for Church Abuse Probe

ATLANTA (AP) - A 7-year-old boy covered in bloody welts and a 10-year-old with an open wound on his belly were among 41 children put into foster care while police investigate church-sponsored beatings and arranged marriages.

Juvenile Court Judge Sanford Jones on Wednesday ordered the children to be held for up to a year following a two-day hearing into practices at the 130-member nondenominational House of Prayer, led by the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr.

Allen, 68, is accused of presiding over sessions where children are held by their arms and legs and whipped by several adults with belts and switches. The preacher is also accused of forcing girls to wed after they turn 14, saying they must marry or risk becoming a burden to their family.

Parents of the children, who range in age from several months to 17 years, readily admitted to the beatings and arranged marriages, saying they were following Scripture and that the government had no business telling them how to discipline their offspring.

After seeing photos of a young boy's torso covered in welts, Jones disagreed.

``I hate to see these children jeopardized by what I consider to be a cult,'' Jones said, adding he wanted to reunite the families but couldn't expose the children to danger.

Jones asked one parent, David Duncan Sr., if he thought the beatings constituted abuse.

``The only way I can answer that, sir, is that we're going to raise our children according to the Bible,'' Duncan said.

``Well, the Good Lord isn't deciding whether you get your kids back here. I am,'' Jones replied.

Parents of nine of the children were told they could have custody if they agreed not to allow their children to be beaten at church or married before age 16. The parents refused to comply.

Allen has called the beatings simple discipline.

``The Bible says that if you spare the rod you're going to spoil the child,'' he said last week. ``I have the Scriptures that give me the right to do it.''

One former church member, 25-year-old Tanyaneeka Barnett, testified that Allen often called teen-age girls to the front of the church, lifted their skirts and touched their thighs or buttocks.

Another former church member told the court she was forced to marry at 15 and beaten for refusing to have sex with her 23-year-old husband. Georgia prohibits marriage before 16, but the church conducts the ceremonies in Alabama.

The state took the children two weeks ago after finding welts, bruises and at least one open wound on the two boys, 7 and 10. The boys said they were beaten for misbehaving.

Police charged Allen and six members of his church with inflicting or allowing excessive beatings. In 1993, Allen was jailed 30 days for child abuse for ordering a church member to beat her teen-age daughter.

Two of the children in custody are teen-age sisters who Allen says are married, one with a child who is also in foster care. The judge said he would consider releasing them at a hearing next week.

Allen led a prayer session at the church Tuesday night, telling parents that God would return their children.

His eyes welling up with tears, Allen waved an infant girl in the air and railed against the state for allowing abortion but taking children away from God-fearing people.

AP-NY-03-29-01 0252EST

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.