(J.Lee Grady) The church is called Word of Life Christian Center, but the tiny Pentecostal congregation in New Hartford, New York, is now known for death. It made headlines earlier this month when a 19-year-old member, Lucas Leonard, died during a so-called “counseling session” that involved 10 hours of beatings and interrogation. Six members of the church now face criminal charges for the incident, which also left Lucas’ 17-year-old brother, Christopher, hospitalized. Most of the group’s 20 members were afraid to speak to the media. But a former member, Chadwick Handville, who now lives in Arizona, told The New York Times that the church had become a cult.

“Everybody who’s gone there is a victim of abuse,” Handville said. “This was a cult. This was not a church; I don’t care what words they use on the building. The spirit of that place was not freedom.” How does this happen? Handville said Word of Life was not always unhealthy. But founder Jerry Irwin reportedly used manipulation, shaming, heavy-handed threats and even sleep deprivation to control the lives of church members. Even the parents of the young man who died felt helpless to stop the fatal beatings because members were never allowed to question church leadership. FULL REPORT