'It's definitely a cult,' says ex-Johnston church member where Sunday school teacher was arrested
It began with the arrest of a Sunday school teacher on 13 charges of sexually assaulting children earlier this month. Now, investigators with the Johnston County Sheriff's Office are speaking with more people who have come forward to say they too were molested or abused in other ways at the church.Posted — Updated
Now, investigators with the Johnston County Sheriff's Office are speaking with more people who have come forward to say they too were molested or abused in other ways at the church.
Some of those same people have reached out to WRAL News, saying they will no longer be silent.
Not unlike the opaque windows of the Firstborn Baptist Church in Benson that let in very little light, seven former members tell us there is a dark climate within those church walls.
"There's this culture of fear and you have to obey the ultimate leader and authority," said Cherith Roberson, 32, a former church member. "And it starts from the beginning."
Roberson's family joined when she was 7 years old.
"It was taught, it was preached about, that you break a child's spirit. And you do that by whatever means necessary," she said.
Her little sister, Beka Foust, was just 5 years old.
"I knew this was not normal," Foust said. "I didn't know what normal was."
The sisters said all the children attended school at church. They said they were told what to wear, what to believe, and were not allowed contact with anyone on the outside.
"You were ostracized from everybody else," Foust said.
And they said there were serious consequences for breaking rules.
"They would put me in the closet with a light out and I would just sit there all day," Foust said. "I was allowed to eat once."
"There was a lot of physical and emotional abuse that went way beyond spanking," Roberson said. "From spanking, to beating, there was a huge paddle in the church school that I attended."
They said church members were publicly humiliated from the pulpit and children were beaten so others could hear their screams.
Roberson said it happened to her friend. "She was beaten and everybody in the school could hear it happening."
Roberson left the church when she was 18 years old, and was disowned by her family.
"They were encouraged to cut off all access to me," she said.
Her family finally left too, and they were reunited.
The sisters said they had to come forward when Sunday school teacher Jonathan Young was charged earlier this month with molesting three girls from the church even though they never thought he would be the one arrested.
"I grew up with him," Roberson said. "We were like siblings.
"It was the worst thing you could hear," said Roberson of the news of Young's arrest. "It was someone we cared about and loved and trusted."
The church's pastor is Kemp Young, and he is the great uncle of the man charged. He spoke to WRAL News shortly after the Sunday school teacher's arrest.
"I'm heartbroken by it all because it's unbelievable," Young told WRAL News on July 3. "I hate if anyone is hurt on either side, but the young man is ruined now. I hate it and I don't know what else to say about it."
Young declined our request for an interview on Tuesday to discuss these new accusations. He told WRAL he refuses to dwell in negativity and that we are not getting credible feedback about what the church is really like.
Both women said several of their peers confided over the years they had been molested by men at the church.
"I know there has been a culture of covering up this kind of activity since the 1980s, at least," Roberson said. "For decades."
They said the victims and their families were asked to leave, while the men stayed on in leadership roles, perpetuating the abuse.
"If you look up the definition of cult in the dictionary, I'm pretty sure the picture of this church would be right beside of it," Roberson said. "It's definitely a cult."
"I understand it's hard when you're in a cult," Foust said. "You don't see it until you're out of it."
"It's not okay that children have been treated this way, disrespected, mentally and physically abused for decades," Roberson said.
WRAL has spoken with five other former church members in-depth about these allegations: three women and two men, and their experiences are very similar to what the sisters shared with us.
One of the women said she and others were sexually abused by church leaders.
The Johnston County Sheriff's Office said the scope of its investigation has widened since it charged Young earlier this month. Because additional charges have not been filed at this time, WRAL is not identifying specific people accused of wrong-doing.
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