Minors remain at risk and are being forced to work against their will by a Brazilian church with ties to the U.S.-based Word of Faith Fellowship, a senior labor prosecutor said Wednesday after the initial hearing in a civil suit seeking the dissolution of the local church and the school it runs.
The Ministerio Evangelico Comunidade Rhema church in the city of Franco da Rocha has refused to cease practices that authorities have alleged amount to forced labor, said Catarina von Zuben, the national coordinator for prosecutors who work on combatting modern-day slavery in Brazil.
"This action aims to make these practices stop, to make this exploitation stop, particularly of minors, of children," von Zuben told The Associated Press after the closed hearing.
Brazilian authorities opened multiple investigations after the AP reported in July that leaders of Word of Faith Fellowship — based in rural Spindale, North Carolina — created a pipeline of young Brazilian congregants who told of being taken to the U.S. and forced to work for little or no pay.
Wednesday was the first time that former church members who have said they were mistreated were able to face off in court with local pastors Solange da Silva Granieri Oliveira and Juarez de Souza Oliveira, who also are named in the labor prosecutors' suit.
"It's a pleasure for me to watch justice being done," said Flavio Correa, a longtime member who left the church in 2016 complaining of abusive practices.
Both pastors and their lawyers declined to speak with the AP after the hearing, but investigators have said the church leaders have denied any wrongdoing.
During the closed session, the judge ordered that documents that had been under seal be made available to the defense, von Zuben said. The judge then scheduled another hearing for July.
Word of Faith Fellowship is a secretive evangelical sect founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam. Over the decades, it has grown to a congregation of nearly 750 people in rural North Carolina, with hundreds more followers extending to Brazil, Ghana and other countries.
Dozens of former congregants in both the U.S. and Brazil have told the AP that Whaley rules all the branches with an iron fist and that church members — including children — are regularly attacked verbally and physically in an effort to "purify" sinners.
In the suit filed March 1 in a labor court in Sao Paulo state, prosecutors cited testimony that contained harrowing details of a wide range of alleged abuses within the Rhema church, including how long the marks from a beating with a ruler were evident on a child's body.
Children and adults alike said they were worked to the point of exhaustion and feared punishment, social isolation or separation from their families if they resisted.
In recent years, Brazil — which once was the world's largest slave market — has increasingly cracked down on labor practices it deems to be tantamount to slavery.
In addition to asking a judge to shut down the church and school, the prosecutors want the church to pay a fine of at least $153,000 to a workers' compensation fund and at least $15,000 to each identified victim.
Gustavo Reis de Souza, who says he was physically and emotionally abused while he attended the church-run school, waited for his mother outside Wednesday's hearing.
"I suffered a lot and I don't want other people to go through this," the 15-year-old said, adding that he thought closing the school would help other children. "They're in there and they don't have the courage to leave."