Church dispute spills onto Internet

Web site airs accusations of impropriety by pastor

May 15, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Seventeen years after a federal court ruled that his church used undue influence to obtain more than $6 million from a donor, a Baltimore-based evangelist faces a new controversy in a different venue - the Internet.

In recent months, former and current members of Baltimore's Greater Grace World Outreach have used an Internet bulletin board to air criticism and charges against the church's leadership and its aging founder, Pastor Carl H. Stevens Jr.

The bulletin board, which has drawn more than 3,100 postings from as far away as India and Argentina, is among hundreds of Internet sites set up by dissident former church members to discredit or reform religious groups founded in recent decades, scholars say.

Jean-Francois Mayer, author of six books on new religious movements, said the Web sites have made it increasingly difficult for leaders to quiet internal critics or control their public image. "Damage control is made nearly impossible," he said.

In the case of Greater Grace, critics have accused church leaders of paying off an angry husband to cover up an adulterous affair by a prominent clergy member. Bulletin board participants also say that Stevens, 74, has suffered in the past year from an addiction to prescription pain-killers that at times, they say, affected his ability to preach.

"Gait problems, slurred speech, increased confusion, short-term memory loss, thoughts and stories focused on the long ago past," wrote Jeannie Byrne, who joined Stevens' ministry in the 1970s, listing symptoms she said she had observed. "This was very apparent to even the congregation."

In a sign that Greater Grace is concerned about the Internet site, Stevens recently acknowledged on his weekday radio program, The Grace Hour, that he had taken pain medication but insisted he had not abused it.

"I had 10 pills since last October by an internist when I had phenomenal pain in my disc and hips," said Stevens, whose Sunday morning services draw as many as 2,000 people to his church in the old Frankford Plaza shopping center on the city's eastern edge.

Church leaders did not directly address the charge that Greater Grace paid off a husband after he posted a lengthy account on the Internet in 1999 detailing an affair between his wife and a clergy member.

Instead, Pastor Michael E. Marr, a Baltimore attorney who serves as the church's director of public relations, read the following statement:

"The parties agreed if they were asked about this particular matter or any related matter that they shall decline to answer and respond only that: `The matter has been satisfactorily resolved in the interest of all parties, in the spirit of Jesus Christ and that no controversy exists between the parties.'"

"I believe you will find that that matter was removed from the Internet," added Marr, who is also an elder in the church. "That is a powerful statement that one should draw a very favorable inference from."

Marr insisted, "No money has ever been used to buy people's silence, period!"

Stevens declined to speak for this article, according to Marr.

In recent years, critics have taken advantage of the freedom, low cost and anonymity of the Internet to target many groups, among them the Church of Scientology, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

Mayer, a lecturer in religious studies at Switzerland's University of Fribourg, estimates that hundreds of critical Web sites in various languages have emerged since the late 1990s to press for greater openness and accountability from religious groups.

"The Internet is creating an increasing pressure for transparency," said Mayer, in a phone interview from Geneva. "Any group getting in trouble won't be able to escape by just moving physically, and leaders of groups will realize it more and more."

The Internet debate over Greater Grace began with an anonymous posting in September 2002 on FACTnet, a Web site that says it is designed "to promote independent investigation and public debate ... on cult and mind control issues."

Increasing response

What began as a trickle of postings turned into a torrent this spring after someone mailed 600 postcards to current and former Greater Grace members telling them about the forum. In early postings, people criticized the ministry and called for reform.

"It seems that many people who have attended GGWO [Greater Grace World Outreach] have been paralyzed in the area of critical thinking when it comes to the church," wrote Chris Brown of Parkville, who joined Stevens' ministry in 1975 in Maine and quit a year and a half ago.

"I remember the difficult time I had just thinking certain thoughts that were `forbidden' because they didn't go along with [the] church. We had been taught not to question anything, not to think, and to receive everything from the pulpit as from God."

In recent weeks, some Greater Grace supporters have returned fire. Pastor R.W. Wood, who runs a Greater Grace mission church in Argentina, wrote April 30:

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