Church Lawsuit - Church sued for $2 million over Dramatic Youth Service
Church sued for $2 million over dramatic youth service
by Anna C. Irwin of The Daily Times Staff

A $2 million lawsuit has been filed in Blount County Circuit Court against a Blount County church, the pastor, the youth director, two deacons and several other church members. The suit was filed by Knoxville attorney Herbert Moncier for John and Jane Doe, plaintiffs who chose not to reveal their names in the suit.

They are suing individually and on behalf of their teenage daughter Janie Doe. The suit claims the girl suffered personal injuries as the result of a dangerous, cult-like event that was unlawfully and deceptively conceived, sponsored, promoted and supervised by Forest Hill Baptist Church, its pastor, its deacons, its youth director and several of its members.

Forest Hill Pastor Harry Sherrer said the event referred to in the suit was designed to help young people in the church learn more about and better understand the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world. Everyone else involved was impressed by the whole activity. It was a very positive event, Sherrer said. We are saddened that members of this family feel wronged by our church.

In addition to Sherrer, other individuals named in the suit are Youth Director Joe White, Deacons Dwight Broome and Kenneth Baker, Sharon Baker, Dani and Paul Janson, Dennis and Sue Magargle, Donnie and Janet Beal, and Tommy Tallent. Sherrer said the church's youth director read about the program called "Underground Church" and worked with other church members to plan the event held March 23, 2002. He said the process involved was discussed at a youth group meeting prior to the event and there was correspondence giving an overview of the event sent to the homes of youth group members.

The suit claims both Janie Doe and her father were notified of the event on the day it was to occur and questioned the advisability of her participating since she was recovering from recent surgery for a pre-existing knee problem. According to the suit, both were misled by church members about the special "worship service" planned for the youth group. The suit says the girl was told there would be "only a little walking" and she "should be fine."

The father was told it was just a "car wash" and that his daughter's knee "would be okay." The suit alleges the nature of the event was intentionally misrepresented to induce the girl to participate and the father to allow her to do so. At the event, according to the suit, the girl arrived at the home of one of the other church members and the youth director told her that "she and the other children would be placed in small groups, each with a leader; that a symbol would be drawn on each child's hand; that members of each group would approach people at different `stations' to ask about a code which would be used to determine who would drive that group to the next 'station;' and that after being transported to one or more 'stations,' each group would arrive at the "worship service."

The suit goes on to say the small groups were required to walk to one station and hike downhill to another. According to the suit, the girl "became concerned" when she saw law enforcement vehicles with their lights and sirens on, the person driving the group let them out and they were told to "sneak the back way" to the church fellowship hall.

The suit says the group was accosted by "men dressed in dark clothes" but reached the fellowship hall where the lights were out and the adult who greeted them appeared to be crying. They began reading Bible passages by flashlight, heard "gunshots" outside, hid between some cupboards, then "several men dressed as soldiers with gas masks on" came in.

Placed in a truck. the suit alleges that group members were blindfolded and handcuffed with Velcro, "dragged out" to the parking lot and told to climb in the back of a truck. According to the suit, Janie Doe fought back and pleaded to be let go but was laughed and yelled at by one of her alleged captors. The suit claims she managed to escape but was grabbed again, blindfolded and handcuffed with metal cuffs which caused her to cry out in pain. She was allegedly lifted and put in the truck, then driven to another location where she was led by her arm down a hill and lined up with the other youth group members.

The suit alleges the group was told there would be "one chance to deny Christ, or you will be killed." When Janie Doe refused to deny Christ, the suit says there was the sound of a gunshot and she was soaked with water, then she began "screaming and crying" before being told to go inside the residence of another church member.

There, the suit claims, she pleaded to have her handcuffs removed but several people acted as if they could not find the key. Once the cuffs were finally taken off, the girl's wrists were "cut and bleeding, throbbing and swollen to nearly twice their normal size," according to the suit.

The girl allegedly told one of the adult supervisors for the event she wanted to go home but was told "in a little bit." The suit says the girl was "finally" taken to another residence and "permitted" to call her mother to arrange a ride home. The suit claims the girl suffered "serious, painful and permanent injuries" including injuries to her wrists which are "permanently scarred'" and aggravation of her pre-existing knee injuries. She also allegedly sustained "serious, severe and permanent mental and emotional injuries" causing her to continue to suffer "mental pain and anguish," sleeplessness and recurring nightmares.

The suit claims the girl's grades have fallen and "her future earning capacity has been diminished" by her experience. According to the suit, the family has not only had medical expenses for alleged physical injuries but have and will continue to have expenses for psychiatric and psychological diagnosis and treatment.

Damages sought The suit seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages as a result of several causes of action listed as: misrepresentation and fraud, kidnapping and false imprisonment, assault, battery, outrageous conduct and intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy, negligence and reckless conduct.

The church pastor said an attorney will respond to all the allegations in the suit. He said the only complaint he has heard about the event has come from the "Doe family" while other participants described it as "pretty powerful and very positive" for the young people as well as for the adults who supervised the activity.

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