People of Praise: Former member of group tied to SCOTUS front-runner calls it a 'cult'
As President Trump appears poised to announce a nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, we speak with a former member of the secretive Catholic group People of Praise, known for its rigid gender roles and lifelong loyalty oaths, which apparent front-runner Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a member of. “Many call it a community, but I describe it as a cult,” says Coral Anika Theill, who was a member of People of Praise from 1979 to 1984 and is now speaking out against the organization.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue to look at the background of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the apparent front-runner to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. President Trump said he’ll announce a nominee on Saturday. Mitch McConnell appears to have the 51 votes he needs in the Senate to force a confirmation vote through before the election.
We’re looking at Amy Barrett’s membership in a secretive Catholic group with rigid gender roles and a lifelong loyalty oath. We’re now joined by a former of People of Praise who’s now speaking out against the group. Coral Anika Theill was a People of Praise member for five years, from 1979 to 1984, after being forced to join the organization by her then-husband. She documented her experience in her memoir titled Bonsheá: Making Light of the Dark.
Coral, thanks so much for joining us from Corvallis, Oregon. Can you describe People of Praise and what happened to you while you lived in the community?
CORAL ANIKA THEILL: Thank you for having me on your show, and I’m a fan of you and your show.
I was a member of the People of Praise — many call it a community, but I describe it as a cult — in Corvallis, Oregon. I experienced abuse and torture by my husband, Marty Warner, Independence, Oregon, and the cult leaders, as well as shunning, shaming and a smear campaign against me when I escaped and left. For safety, I legally changed my name, and I’ve lived under a state address protection program from my ex-husband for the past 20 years.
Even though I left the People of Praise cult, I didn’t have any rights, due to being married to my husband, who was a cult member. I was under the authority of my husband and his authoritarian head, Ed Brown. Under their authority, I was forced to attend meetings, but because I had defied leadership and their authority, I was forced to sit on the floor outside of their meetings in the hallway at the St. Mary’s Catholic Church. There’s dozens of witnesses that have seen how I was treated. What I would ask listeners to consider, even though they say this is a healthy group, to consider how I was treated and if this would be correct for Amy Barrett to be treated.
One time I had a miscarriage in 1984, and I had to have a D&C surgery. After I returned from the hospital, I was forced to attend a People of Praise women’s meeting, or handmaidens’ meetings. I had a head that was also woman, besides my husband. They wanted to go shopping, and I couldn’t, due to returning from surgery and feeling weak. I left the meeting to go home and rest, as my doctor had ordered. I was met by my husband and forced into the car, kidnapped against my will, where I was driven to the cult leader’s home. I was interrogated until wee hours of the morning and psychologically abused. The next morning, the community was informed to shun me. I would never allow anyone to treat me this way today, and it traumatizes me to admit this was my life at that time.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well —
CORAL ANIKA THEILL: The trauma experience by cult members — oh, yes?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Coral, I wanted to ask you — in terms of some of the hair-raising descriptions in your memoir of what happened to you, I wanted to ask you if you could talk about some of those. You talk about the situation where the head, that was assigned to you and your husband, wanted to see the family budget, that he told you how many hours per day you could spend on particular chores, including two to four loads of laundry a day, this meddling directly in the day-to-day — in your day-to-day life and affairs with you and your family, and that you also mention that once you decided that you wanted to leave, that they threatened to try to have you committed to a mental institution?
CORAL ANIKA THEILL: They would call me mentally ill. And there was a time they had me under special counseling, under Father Charles Harris, who was the head leader of the Corvallis People of Praise branch. He was from South Bend.
But basically, there was just cruelty and bullying, and it was not much difference than the Jim Jones cult. I shared with Heidi that my story is very much like The Handmaid’s Tale series and the Netflix series 10-part documentary The Keepers.
Other things, yeah, there was always a list on my wall, a schedule, and men from the community would come unannounced to check on me to make sure I was on schedule and had done my chores. There was basically no privacy. And all of your personal — anything personal was given to your husband’s head also. I wasn’t allowed contraceptives and was supposed to have all the children God intended for me, no matter what my health was. I had had eight children and three miscarriages and D&C, often when my health was failing.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, can you talk about your decision to leave the group? Now, you’re in Corvallis. Judge Amy Coney Barrett is in the original place of People of Praise, which is South Bend. And the reports are there are just something like 1,700 members of this group around the country. Talk, finally, about your choice to leave and the response of the group.
CORAL ANIKA THEILL: Well, I never wanted to join in the first place, but due to our marriage, I was forced to obey in all things through the duration of our 20-year marriage. But during the five years especially in the People of Praise cult, I was just forced to obey.
And yes, we had Sunday meetings. We had — women had Tuesday night meetings. The men had Thursday night meetings. There was community meetings to help people within the community. There’s not a lot of outside contact. In fact, our leaders would tell us how often we could see our family and our friends. And even the night my father died in 1984, he did not allow me to go see my father before he died. Those were just decisions made.
And as I will say, the bottom line was cruelty. And members are in spiritual bondage. Some are afraid to leave. I believe I was an example. Perpetrators will show people what happens to others when you say no. It’s very similar to domestic violence in how frightening of an experience it is to leave. And I was shunned in the community. And because the People of Praise community in Corvallis had a widespread respect within the community — many of their members are leaders in the local St. Mary’s Catholic Church — I was shunned even in stores. There was people who knew them. And so it was a very traumatic experience, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to your children when you left?
CORAL ANIKA THEILL: Well, when I left, eventually the community forced my husband to leave. It was kind of a long-term wait and see, but I would not go back in. And, of course, he was enraged that I would not obey, and he was looked upon as a husband that had a disobedient wife, and that was shameful to him, and then he was forced to leave. And it wasn’t long after that I also left the Catholic Church. I honor everyone’s right to believe as they want, but when there is abuse, I believe you need to leave. That is with any toxic environment. And that helps the abusers know that you are not going to allow them to abuse you. And the church was of no help. I went to the priests there, and they were friends with Charles Harris, Father Charles Harris, so there was no help. And —
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Coral Anika Theill, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a former member of the People of Praise Catholic community for five years, from 1979 to ’84, forced to join the organization by her husband at the time. She documents her experience in her memoir.
Next up, we go to the latest news that immigration authorities say they’ve stopped sending women detainees to a Georgia gynecologist accused of sterilizing the female prisoners without their consent. And we go back and look at the disturbing history of forced sterilization of Chicana women in Los Angeles. Stay with us.
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