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Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the supreme court has prompted former members of her secretive faith group, the People of Praise, to come forward and share stories about emotional trauma and – in at least one case – sexual abuse they claim to have suffered at the hands of members of the Christian group.
In the wake of the allegations, the Guardian has learned that the charismatic Christian organization, which is based in Indiana, has hired the law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan to conduct an “independent investigation” into sexual abuse claims on behalf of People of Praise.
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The historic sexual abuse allegations and claims of emotional trauma do not pertain specifically to Barrett, who has been a lifelong member of the charismatic group, or her family.
But some former members who spoke to the Guardian said they were deeply concerned that too little was understood about the “community” of People of Praise ahead of Barrett’s expected confirmation by the Senate next week, after which she will hold the seat formerly held by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Two people familiar with the matter say that more than two dozen former members of the faith group, many of whom say they felt “triggered” by Barrett’s nomination, are participating in a support group to discuss how the faith group affected their lives.
“The basic premise of everything at the People of Praise was that the devil controlled everything outside of the community, and you were ‘walking out from under the umbrella of protection’ if you ever left,” said one former member who called herself Esther, who had to join the group as a child but then left the organization. “I was OK with it being in a tiny little corner of Indiana, because a lot of weird stuff happens in tiny little corners in this country. But it’s just unfathomable to me – I can’t even explain just how unfathomable it is – that you would have a supreme court justice who is a card-carrying member of this community.”
Barrett was not asked about her involvement in People of Praise during her confirmation hearings last week, and has never included her involvement with the group in Senate disclosure forms, but has in the past emphasized that her religious faith as a devout Catholic would not interfere with her impartiality.
People of Praise is rooted in the rise of charismatic Christian communities in the late 1960s and 1970s, which blended Pentecostal traditions like speaking in tongues and prophecy with Catholicism. It is an ecumenical group – meaning it accepts members of different Christian churches – though its members are mostly Catholic. Proponents say charismatic Christians are bound together by members’ shared personal presence of Christ, and “empowerment through the Holy Spirit”.
Its handbook emphasizes an insular view of the world, stressing obedience and devotion to other members, and communal living.
Barrett’s father has served as a leader in the community. Barrett was also listed as a “handmaid” in a 2010 directory, or female leader, served as a trustee at a school associated with the group, and has been featured in People of Praise magazines that were removed from the group’s website following her appointment as an appeals court judge in 2017.
The Guardian has confirmed that Barrett lived in a household led by one of the founders of the People of Praise, Kevin Ranaghan, while she was a law student at Notre Dame, and lived with another People of Praise family – Barbette and William Brophy – in Virginia after she graduated.
Proponents of the faith community have said in other press reports that they are misunderstood, and that it is a close-knit community that seeks to support other members “financially and materially and spiritually”.
But former members paint a different picture. Allegations and concerns center on claims of the intense subjugation of women by the community leaders; control of members’ lives and decisions, including marriage, living arrangements, and child rearing; and in one case, the mishandling of allegations of sexual abuse. Members who admit to having gay sex are expelled from the group, which staunchly opposes same-sex marriage.
For Sarah (Mitchell) Kuehl, a 48-year-old former member who grew up in the community, discussions about Barrett’s possible nomination prompted her – after years of trying to figure out how to address it – to send an email on 23 September to Craig Lent, the current head of People of Praise who also works as a professor at Notre Dame. In it, Kuehl claimed she had been sexually abused decades earlier by a “household member”, a male member of “the community” who had lived with the Mitchell family as part of the group’s communal living practices. Single people were expected to be celibate and live in family households which were expected to provide an example of married life, former members say.
After her alleged abuser – who along with her family was technically a member of a precursor group called Servants of the Light/Lord that merged in 1984 with People of Praise – admitted to her father that he had been molesting Kuehl, he was moved to another household and eventually had a marriage “arranged” for him, she said. She was four years old when the abuse began and it lasted for two years. At the time, her family also lived with other single men and women.
It’s unfathomable to me that you'd have a supreme court justice who is a card-carrying member of this community
“I have struggled for years on whether to hold PoP accountable for what they knew, when they knew it and their attempt to hide and cover up. Like the Catholic church, who covered up and moved priests around, PoP has had a history of these same behaviors,” Kuehl alleged in her email to Lent.
Letters provided to the Guardian by Kuehl dating back to the late 1980s and early 1990s substantiate claims of abuse and attempts by her parents to address the issue with senior leaders of People of Praise. The documents include references to a psychological evaluation of the alleged abuser and confirmation that he did abuse Kuehl. The documents also revealed there were additional victims and that other minors were at risk.
Years later, when Kuehl sought to discuss the issue with her “handmaid” – a female guide and senior member of the organization, when she was at college – she said she was discouraged from talking about it.
“She told me NOT to talk about it with anyone because it could ‘hurt the reputation of the community’,” Kuehl wrote in her letter to Lent.
Weeks later, on 5 October, Lent responded to Kuehl’s email. He wrote: “I am just reaching out to you to let you know that we take this matter very seriously.”
He added: “We very much want to look into this. To that end we have contracted with Diane Doolittle of Quinn Emanuel, who specializes in exactly this sort of investigation. (This took some time to arrange.) I want to stress that, although she is a lawyer, her role is not to defend PoP, but rather she is very much in the role of an independent investigator. We thought that better than trying to investigate it directly ourselves. We want to know the truth of the matter. She will be talking to other people as well.”
Doolittle’s online bio states that she is a Silicon Valley-based trial lawyer who is involved in “high-stakes complex commercial, intellectual property and white collar cases”. She is also listed as having been engaged in “sensitive #MeToo cases, including by conducting corporate internal investigations”.
But People of Praise’s choice is also noteworthy because of Quinn Emanuel’s ties to the White House. William Burck, who serves as Quinn Emanuel’s co-managing partner in Washington DC, has counted Steve Bannon as a client, among others, and was a friend and associate of supreme court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. During Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation hearings, it was Burck – a “Washington super-lawyer” – who was charged with culling Kavanaugh’s documents for review before the Senate hearing.
There is no evidence that Burck has been personally engaged in the People of Praise investigation.
In a statement, People of Praise spokesman Sean Connolly said: “We believe that one of our highest callings is the bond of trust around our community’s safety, and we take allegations of abuse or misconduct very seriously. In this matter, we understand the survivor’s abuse occurred in the mid-1970s when the survivor’s family and the perpetrator were members of a different religious community called the Servants of the Light/Lord in the Minneapolis area. People of Praise did not exist in Minnesota until October 1983.”
He added: “We understand that this is a deeply painful matter for the survivor and her family and we extend to them our prayers”
Connolly also said People of Praise had adopted a child safety policy that included mandatory law enforcement reporting obligations in instances of alleged child abuse. He did not respond to the Guardian’s questions about its decision to hire Quinn Emanuel or whether the group was aware of its representation of Trump administration officials.
Kuehl told the Guardian she was eager not to be seen as seeking revenge on People of Praise, or questioning Barrett’s character, intelligence, or her legal mind. As a devout Catholic who regularly attends mass and is a mother of five, she is also not anti-religious, but rather feels a “deep concern regarding the culture of secrecy, abuse of power and male-dominant hierarchy” at People of Praise.
Esther, who approached the Guardian but did not want to be identified, described how her parents had become members of People of Praise after a family tragedy upended their lives. The next eight years of her life, she said, were filled with “emotional torment” as she watched her parents “obediently embrace one conspiracy after another”.
“Anyone who was not charismatic was not to be trusted and most likely an operator for ‘the evil one’. The devil was always trying to trick us and the only way to stay safe was to follow obediently the rules set up by ‘the co-ordinators’,” she said. “I was not allowed to watch TV for two years until that was no longer a directive; my mother could only cook with natural foods until that was no longer a fad … I was prohibited from owning a record/tape unless it was Christian rock.”
She added: “We were devout Catholics too but there were strong insinuations that the diocese had strayed and could not be trusted.”
People of Praise did not comment on allegations of emotional abuse and trauma experienced by other former members.