WFAA Weighs In on Homestead Heritage With a Two-Part Investigation

Homestead Heritage during a craft fair in 2009. PHOTO BY MIKE DAVIS

What’s really going on near Waco? The short teaser on ABC’s Dallas affiliate WFAA says its two-part investigation (the first airs tonight at 10pm) exposes the “secret lives behind the walls of a seemingly perfect community outside of Waco.

The station’s veteran investigative journalist Brett Shipp has been working on corroborating and documenting allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children at Waco religious community Homestead Heritage since September last year. He told me tonight’s broadcast is “explosive stuff.”

This follows February’s Texas Observer story, “Heritage of Abuse” in which I exposed accusations of child abuse, beatings and cover-ups leveled at the group. Four members, I discovered, had been convicted of sexually assaulting minors, but I uncovered further allegations of sexual abuse of children that had never been reported to authorities. According to internal documents published by the Observer, church law states that religious matters within the community are not “the proper province, of the corporate State and its investigative, police and judicial services.” The obinvestigation also discovered families broken apart, and allegations of physical abuse and mind control.

WFAA’s investigation is believed to have found further evidence of abuse – what Shipp describes as compelling “personal testimony and physical documentation that Elders of Homestead either knew or should have known that children were being sexually and physically abused within the … community.”

In his entire career, Shipp says he’s never had to work so hard to corroborate allegations of an important story. “What started out at a lone complaint from a former member (who later decided it was too risky to continue providing me with information) evolved into a laborious quest to track down and authenticate allegations of abuse.” he says. “So many people who started to tell their stories backed out for fear of severing ties with family and friends within the compound … many took months to convince to talk … Some would only talk on background, others were able to provide me with compelling evidence but wished to remain anonymous. Only the extremely brave or determined dared speak out.”

Shipp adds that the driving force behind his investigation was to expose evidence that suggests the carefully controlled environment at Homestead has provided the ideal environment for abuse and abusive practices to take place – either wittingly or unwittingly. “We would hope that local and state authorities would begin to understand that the long-standing allegations of child endangerment need to be more carefully considered.”

In my story on Homestead Heritage for the Observer, I interviewed “Sandy” (not her real name) who told me that she was abused by two different men in the church from the age of five. Sandy says she informed an elder, but instead of taking the matter to police, she says he dis-fellowshipped the individuals she said committed the crimes and forced her to accept responsibility for “her part” in what they deemed “immoral relationships.” The Observer urged Sandy to go to the police to report the individuals responsible.

In response to my story, the church published an extensive rebuttal in the form of text and video. You can see it here

As the teaser for WFAA’s investigation says: “Some fear for the children that remain in the community.”

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Alex Hannaford writes about the death penalty, crime, prisons, religion and human interest issues for the Telegraph, Times and Guardian in the UK, and to GQ, The Nation and The Texas Observer.

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