The Bethesda Home for Girls presented itself as just the thing to help a troubled girl. Redemption Ranch Inc., the parent organization, took girls from its various homes on singing tours of churches across the country to help raise money for their insidious "ministry". During these tours, Bob Wills, a fundamentalist Baptist minister and Bethesda’s director, would bring the girls before congregations, where they would give what some girls described as forced testimony praising the home they secretly loathed.
“We were taught not to trust anyone, not to let our needs be known to others. We were taught that our needs were nothing to those around us and that they were wrong.” an unnamed victim stated.
Former residents of a ''Christian home'' for troubled girls have asserted in a lawsuit that they were beaten, denied adequate meals and ''brainwashed.'' The charges were made in affidavits and testimony in Federal District Court, in a suit seeking the release of all the residents of the Bethesda Home for Girls Inc. of Hattiesburg, Miss. The facility was affiliated with a network of ''Christian homes'' in which Lester Roloff, a now deceased Texas evangelist, played a supporting role.
Bethesda’s veneer of benevolence masked a grim reality: Girls lived virtually as prisoners. They were locked up, cut off from the outside world, paddled until they were bruised or bleeding, forced into highly subservient roles and emotionally abused in many ways. They endured the kind of mind control tactics one expert said were typical of religious cults and Nazi concentration camps.
Before the girls entered Bethesda, their parents were required to sign a contract and agree to leave their daughter there for at least a year. They couldn’t contact the child for at least three months.
The girls quickly discovered they would be forced to live by an authoritarian code of conduct that reflected the fundamentalist religious beliefs of their caretakers. Bible verses about “sinfulness” coupled with mental and emotional abuse were used to control the girls, according to the SPLC’s complaint.
Despite the directors claiming they didn’t charge fees, the contracts parents signed stated that the home would accept a monthly donation of up to $250 to cover the costs of each girl.
More than $160,000 was received by the home in “gifts” from churches and individuals in 1981, according to court documents.
In the early 1980s in Alabama, a police officer asked SPLC founder Morris Dees for help. He needed someone to get his 19-year-old pregnant daughter – known as “Candy H” in court papers – out of Bethesda. The officer’s ex-wife had placed her there at the urging of a “radical religious minister”.
The SPLC filed a federal class action lawsuit in Montgomery in 1982 on behalf of "Candy" and the other girls who were still at Bethesda. It sought an injunction that would result in state oversight of the home, on the grounds that it was violating the civil rights of its residents. The home’s owners controlled every aspect of the resident's life — from how much toilet paper they were allowed to use. Pregnant girls were told what would happen once the child was born. In the 1970s and ’80s, Bethesda forced pregnant girls to give up their newborns for adoption to Christian families who paid a $250 “love gift” to the home, according to an NBC News investigation based on court records and interviews. A former judicial officer called the facility a “baby selling factory.”
“The devil means to do us in with all this stuff,” Wills, the home’s director, said during a 1982 interview with the Hattiesburg American. “But God will step in. People will hear about us that never have before. People don’t consider the alternatives. Turn them loose? To what?”
The lawsuit prompted a Mississippi judge in 1986 to declare that the home was operating illegally as a detention center and to grant temporary custody of nearly 120 girls to the Mississippi Department of Public Welfare.
After the judge’s ruling, welfare officials and sheriff’s deputies raided the home and removed all the girls who were sent to parents and guardians. “I’ve never seen a church that locked up its congregation, censored its mail and listened in on its phone calls,” said Thomas Brittain, who was the Mississippi welfare commissioner at the time.
As we look back at the horrors surrounding this home for girls, keep in mind that legislation is going into effect all over the US. Most recently, in a flurry of investigation, Missouri expanded its child protection laws to require all homes and schools for children to register with the state.
We have been working tirelessly with many wonderful people to expand these child protection laws in all fifty states. We are also lobbying for a grace period where the statutes of limitations are removed. This will empower victims to confront their abuser. Closure is an incredibly important part of the recovery process.
As always, keep the work of the Lord the forefront of all efforts. Rooting out abusers and abusive churches is part of this mission. Please keep us in your prayers as we continue to fight the good fight!