"Mom, please take me home,” Mary, a petrified teenage girl stammered from Shreveport, Louisiana back in 2011. She was there for a “mission trip” with the People of Praise (POP) – Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s tiny, secretive religious sect. Instead of helping the poor Black and Brown folks who lived in town, she was bewildered that her group traveled all the way from Falls Church, Virginia – a wealthy suburb of Washington – to manicure the already manicured homes on a block owned by the sect’s white congregants.
Mary’s not her real name. She asked us to conceal her identity because it’s hard for her to relive that part of her former life, especially because she’s since come out as a lesbian -- which is forbidden in People of Praise. Of the 12 former members or participants of POP Raw Story spoke with for this piece, a few others also asked for anonymity, because seeing Coney Barrett everywhere they turn these days has caused them to relive the oppression and trauma they suffered at the sect. And they fear Coney Barrett is now going to extend that same, close-minded and rigid ideology on them and millions of other Americans.
Mary says they weren’t in Louisiana to knock on doors and preach the gospel, like evangelicals and Mormons do. That’s because the goal of the People of Praise -- and its directors like Coney Barrett -- is to spread or “manifest” the physical Kingdom of God here on Earth.
“The same way that there are Chinatowns in cities across the US, they want to build Christiantowns,” Mary recounted. “So from the businesses being all Christian run, to the houses clearly showing a well-lived, well-ordered ‘Christian life.’ That was like part of the goal. And they also talked about building the Kingdom of God up and down the Mississippi River.”
Between that and feeling pressured by the adults on the trip to formally join POP, Mary felt unsettled to her core. So she snuck away and called home. Her mother never formally joined POP, either. But she’s a devout Catholic and was drawn to POP’s Trinity School at Meadowview – which is a mere 24-minute jaunt to the White House – because of its focus on a classical education. Even though her mother had always trained her to be honest, on that call she coached Mary to lie and they made up a family emergency. She flew out of Louisiana three days early. And while she had never thought of it before, she now recognizes the “cult-like” tendencies of the People of Praise.
Mary never went on another “mission.” But POP’s “Kingdom building” continued, as it does to this day. And Amy Coney Barrett is the tangible realization of the 49 years of planning and training by community leaders to seat members of this now 1,700-member religious sect – or cult, as eight of the 12 former members Raw Story spoke with classify POP– into seats of power. Two others we interviewed say it’s merely “culty.”
“Membership isn’t about numbers; it’s about power,” Cara Wood, another former student at POP’s Trinity School in Virginia, told Raw Story. “The goal was to train people like Barrett.”
Wood and the others say POP includes some of the nicest people they’ve ever known and that the problem was never its charismatic members – who (after attending their own churches in the morning) willingly spent about three-and-a-half hours every Sunday at meetings where they’d speak in tongues, prophesize and lay “healing hands” on each other. The problems all came from the top, because directors like Coney Barrett controlled the message, rituals and requirements for the community’s rank-and-file.
Inside the POP community, former members describe an oppressively patriarchal system (nothing like “Handmaid's Tale,” even if female leaders were once dubbed “handmaids”), a culture of spying (usually by the teen’s “mentors” who rifle through disgusting trash bins looking for student’s notes), and a culture of isolating paranoia because the threat of being shamed and shunned by the community always hung thick in the air.
Now many former members and students are terrified that Coney Barrett has sailed to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. The fear stems, in part, from POP doctrine itself, which former members say includes racist undertones, fear mongering that goes beyond your average “Catholic guilt,” a culture where physical abuse is accepted as a man’s right at home, punishment for sexual abuse victims who speak out, and that’s anti-LGBTQ+.
“They see it all black and white; there’s no grey,” John Carroll told Raw Story. Back in the 1970s, he was a member of POP’s first class at Trinity School at Greenlawn, which is their flagship campus in South Bend, Indiana -- and shares the same address as the broader People of Praise enterprise.
And even now – after years of separation from the community – many former members won’t fully disclose their experiences. “They didn't really ever approve [divorce]. Even in cases where I know the husband was abusive,” Carroll said as his voice changed, as if he caught himself divulging too much. “In fact, I know of one case where somebody…”
John’s younger sister, Barbara, remembers one family was asked to leave “because the husband sought marital counseling outside of the People of Praise.” She says the community is intentionally “homogeneous.” So even when that family needed guidance on private issues that POP leaders weren’t addressing, their banishment by community leaders was swift and unforgiving. That wasn’t usually the case though.
“If bad things were happening – like abuse, alcoholism; stuff like that – they just ignored it, especially if it was being perpetrated by the man,” Barbara told Raw Story. “We knew families that were victims of abuse; we knew families that were dealing with alcoholism, and those issues were not addressed. They were largely ignored, because those kinds of things don't happen in the ‘Kingdom.’ You know, if you’re God’s people, you’re not running around beating your kids or molesting your children…I know for a fact they were not being addressed.”
The indoctrination manifested itself in other forms, too. When John and Barbara’s father sought a divorce, he was booted. But in an oddity for POP, their mother was allowed to stay. Being in a single parent home – the only one they remember in the community at the time – “kind of gave us a little bit of a mark of shame,” Barbara recalls. Then, at 15, her mother got sick and eventually died. She says the fallout was eye-opening.
“My mother put in the will that she wanted me to stay with the People of Praise. She did not want my father to have me, because it would have been more to my benefit to be raised in the People of Praise,” Barbara says.
“The People of Praise made it clear that they were unhappy that I was leaving, and that I did not belong with my father. That I belonged in the community,” Barbara claims when POP and her father battled in court over custody. “He went to court the day of my mother's funeral so that he could have custody.”
Even if they were an anomaly for being raised by a divorcee, that wasn’t an option for others.
No Forgiveness for LGBTQ+ People
In the mid-1970s, Camellia Pisegna – now 69-years-old and with her long-term female partner – and her then-husband were drawn to South Bend because of the People of Praise. While new in the group – and with one, of what later became six, kids on her hip – she wanted to get to know other moms. So when the men had their weekly men’s-only meeting, she started hosting informal women’s meetups. They’d eat coffee cake once a week and mostly talk about their children. After about four months, the men put an end to it, according to Pisegna.
“I was told to stop that, that I couldn't continue having these women meet at my house,” Pisegna told Raw Story. “The men then organized the women. All the women got organized into women's groups, and it wasn't a choice. You were just told what women you were going to meet with every week.”
The leaders of those women’s groups were then dubbed “handmaids,” as you’ve likely heard. But Pisegna – like the other 11 people we’ve spoken with – decry the comparison between People of Praise and The Handmaids Tale. They argue it’s a distortion of the hellish reality they endured. And according to Pisegna, she and her family endured a lot.
After 15 years as an active member of the community, Pisegna told her husband there was a problem with their marriage: She had realized she was a lesbian. She wanted a divorce.
Per community rules, her husband dutifully reported this to his male “head” – or spiritual leader. The news spread like wildfire. Her daughter, Mary, remembers hearing that her mom was a lesbian from friends.
She says reaction from the community was swift, harsh and unforgiving. Pisegna’s two closest friends – the two women who knew her best and who she felt had loved her most – acted as if they never knew her.
“They completely cut off all communication and all ties with me,” Pisegna said.
That was just the start. And she wasn’t the only target of community-wide punishment.
“Everybody that I'd ever hung out with was from the People of Praise,” Pisegna’s daughter Mary recalls. “And they weren't allowed to come over because I lived in the ‘sin house.’”
Shortly after the divorce, Pisegna claims group leaders rescinded the financial aid that enabled her kids to go to South Bend’s Trinity School at Greenlawn.
Community leaders also tried to get the father – who was still a community member at the time – to file for full custody of the six children. But, poking this momma under duress proved foolish.
“I just threw a fit,” Pisegna recounts. “In the end, he relented -- and they didn't do that.”
As the summer of 1990 turned to fall, Pisegna’s kids were forced to switch to public schools – ripping them away from the only friends they’d known for 15 years.
“It wasn't just cutting ties with me. It was emotional abuse. It was abuse of my family, and that part is a cult to me. That all these people – all these hundreds of people – shunned me in the same way,” Pisegna remembers.
Her oldest son, Patrick Belton – who’s now 46 and owns a live event company in Los Angeles – is more forgiving.
“Most people that have come out of the community are generally good people. And, you know, there’s some bad eggs, just like anywhere else,” Patrick told Raw Story of the abrupt transition from community life to being forced into public school.
But Mary, his oldest younger sister, remembers the transition more painfully. Especially their first day in public school.
“My brother pulled me aside, and he was like, ‘Don't tell anybody about mom or we won't have any friends,’” Mary remembers. “So I didn't talk to anybody for like two years. It was awful. I was so afraid.”
Mary says her teenage self didn’t ask questions because she knew the teachings on being gay – even if often unspoken – from POP.
“We knew that it was wrong and sinful and evil,” Mary recalls of her mother’s coming out. “It wasn’t really an option in our world, but when this all came out, we knew that it was wrong.”
People of Praise Leaders Are 'Hypocrites'
If you ask the IRS, the People of Praise is a separate entity from its Trinity Schools (besides the original one in South Bend and the one just outside of Washington, there’s another in Minnesota). But just because they obeyed the letter of the tax code doesn’t mean the spirit of their organization isn’t clearly laid out in their paper trail, including their tax filings. That’s because in reality the People of Praise and the schools are one.
Raw Story was sent the FY2015 tax return for South Bend’s Trinity School at Greenlawn, which lists the same 10-member People of Praise board of directors - including one “Amy Barrett” - as the board of directors for the school. Records also verify the two entities still maintain the same physical address in South Bend.
Russ Sanford was the basketball coach at the Greenlawn school in South Bend, maintained a law office in a POP building and also did legal work for the community, according to documents.
As POP was banishing Pisegna for coming out as a lesbian, Ruthie Rees claims she saw her uncle, Russ Sanford, in his true colors while at home. She recounts she went to grab a schoolbook from the attic where her two foster cousins lived. She says the brothers – 7th and 9th graders at the time – had left a Sears catalogue opened to the bra section, and she found a pair of her panties and another pair of her female cousins too. She told her aunt about the alleged masturbation fodder, and then they waited for ‘Uncle Russ’ to arrive home.
Sanford took the two teenage brothers up to the attic, according to Rees. When the younger cousin tried to get away, Russ yanked him by his foot and he went down hard. His nose hit the wood floor, breaking instantly. The older basketball coach and attorney then threw or “or kicked them the rest of the way down the stairs to the first floor,” Rees claims, which is corroborated by text messages from the cousins who’ve asked for anonymity as they struggle reliving the trauma. The girls were petrified.
“We were scared enough that we put a dresser in front of our door, and I slept with a stapler next to me,” Rees says. “They were gone in the morning…I don't think they woke up in the house.”
Rees still loves her uncle, and especially her aunt, but now that she’s a 45-year-old lesbian with kids of her own, she’s still outraged by the layers of pain produced from that household.
“How fucking hypocritical is this? Here this man's beating his children, yet trying to take them away from a lesbian? He was doing this while trying to take the kids away from the Beltons. It was the same time,” Rees said.
“Like, holy shit, dude, when I think about that, and then the guilt that I have for telling on them,” she said through tears. “I don't care that I apologized. I don't care that they forgave me. Whatever.”
Her uncle, now in his seventies, refused to talk to Raw Story. But in an email, he confirmed the incident occurred as laid out to POP, though he disagreed with “some of the alleged information,” and refused to elaborate.
Sean Connolly, the current communications director for People of Praise, went further and emailed a denial of Sanford’s role within the community to Raw Story, “Mr. Sanford has never served as a leader of the People of Praise. We understand that authorities were made aware of this private, family matter and addressed it at that time, which was nearly 30 years ago.”
But Raw Story was sent an old, online article from a POP member where Sanford is called “an attorney in the branch,” pictures of him as the basketball coach for Trinity, along with proof he maintained a law office in POP’s original place of worship, the LaSalle Building in downtown South Bend where POP members frequently have their weddings to this day. Raw Story also obtained a 40-year anniversary issue of POP’s magazine, Vine & Branches, which quotes Ruth Sanford, Russ’ wife, on being at the first POP community meetings ever back in the seventies, and being married to one of the vaunted 29 founding members of People of Praise gave him stature in the community -- even if POP never formally made him a leader.
To Rees, denials from the People of Praise are making reliving the trauma more difficult.
“I think that this type of patriarchal society, communal, insular, incestuous, right? – and I don't mean that sexually, but like, you know, all tied into each other – opens itself up to the type of person who wants to live that kind of way in, maybe, the extreme,” Rees said. “I did not know that my uncle was trying to take my friend away from her mother, while he was throwing my cousin down the stairs. So you know what? They can hate me. That’s how I feel about it.”
Don’t Get Sexually Abused
Another former Trinity student says she is still carrying her own internal – and external – scars. She remembers going to a friend’s place for some drinks, and being shocked that her mentally abusive ex-boyfriend was there. She felt there was no way out, so she stayed and got drunk. That evening, when the other couple was in bed, she claims her ex raped her (“to this day, if I hear like a belt buckle I have to put my hands, I put my fingers in my ears, because I get nauseous because I remember him and what he did; what he made me do).
He left a note on her car saying he, “had a really good time last night.” When she got home she went straight to her shower where she stood for “I don’t even know for how long.”
“I was scared. I felt ashamed. I felt like it was my fault, because I was drinking because I didn't leave,” she recalls. “I just didn’t tell anybody, because I was like, ‘I’m gonna get in trouble.’ And what does that say that your first thought after being sexually assaulted is, ‘Oh my god, I can't tell somebody, because I'm going to get in trouble’? Like, what does that say about the group that you're that you're part of?”
Eventually she opened up to a former classmate who urged her to tell her mother, who then reported the sexual assault to POP’s leadership. An examination of the allegations revealed the two had previously had consensual sex when they were dating.
One day, church leader, John Zwerneman – who was a psychiatrist at the Madison Center in South Bend – came over and asked the alleged victim to wait outside so he could talk to her parents privately. At that time, she was “underway,” which is POP’s coming of age training that enables teens or former outsiders to formally covenant – or join – the People of Praise. Eventually he brought her inside.
“And he said, ‘I know what happened between you two. I'm ending your underway commitment. I'm ending his underway commitment, and you can come back when your life is in order,’” she recalls. “I was still recovering from what had happened to me. I still felt like the whole thing was my fault, and I needed help. And I needed people to love me, and he just kicked me right out.”
People of Praise corroborates some of the incident, but Communications Director Sean Connolly sent a statement disputing they were ever told of the sexual assault.
“John Zwerneman recalls meeting with the young woman in 2003, when she was an adult college student, in the presence of her mother,” Connolly emailed Raw Story. “Mr. Zwerneman recalls no instance of rape or abuse being alleged, and had an allegation of abuse or rape been made, he would have urged that law enforcement be alerted.”
That’s not at all how the young lady – who says she still trembles with anger at the mention of ‘Zwerneman’ and how POP refused to address her alleged assault – remembers it.
“And why was this like a one strike and you're out thing? Like I thought that people – that you’re supposed to help them out,” she said. “I was just crushed. I was absolutely crushed. I sank into a depression. And I don't know, everything was bad. I made some poor life choices for a while.”
After surviving the trauma, she started cutting herself - she has more than 200 scars. But eventually she got reconnected to People of Praise when she went off to college, because it was far away from the South Bend leaders who had burned her. It felt natural, because she needed housing and her parents found her a free room in a POP household. The head female in that house was a perfect sounding board for her.
“If more people spoke to each other the way that she talked to me, People of Praise would not be such a toxic place,” she recalls.
Two months before graduating she had her first sexual encounter with a female, “And I was like, ‘Oh, so I'm bisexual.’”
After school she rejoined the South Bend branch of People of Praise, because she had to attend a branch to covenant - or formally join - POP. She was in a women’s only small group of about five older women. One day she opened up to them.
“I was like, ‘So here's this new thing in my life: I’m Bi.’ And nobody really knew what to say, which I get,” she recalls. “I just remember everybody being silent and then somebody saying, ‘We love you, and we support you.’”
“And I was like, ‘Huh, that went suspiciously well.’ And we just moved on,’” she says.
Later that week she was summoned to the home of her female leader - or “head” - for a private conversation.
“‘Every single person in your women's group has called me, and they told me that they were really uncomfortable with what you said,’” she remembers being told.
Not a single person had mentioned being “uncomfortable” to her.
“Tell me that to my damn face,” she fumes. “We're all adults. You were like 20 years older than me; you should know better.”
That’s when her head broke in with an ultimatum: You can stay in People of Praise, if you never discuss being bisexual again.
“Not even missing a beat, I stood up and I was like, ‘I'm leaving’ and I left,” she remembers. “I did not look back. There was not even a discussion, I just left.”
Even after decades away from Amy Coney Barrett’s People of Praise, these former members still have the scars from what they say they endured from their time within the confines of POP.
“If what happened to me is what's going to influence her vote on the Supreme Court, then that terrifies me. It terrifies me,” Camellia Pisegna – the mother of six who left the group to find herself as a lesbian – said.
Her daughter, Mary Belton, says there’s no way Amy Coney Barrett is untangled from the web of deceit, lies, and falsehoods peddled regularly by POP.
“She's up there saying, ‘I'm able to separate this from my decisions that I'm going to make for the people of America, I'm able to separate this.’ And I just don't think she's really able to do that,” she says. “I think she’s kind of talking out of her ass.”
“She can’t,” Belton contends. “It took me years to disconnect from what I learned in the People of Praise, and I wanted to and there was a trauma, making me forge forward in that disconnection.”
“She grew up in the People of Praise and chose as an adult to stay in the People of Praise. So why is she, and how is she able to make a separation from that?” Belton said. “I don't think she's able to. I think it’s just who she is, because she's in the People of Praise.”