Longform

Pentecostal Preacher Sherman Allen Turns Out to Be Reverend Spanky

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But in early 2007, even as Allen, now 46, was increasing his profile in the Church of God in Christ, his past was about to burst into his present.

A former church member, Davina Kelly, had mailed a letter to the 12 bishops of COGIC's ruling body alleging that Allen had beaten her repeatedly with a wooden paddle and ultimately raped her in a relationship that began as marriage counseling. When Kelly got no response from the bishops, she filed suit against Allen, Shiloh and the Church of God in Christ. The suit became public in early February 2007, and a strange thing began to happen. Women started contacting Howie, Broome & Bobo (now just Broome Bobo), the law firm handling Kelly's case, with similar allegations spanning more than 20 years. Kelly's lawyers, in fact, had landed on one of the worst-kept secrets of the local black Pentecostal scene: Allen had a predilection for paddling young women on the rear end as a bizarre form of discipline—a practice that had earned him the nickname "Spanky."

Three months ago, another alleged victim and former Shiloh member, Carrie Drake, filed suit against Allen, accusing him of "severely beating her with a paddle and physically assaulting her." The beatings began with her mother's permission when she was 13, Drake told the Observer, and she was frequently forced to undress. Drake says she miscarried after one such attack. Allen has denied all of the allegations in a response to the lawsuit; he has not responded to the Observer's requests for interviews. His lawyer in the Kelly and Drake suits, Frank Hill, has declined comment.

Matthew Bobo, one of Kelly's lawyers, says he and his partner, Stan Broome, have talked to more than 20 women who say they were paddled by Allen. "We've heard from several of the women that there were corresponding threats," Broome says. "That's the remarkable thing about almost every woman we've talked to: The story is exactly the same. The setup, the punishment, the beatings, the threats."

Allen, Bobo says, "holds himself out as being a deliverer of punishment from God"—a spiritual father. "It's always someone that he develops some sort of authority relationship with."

In a three-hour deposition in December, Allen "pleaded the Fifth to everything we asked" and declined to answer, Bobo says. What most churchgoers didn't realize, however, was that the talk of adult whuppings represented the milder side of the accusations against Allen. The Observer spoke with three other alleged victims, including Joy, as well as several ministers and former church members who worked alongside Allen. They claim Allen pulled off an incredible charade. While pastor of a morally strict Pentecostal church, he:

Lived "in sin" with a young female church member for years.

Engaged in voodoo, which is abhorrent to Pentecostals, but managed to launder his past in the voodoo-influenced "Spiritualist" church when he joined the Church of God in Christ in the early 1980s.

Solicited permission slips from parents to paddle minor girls and young female members of his church. Some of the paddlings caused severe bruising and even broken bones.

Paddled dozens of girls and young women—and even some men—under the guise of spiritual counseling.

Threatened several of the women he paddled and sexually abused, including Joy, who stopped cooperating with prosecutors.

Punched in the face a woman who'd questioned him.

Threatened to expose misdeeds among his leaders in the Church of God in Christ if they disciplined him.

The allegations cover more than two decades. During that time, numerous women and men informed local leaders in the Church of God in Christ about Allen's behavior. These complaints—which many local COGIC pastors heard firsthand from the women in secret meetings—accomplished nothing. Allen's bishop in the Church of God in Christ, J. Neaul Haynes of Dallas, knew about the paddling allegations for at least 17 years but did little or nothing to stop it. He implored two alleged victims simply to "forgive" Allen, according to a former Shiloh member who was present at one of the meetings with Haynes.

Why did the paddlings, beatings and alleged sexual abuse go on unchecked for so many years when so many people knew about it? To answer that question, one has to delve into the black Pentecostal subculture, where churchgoers are continually warned to "keep your mouth off the man of God," regardless of what kind of life he lives. God will rebuke him, the teaching goes; all you should do is pray.

Nonetheless, over the years, quite a few people—from pastors to lay members—have tried to stop Allen. Their attempts screeched to a halt at Bishop Haynes.

Haynes, like all COGIC jurisdictional bishops, was saddled with a heavy financial responsibility to his denomination. (Haynes did not respond to several requests for interviews.) Allen, one of Haynes' prized spiritual "sons," was a proven fund-raiser. "In the Church of God in Christ, if you can preach and raise money, basically everything else is erased," says one former Shiloh member.

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons