Two former members of the Christian organization People of Praise has come forward with allegations of emotional trauma and sexual abuse, according to The Guardian. They were prompted to speak out after Amy Coney Barrett, a member of the group, was nominated to the Supreme Court earlier this month.
One of the accusers, Sarah (Mitchell) Kuehl said it’s “unfathomable” that there would be a “Supreme Court justice who is a card-carrying member of this community.” Sources told The Guardian that “more than two dozen” former members of the organization are currently part of a support group to discuss their experiences, and many of them felt “triggered” by Barrett’s nomination.
Kuehl said that as a 4-year-old child she was molested by a man who lived with her family as part of the group’s communal lifestyle. The abuse lasted for two years, and when her abuser admitted to the behavior, he was simply moved to another house. (Documents reviewed by The Guardian show there were at least two more victims.)
Another woman, who is identified by the pseudonym Esther, described her experience in the People of Praise as eight years of “emotional torment.” She outlined a tightly controlled lifestyle where she was banned from watching TV for two years or listening to any music other than Christian rock, according to The Guardian. Esther said her mother was told what to cook and what to believe, and that her parents “obediently embrace one conspiracy after another.”
The People of Praise, which started in South Bend, Indiana, in the 1970s, has about 1,700 mostly Catholic members who tend to live in tight-knit communities. Its core tenets involve submitting to authority, a commitment to shared values that include anti-LGBTQ beliefs and practicing charismatic Christian traditions like speaking in tongues. It started in academic hubs like the University of Notre Dame, where Barrett taught for 18 years (she lived with a People of Praise founder while she was a law student at the same school). The group’s 2010 directory listed her as a “handmaid,” the name for certain female leaders, according to the Washington Post, and Barrett has appeared in the organization’s magazine — though her name and photo were removed from the group’s site after she was appointed to the appeals court in 2017.
While some members have spoken out about the community’s supportive environment, others describe it as an authoritarian nightmare. Esther told The Guardian, “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.”
Kuehl says that when she tried to speak about the childhood abuse years later, her “handmaid” at the time told her not to “hurt the reputation of the community.”
The organization told The Guardian it has hired an independent law firm to investigate sexual-abuse claims, though a People of Praise spokesperson claimed that at the time of Kuehl’s alleged abuse “the survivor’s family and the perpetrator were members of a different religious community.”
Barrett was not asked about her ties to the People of Praise at her confirmation hearing last week and has never spoken publicly about the community. She could be confirmed to the Supreme Court as early as October 26, filling the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.