New role for Amy Coney Barrett’s father inside Christian sect sparks controversy

The Guardian [London, England]

January 29, 2024

By Stephanie Kirchgaessner

Alleged abuse survivors at People of Praise worry Michael Coney may block group’s handling of sexual abuse from becoming public

Survivors of alleged childhood abuse inside the People of Praise, a secretive Christian sect that counts Amy Coney Barrett as a member, are voicing concerns that the supreme court justice’s father, who was recently promoted to a new role, may seek to block information about the group’s historic handling of sexual abuse becoming public.

Barrett, a conservative justice who was appointed by the former US president Donald Trump, has never publicly disclosed her participation in the covenant Christian community, which some former members have compared to a cult.

Her father, Michael Coney, a Louisiana-based lawyer who worked for Shell and has been a longtime member of the PoP, was this month appointed to serve as the group’s new legal counsel. Coney has also been asked to take the helm of a “consultation team” that, internal correspondence seen by the Guardian shows, has been dealing with “issues of concern” to the group’s 1,100 members, including “misuse of authority” inside the PoP, “lack of accountable leadership”, and “mistrust of the board”.

Coney’s appointment, which is contingent on the approval of PoP’s board, is part of a broader shake-up inside the PoP, whose leadership has been consumed by a contentious debate over the legitimacy of the 2021 election of its current leader, Charlie Fraga. Known as the “overall coordinator”, Fraga has said the bitter fight has emerged as an “urgent threat to the unity of the community”.

For survivors of alleged childhood sexual and physical abuse inside the PoP, Coney’s elevation is deeply troubling. PoP Survivors – as the group is known – has for years called for the PoP to be investigated and held accountable for its handling of historic claims of abuse. The Guardian reported last year that the FBI had interviewed several individuals who have alleged they were abused by members of the PoP, but it is not clear whether the FBI opened a formal investigation.

In 2020, as allegations of abuse and emotional trauma began to emerge in press reports in the Guardian and other media outlets, the PoP hired the law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan to conduct an “independent investigation” into sexual abuse claims on behalf of the PoP. The results of the investigation were never made public.

PoP Survivors say the lack of transparency is unusual given how many organizations and institutions have – however reluctantly – released the results of such investigations in the past, including some Catholic Church dioceses. They worry that Coney could now have an outsized role in determining what may be released in the future.

“Elevating Amy Coney Barrett’s father to a position where he can influence what goes public is a huge conflict of interest. It gives him the power to block information that might be embarrassing to her. Yet public scrutiny is exactly what’s needed in order to protect children in the group,” said a spokesperson for PoP Survivors, which has 55 members and is comprised of adults who grew up in the sect and are no longer affiliated with the group.

Barrett has not been accused of wrongdoing. But at the time of her nomination to the supreme court, it was reported by the AP that the PoP had sought to erase all mentions and photos of her from its website before her meetings with lawmakers. It may have been an effort to shield Barrett from questions about the PoP’s extreme beliefs.

The Guardian asked Fraga, the PoP overall coordinator, for a comment on the leadership controversy and survivors’ concerns over Coney’s promotion, but he did not respond to the request for comment.

Barrett’s supreme court chambers did not respond to a request for comment.

It is not only the survivor group that has challenged Michael Coney’s appointment.

Nano Farabaugh, an active member of the PoP, sent a letter to the all-male board of governors on 9 January in which she called on the board to reject Coney’s appointment to replace PoP co-founder Paul DeCelles as the leader of the consultation team.

In her letter, which was obtained by the Guardian, Farabaugh said the team had recently submitted its suggestions to the board about PoP’s “future direction”. It is not clear what the consultation group has proposed or whether those suggests are now being scrapped.

Farabaugh said Fraga’s decision illustrated many of the concerns that were being aired by PoP members, including: “Misuse of authority, mistrust of the board, not being consulted on matters that directly affect women, not listening to men and especially the voice of women, lack of transparency, [and] lack of accountable leadership.”

The PoP was founded in the 1970s as part of a Christian charismatic movement. In meetings, members are encouraged to share prophecies and speak in tongues. One former member said adherents believe God can speak through members to deliver messages, sometimes about their future.

A PoP handbook states that members are expected to be obedient to male authorities, or group heads, and are expected to give 5% of their earnings to the group. Heads are influential decision-makers in members’ lives, weighing in on issues ranging from dating to marriage and determining where members should live.

After a waiting period, members agree to a covenant – a lifelong vow – to support each other “financially and materially and spiritually”.

The group has been criticized for endorsing discriminatory practices. Members who engage in gay sex are expelled, and private schools closely affiliated with the group – the Trinity Schools – have admission policies that in effect ban the children of gay parents from attending. Barrett has previously served on Trinity’s board of trustees.

Single members are encouraged to live with other members of the community, including families with children, a practice that former members and adults who grew up in the sect say created opportunities for sexual abuse.

Justice Barrett’s membership in PoP was first widely publicized in a 2017 New York Times report, which noted that Barrett’s membership in the “tightly knit Christian group” never came up in a Senate hearing to confirm her as an appeals court judge.