KEY POINTS

  • A former member of People of Praise says she was sexually assaulted as a child in one of its homes. Emails corroborate her story and say she was not the only victim
  • She alleges her abuser was simply moved, and she was told not to tell anyone for fear of bad publicity
  • People of Praise has hired an outside attorney to investigate

People of Praise, a faith group that identifies itself as "a charismatic Christian community," has found itself under media scrutiny in recent weeks. The little-known Indiana-based group — it was founded in 1971 and most of its members identify as Catholic — has been profiled in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and the Associated Press, due to the membership of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

Barrett, who is expected to be confirmed Monday by the Republican-majority Senate, didn't speak about the group in her Senate confirmation hearings or listed it on any of her disclosure forms. When she faced the Senate in September 2017 as President Trump’s nominee for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, she faced questions about her faith but not her links to People of Praise.

People of Praise, which has more than 1,600 adult members, had previously operated under the radar, but its profile has surged due to Barrett, who is a lifelong member and a devout Catholic. She has kept mum about her ties and the group has declined to confirm Barrett was a member despite her name and image appearing in the group's magazine.

Growing up in Louisiana, Barrett reportedly spent her childhood in the People of Praise community and then married her husband, Jesse Barrett, who was raised in a People of Praise community in South Bend, Indiana.

Questions have been raised about how People of Praise treats women, as the AP reported that the group "holds men are divinely ordained as the 'head' of the family and faith" and that it "teaches that wives must submit to the will of their husbands." The Times reported, "The group’s beliefs — including a strict view of human sexuality that embraces traditional gender norms and rejects openly gay men and women — are in line with other conservative faith traditions."

With Amy Coney Barrett establishing a conservative bench on the Supreme Court, challenges to abortion rights are expected. Judge Amy Coney Barrett at the White House for her nomination by President Donald Trump to the Supreme Court on September 26, 2020 Photo: AFP / Olivier DOULIERY

There have also been some alarming accusations. In a report published Wednesday by the Guardian, former People of Praise member Sarah Kuehl claimed she was sexually abused by a male housemate of the community when she was 4 years old and that the abuse continued for two years.

Kuehl, 48, grew up in a precursory group to People of Praise, Servants of the Light, which merged to become People of Praise in 1984. She provided letters to the Guardian that were from the late 1980s and early 1990s that substantiated that the allegations were made back then and that her parents addressed the issue with leaders of the tight-knit community.

Kuehl told the Guardian that when the man admitted it to Kuehl’s father, the man was simply moved to a different house. Church leadership eventually arranged a marriage for him.

Emails provided to the Guardian revealed the allegations Kuehl sent to the head of People of Praise and referenced a psychological evaluation of her abuser. It also alleged that Kuehl was not the abuser's only victim and that other minors were at risk. 

Kuehl tried to talk about it years later with her handmaid, a female authority figure in the group. Kuehl was told “not to talk about it with anyone because it could ‘hurt the reputation of the community.’”

Kuehl reached out in September to church leadership.

"I have struggled for years on whether to hold [People of Praise] accountable for what they knew, when they knew it and their attempt to hide and cover-up. Like the Catholic church, who covered up and moved priests around, People of Praise has had a history of these same behaviors," wrote Kuehl in an email sent in September to Craig Lent, the head of People of Praise.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a practicing Catholic, is well-regarded by conservative Christians, who share many of her values, including an opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a practicing Catholic, is well-regarded by conservative Christians, who share many of her values, including an opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage Photo: AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA

The law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan was hired to conduct an "independent investigation," and Lent, who also is an electrical engineering professor at Notre Dame, replied in an email to Kuehl that People of Praise takes the allegations seriously.

“We very much want to look into this. To that end we have contracted with Diane Doolittle of Quinn Emanuel, who specializes in exactly this sort of investigation,” read Lent's email. “I want to stress that, although she is a lawyer, her role is not to defend People of Praise, but rather she is very much in the role of an independent investigator. We thought that better than trying to investigate it directly ourselves. We want to know the truth of the matter.”

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan has counted Brett Kavanaugh and Steve Bannon as clients. The firm represented Fox News in sexual misconduct allegations against founder Roger Ailes and former host Bill O’Reilly.

While Barrett has not confirmed she was a member of the People of Praise, she has lived in multiple family homes run by them, held a position that requires its members to be in the group, was mentioned in several now-deleted issues of the group’s magazine, and held the now-removed position of "handmaid" in 2010. 

Catholic judge Amy Coney Barrett, who was told by Senator Dianne Feinstein. "The dogma lives loudly in you Catholic judge Amy Coney Barrett, who was told by Senator Dianne Feinstein. "The dogma lives loudly in you" Photo: University of Notre Dame / Julian VELASCO

People of Praise is unusual in the degree to which it teaches female subservience. While leaders maintain female members can pursue professional careers and are independent of their husbands, their teachings say that women should follow men’s lead and former members say they were told not to upstage their male peers.

An excerpt from their magazine in 2015 on marriage reads: “Make it a joy for him to lead you… It is important for you to verbalize your commitment to submission."

Kuehl, meanwhile, isn’t the only one alleging mistreatment. A member asking only to be identified as Esther told the Guardian that her parents had joined after a personal tragedy, resulting in eight years of “emotional torment” in the group.

“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,” she said.

Like many former members, Esther chose to speak now because of Barrett’s nomination.

“I was OK with it being in a tiny little corner of Indiana, because a lot of weird stuff happens in tiny little corners in this country,” she said. “But it’s just unfathomable to me - I can’t even explain just how unfathomable it is — that you would have a supreme court justice who is a card-carrying member of this community.”