March 21, 2001 -- Police call it child abuse. The pastor calls it God's will.
The Rev. Arthur Allen and five other people are under arrest and 41 children have been taken from their families and put in foster care amid allegations that Allen directed members of the congregation of his Atlanta church, the House of Prayer, to beat their children.
The children range in age from infants to 17-year-olds, according to the Division of Family and Children Services. The agency has placed the children in foster homes rather than group shelters until the investigation determines whether it is safe to return them to their families.
DFCS officials said children told them that when they misbehaved, they would be taken to the church for discipline, which would be organized by the pastor. Two or three adults would hold them down while two or three others would beat them until the pastor said to stop, according to the children's accounts.
The agency took 19 children into custody over a two-week period, then Tuesday took 22 more and arrested the six people. The six were arraigned today and all pleaded not guilty and refused an attorney.
"We believe in corporal punishment for unruly children," Allen said during a meeting outside the church Friday night, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "If something is reported in here, the parent saying they cannot handle the child, then I suggest they give the child a whipping."
He said that the Bible teaches that it is right to punish children by beating them, so they will learn how wrong it is to misbehave.
Allen and four of the other people who were arrested each have been charged with two counts of cruelty to children, for allegedly beating two boys, ages 7 and 10. The other person was charged with battery and reckless conduct.
Complaints at School
According to Atlanta police, the two boys said they were beaten with sticks, switches and a belt while they were at church. The 10-year-old suffered from open wounds on his stomach and right side, while the younger boy had welts on his stomach and back.
"I did nothing wrong," Allen said as he was being led away by police. The 68-year-old pastor was jailed for 30 days in 1993 for ordering the beating of a church member's daughter.
Authorities began investigating the church several weeks ago after a 10-year-old complained in school about a beating he had received at church. Police and child welfare investigators began talking to teachers, doctors, former church members and children, and two weeks ago they began asking church members to sign pledges not to hit their children until the inquiry was completed.
When parents refused, their children were taken. DFCS officials said the investigation has not been completed, and indicated that more children could be taken into custody.
"If a child died in two weeks, we'd be vilified for not going in to take those children," said Andy Boisseaux of the state Department of Human Resources, which overseas DFCS. "We generally err on the side of the children."
Church members said that the pastor was just following the teachings of the Bible, which they said directs parents to show their love for their children by strictly punishing their misdeeds.
"The last resort is to whip our children," church member Jimmy Barnett said. "Somebody's got to stop them. There's enough killing in these schools. There's enough parent abuse, and it's because the parent did not correct that child when it was young."
Along with Allen, congregation members David Duncan Sr., 43; Emanuel Hardman, 35; James Smith, 43; and Yolanda Wilson, 27, were each charged with two counts of cruelty to children. Ricky Wilson, 31, was charged with battery and reckless conduct.
ABCNEWS's Steve Osunsami contributed to this report.