WACO, Texas - Homestead Heritage, just outside of Waco, has been revered as a model of Christian values. But is it a Utopian commune, or as some suggest, a extreme group of believers putting children at risk?
Videos posted on the Homestead Heritage web site present to the public the wholesome image, bolstering its perception as a beloved staple of the community for two decades. The estimated 1,000 members, crafting a pristine portrait of communal bliss.
But many who have left the church and its 500-acre, gated compound, paint a much different picture. One of a secretive and tightly-controlled religious environment.
The general public is not allowed inside. The commune is led by a group of elders, directed by the church founder and leader, Blair Adams.
News 8 obtained rare audio of an Adams sermon, which former members say often lasted for hours.
"He was to be feared," said former member Isaac Alexander. "You didn't talk to him, you didn't even look at him."
Others say it is that fear which allows Adams to control those devoted to his strict doctrine.
Katherine and Bob Beechner left Homestead after 15 years when Bob challenged Adams, whom he says professes to a messenger of God.
"The doctrine is that the leadership is put in place by God himself and speaks authoritatively, as speaking the very word of God," Beechner said.
Before gaining acceptance, adults go through several months of screening and ultimately must sign a covenant of silence.
According to Homestead’s membership contract, the aspiring members agree "to never bring before the public outside our church... any accusations or wrongdoing or any charge, lawsuit or court action." Agreeing "that all disputes be settled within the confines of the church."... and in return... "the church agrees to never expose a member's shortcomings and sins to any outside it's covenant."
The greatest sins, some former members say, are committed against children and teens. From emotional to physical, even sexual abuse.
News 8 has learned that in the past seven years, five individuals, either members of, or with close ties to Homestead, have been convicted of sexually abusing a child within the Homestead community.
Not included in that group, one former member whose identity we agreed to protect. She said she was molested by her stepfather when she was 15 years old.
"He would come into my room at night and in the morning,” said the abuse victim. “At the time, it seemed quite often - it was very often - and sexually assault me."
She said when church elders learned of the abuse, they asked her to forgive her step-father. She said elders ministered to him, but never counseled her. The step-father was never reported to law enforcement, despite state law requiring church officials to report child abuse within 24 hours.
“They should have reported it,” the victim said. “They should have called the police. To my knowledge, it was never discussed. It is absolutely disgusting that they didn't do anything about him."
Church officials allegedly waited months before reporting another member, Billy Ray Delong, after he admitted molesting one of his children.
"And I went to one of the pastors and I told them what happened, and they ministered to me for about a year and a half," Delong told News 8 in a prison interview.
And during that time, Delong says he continued to live with his family while church elders ministered to him.
"They tried to remedy the situation,” Delong said. “I think, within the church first because that's scriptural - that's what's in the Bible, that's what God says to do."
Homestead officials have declined to comment on camera about their handling Delong's case. In a statement posted on their web site, they say only one group leader knew of the abuse.
“It was a good faith effort to honor the confidential confession of a sin that no one before that time had ever encountered in our previous thirty years of ministry," the statement read.
Church leaders say they urged Delong to turn himself in as soon as they learned of the abuse. Delong tells News 8 others in the group did know about the abuse.
"A group of the men, the elders there, the brothers, they began to really find out what the best course was, and I know they make everything a matter of prayer,” Delong said. “It wasn't like they were trying to break the law. They were really trying to find out what to do within the church first, to keep everything covered."
Delong's victim said she was kicked out of church but allowed to return home, where the abuse continued.
"It stopped for about two-and-a-half, maybe three months, and then it started up again," she said.
She said no one from the church came to her and tried to comfort or counsel with her. She said nobody from the church said anything to her after the abuse was revealed.
Becky Crow, a former pastor's wife who left the church ten years ago, tells News 8 the abuse was common.
“Many heartbreaking stories of broken lives have been shared with me,” Crow said. “Some have not only been raped, they have been sold for other's sexual perversion by the ones who should have protected them."
Attorney Greg Love has represented abuse victims across the country, and said the stories of abuse at Homestead fit a pattern.
“When you get these closed communities and part of the fabric of that community is, information stays on the inside, behavior stays on the inside, how we do things stays on the inside,” Love said. “Even if those behaviors are injurious to a child, and you are discouraged from bringing in the outside, you really find children at risk."
Homestead officials claim of the five convicted pedophiles, only two were members of the church. Three were from the Delong family. They say all turned themselves in at the insistence of church officials, who fully cooperated with police.
Homestead Heritage officials label those now speaking out as "embittered former members."