Six members of an upstate New York church have been arrested after two of the suspects' teenage sons were subjected to an hours-long beating as part of a spiritual "counseling session," leading to one of their deaths Monday, police said.
Lucas Leonard, 19, died and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, was seriously injured in the beating at the Word of Life Church in New Hartford on Sunday, police said.
"The pastor called for a counseling session, a spiritual event for these two boys," New Hartford Police Lt. Timothy O'Neill told BuzzFeed News. "Ultimately, it led to these two young men being beaten for hours."
Police know that the two teens were "kicked and punched repeatedly by the different church members," O'Neill added.
“Both brothers were subjected to physical punishment in the hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness,” Chief Michael Inserra told reporters Wednesday, the New York Times reported.
Lucas died Monday at a hospital from apparent blunt force trauma sustained during the assault, police said in a statement.
The teenagers' parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, aged 65 and 59, respectively, have each been charged with one count of first-degree manslaughter.
“We’re not alleging they intended to kill their son,” Scott McNamara, the Oneida County district attorney, told reporters. “We’re just alleging they were trying to seriously hurt their son, and ultimately he died from his injuries.”
Four other church members were each charged with second-degree assault: Joseph Irwin, 26; David J. Morey, 26; Linda R. Morey, 54; and Sarah L. Ferguson, 33.
Lucas was taken to a local hospital at around 12:30 p.m. Monday, but was pronounced dead.
After interviewing family members, SWAT teams stormed the church, where they located Lucas's brother.
Christopher remains hospitalized in serious condition with injuries caused by "blunt force trauma as a result of an assault," police said.
Police interviewed several Word of Life Church members and turned over "several children" from the congregation to child protection workers.
O'Neill said church members described the "counseling sessions" as a way of addressing perceived sins by parishioners.
"Sessions are used to determine a way of resolving the sin," he said. "It's their way of dealing with it."
The church building, which was once a school, also serves as a residence for some church members.
A neighbor told Syracuse.com that the church was a "cult," whose members sang "strange chants" and were often seen outside late at night.
Watch a former resident recall "sketchy" behavior at the church:
The alleged beatings occurred on Sunday. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated they occurred on Monday.
David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.
Contact David Mack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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