According to New Hartford police, an upstate New York couple accused of beating their 19-year-old son to death inside a church allegedly did so during a counseling session, “in the hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness.”

Bruce and Deborah Leonard, 65 and 59 years old, respectively, were charged with manslaughter this week in the beating death of their 19-year-old son Lucas Leonard. Chris Leonard, their 17-year-old younger son, was also allegedly beaten and received serious injuries. Four other members of the Word of Life Christian Church in the community of Chadwicks—including the siblings’ sister, Sarah Ferguson (top left)—were charged with assault.

New Hartford Police Chief Chief Michael S. Inserra told the New York Times that the boys were “subjected to physical punishment in the hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness” during a Sunday counseling session during which congregants discussed “their spiritual state.” Police were not certain whether weapons were used, and said that the teenagers were punched and kicked all over their bodies for several hours.

The Times also uncovered some seedy details about the Word of Life church, which had a reputation as a cultish institution even before the killing. According to police, the congregation had 40 to 50 members, some of whom who lived in the three-story converted schoolhouse it used as a headquarters. Police took seven or more young children from the church this week. One neighbor told the Times that members occasionally built fires on the roof.

Police said that more arrests may be forthcoming.

Images via Oneida County Sheriff’s Office/ AP. Contact the author at