Atlanta -- The pastor and 10 members of an Atlanta church that backs the corporal punishment of children were charged with child abuse Friday for allegedly beating two boys during services last year.
The aggravated assault and child cruelty charges are the latest development in the highly publicized investigation of the 130-member House of Prayer church.
Those indicted include the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., 69, and 10 parents of children who were taken into protective custody during the investigation.
Allen said he and members of his congregation will plead innocent.
"I will call for a trial by jury,'' Allen said at his church Friday. "I'm delighted for the opportunity to face these charges, to resolve everything one way or another.''
The indictment charges that church members twice beat the boys, then 7 and 10, during services in February, causing "cruel and excessive mental pain.'' According to prosecutors, Allen directed the beating in which the children were held in the air by congregants while being struck.
Prosecutor Paul Howard said the spankings left both boys with open wounds near vital organs. He said the boys were beaten after refusing to cooperate and just "being kids.''
"This is not a normal whipping,'' Howard said. "These are severe and extreme beatings.''
Allen has acknowledged directing the spanking of children during church services, but calls them necessary to maintain discipline. He has accused authorities of violating his congregation's religious freedoms.
The church members face up to 20 years in prison on the assault charges and up to 10 years on the cruelty charges.
State officials took 49 children from six church families last March after teachers told police and social workers about the boys' injuries. The state later returned 35 of the children after acknowledging they had uncovered evidence of no more than three abused children.
More than a dozen children remain in state custody. The Division of Children and Family Services has asked a Juvenile Court judge to permanently sever the relationships of eight children with their parents so they can be put up for adoption.