Former deacons of a New Orleans East megachurch, including some who have been interviewed by investigators in a sweeping state criminal probe into the church’s financial practices, say they were shunned when they dared to speak out against the charismatic pastor.
On Thursday, WWL-TV detailed much of what the Orleans District Attorney and New Orleans Police Department are investigating at City Church of New Orleans, including allegations that:
Owen and Tammy McManus deny any financial wrongdoing and call the allegations “grossly unfounded.” They have not been charged with any crimes and if they are, prosecutors would still have to prove their case.
But there are other allegations being raised as well. Jon Trosclair, one of the people interviewed as part of the criminal investigation, also tells WWL-TV that when he was a high-school student in the mid-1990s, he was forced to do manual labor to help the McManuses and the church’s founder, Owen McManus Sr., build mansions for themselves in the posh Eastover neighborhood.
Trosclair claims that he was regularly pulled out of school at Bishop McManus Academy to do work at the home-construction sites, and was told that he had to do it to “fulfill his scholarship.”
“It got to the point where I wouldn't even wear a uniform,” Trosclair said. “I would just come in jeans and a T-shirt because I was expected to get picked up and brought off-site to their home.”
And Trosclair isn’t the only former City Church deacon who says he was directed to provide extra services to the McManuses to fulfill church duties.
More recently, McManus Jr. built a second, larger mansion in Eastover, assessed this year at nearly half a million dollars. A former Bishop McManus teacher who spoke to WWL-TV on condition of anonymity said she was expected to go to the lavish house each week to babysit the McManuses' daughter.
“It's beautiful. It's a castle. Made for a king and queen,” she said. “The interns do everything. The interns or the teachers in the school. The interns babysit for free as well.”
She said teachers and other church employees are expected “to serve the pastors in any and every way.”
“We took turns, the teachers,” she said. “We had to mop the hallways, clean the classrooms, the bathrooms. And in the cafeteria I had to work as a server as well.”
LSU Law Professor Philip Hackney, a former IRS lawyer who specialized in tax-exempt nonprofit issues, said these allegations have serious tax law implications.
“Assuming the facts of a situation where someone has been forced to provide services for them outside of their church context, it can build a case for inurement,” Hackney said.
Inurement is a violation where leaders of a tax-exempt nonprofit use the nonprofit's money or resources for personal benefit, beyond what they justly earned.
“The church can pay a salary to someone who works for it -- reasonable salary,” Hackney said. “But to the extent that salary comes outside of what you reasonably provided to the organization, now you get into inurement territory.”
In addition to those legal concerns, some who worked at the church or school say they felt like church leaders manipulated them and took advantage of their desire to serve God.
“I've heard with my own ears Owen McManus (Jr.) say from the pulpit, 'You practice how you serve God by how you serve me,'” Trosclair said. “And that's pretty heretical.”
Trosclair and others who enrolled as “interns” in the church’s unaccredited bible school described how church rules forced them to pay huge portions of their wages back to the church.
One former Bishop McManus Academy teacher and bible school intern said she had to pay tuition of $2,500 to attend the bible school, and also had to pay the church $236 a month rent to live in on-campus dorms. She said her salary was $1,000 a month, and as a member of the staff, the church required her to tithe 10 percent of her pay – again, back to the church.
All told, that’s more than $6,500 she had to pay back, more than half her $12,000 salary.
“There are employees underneath (the McManuses) that are … on welfare, food stamps, Social Security, WIC, and (then) pay 10 percent of that money back to them in tithe, plus offerings,” Trosclair said.
“They promote these positions as positions of privilege and being able to work for God, yet they themselves are lacking none of life’s creature comforts.”
Former deacons of the church say that when they raised concerns about these practices – or even simply tried to leave their jobs or active church membership – they were seen as being “in rebellion” against Owen McManus Jr. and were ostracized.
No one felt that backlash more acutely than Robert McGill. He was the star of feature films Owen McManus Jr. made, but when McGill questioned the filming and financing methods and refused to finish post-production work on a movie sequel, McGill said his family of six was forced to leave the apartment they rented from Owen McManus Sr.
McGill said his wife was then fired from her teaching job at Bishop McManus Academy, and a scholarship for one of their four children to attend the school was suddenly revoked.
“When they fired my wife, they immediately required that we pay the money for that one of my children's tuition. In full. By 4 o'clock. That day,” McGill said. It was the middle of the school year, but rather than pay a full-year’s tuition, McGill said he simply pulled all four children out of Bishop McManus Academy.
Owen and Tammy McManus declined to be interviewed for this story, but they did issue a written statement that addressed some of the former members' concerns about how they were treated:
"It is our heartfelt desire to ensure that each member, volunteer and employee is treated with fair treatment, courtesy and respect,” the McManus statement said. “However, as with any organization, decisions sometimes are made on the part of individuals or the organization that leave people dissatisfied with the outcome. In those instances, we offer our sincere and heartfelt desire that the Lord will bring healing, peace and comfort."
But several former church deacons said that’s not at all how the McManuses made them feel when they expressed their dissatisfaction. For example, when the anonymous teacher who said she babysat the McManuses’ daughter announced she no longer wanted to work at Bishop McManus Academy, Tammy McManus texted her saying the she had been "deceived by the enemy."
The teacher said friends and family members at the church were encouraged to shun her for "pulling back," including her own sister.
“And she told me I was a demon and I had demons in me,” she said.
Jon Trosclair said his brother, Bryan, remains a top leader in the church, so when Jon and his wife left the church quietly, Bryan shunned them.
“There was leaders, including my brother, who would go to friends of ours in the church and kind of persuade them to be careful of my wife and (me),” Jon Trosclair said.
For his part, Trosclair said he holds no ill-will toward the church leaders and still hopes to reconcile with his brother.
But when another former deacon, Phyllis Lofton, notified leaders she was leaving City Church in 2009, she said Bryan Trosclair showed up at her apartment, telling her she couldn’t live there anymore, even though no one at City Church even owned the place. She had a lease with the apartment building owners, a ministry in Texas, and was allowed to stay.
“Like Bryan told me that night, 'You don't leave the church. You leave when we say you leave,’” Lofton said.
Bryan Trosclair did not respond to messages seeking comment.