An evangelical church minister began spanking and sexually assaulting his female parishioners after becoming “corrupted” by his unbridled power, a court heard.

Howard Curtis, 73, led the Coulsdon Christian Fellowship (CCF) as a “cult” and demanded his flock obey his orders as the “word of God”, a former member of his congregation told the Croydon Crown Court jury.

Mr Curtis, now of Bloxworth Close, Wallington, was a senior minister at the Chipstead Valley Road church from the early 1980s until July 2013.

He denies sexually assaulting two women and indecently assaulting a third.

Giving evidence from behind a screen, the former CCF parishioner said family members had urged her to leave the church.

But she added: “When you’re in a cult you don’t realise you’re in a cult until years after you’ve left and you look back and think, ‘Why didn’t I leave years ago?’

"When you’re inside, you can’t see the wood for the trees. I broke away a couple of times, but the pull was just too great.”

She said the CCF had began as a “normal church” but transformed into a cult under the influence of Mr Curtis, adding: “He’s very good at motivating people, and at the end of the day he’s a minister, and why would his parishioners question that the ‘word of God’ isn’t the truth? 

“He made no bones about it – he was a minister and you had to give him double honour.”

The former CCF member, who said she had left the church 13 years ago, described how in the 1990s Mr Curtis had “prayed” for the closure of Cane Hill mental hospital so he could fulfil his “vision” of establishing a 1,000-strong church there by buying the site.

The witness’s evidence was challenged by defence barrister Julia Flanagan, who rejected her assertion that CCF was a cult.

She said: “I’m suggesting that was an idea that you came up with in hindsight.”

Of the Cane Hill plan, she said: “It wasn’t something to make money – he was trying to do good."

The trial continues.

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