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Pizza Promised, Baptism Delivered, Parents Claim

August 28, 1996| From Associated Press

WOBURN, Mass. — A Baptist church used promises of pizza and basketball games to attract hundreds of children, then gave them full-body baptisms into a faith that is foreign to many of them, parents charge.

Prosecutors and police in five communities are investigating the complaints against Anchor Baptist Church.

Parents say the church enticed teenagers and younger children onto buses at least twice in July. Instead of getting pizza, the children reportedly were taken to the church in Woburn, made to sit through a long service, then told to undress and put on robes. Those who complied were quickly dunked into a tank of water, parents say.

Many of the children from Woburn, Medford, Stoneham, Cambridge and Somerville are Roman Catholic. At least one family involved is Buddhist.

"They didn't tell us about Mass or anything," said Rosa Vazquez, 14, a Catholic who attended a service with a friend but wouldn't go through the baptism. "They just told us about the good stuff."

No one responded by phone or in person at the white wooden church. Calls to its pastor, the Rev. Chris Pledger, were not returned.

Pledger, who has described his congregation as independent, defended his recruiting practices in an interview last month with the Woburn Advocate newspaper.

"Jesus told us to go into the world and preach the gospel. Baptism is doing more than just hearing what the man said and if it's in the Bible, who am I to say what is right?" he told the newspaper.

The state Social Services Department has said an 8-year-old boy was emotionally harmed in one incident but it would not elaborate.

Most of the children are from public housing projects.

"Families around here are lucky to get pizza once a month, so if they offer it to kids, they go," said Lisa Amorin, who said her 3-year-old son, Steven, has been repeatedly approached by church members.

Twelve-year-old Hieu Nguyen, whose family practices Buddhism, said he did not understand what was happening when he and his 9-year-old brother, Qui, were baptized. He said he went along because other children did.

It is unclear how many children were baptized, and whether some parents had signed permission slips, police said.

The Middlesex district attorney is investigating whether any laws were broken, spokeswoman Jill Reilly said Tuesday.

Other Baptists are troubled by the complaints. "That is not common to our church at all,' said the Rev. Carol Boutwell of First Baptist Church in Woburn.

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