When the Rev. Gene Profeta, fresh from jail, returned to the pulpit last month after a four-month absence, Marie Valerie Kettell and Carole DiTosti were not in the congregation at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Massapequa.
While Profeta, spurred by applause and shouts, was declaring, "I do not have to defend myself," DiTosti was at home, studying for her doctorate in educational administration. Kettell was out shopping for clothes with a friend.
But the unrepentant tone Profeta struck that afternoon reinforced in their minds the wisdom not only of their decision to leave his church in 1986 but to participate in the investigation that led to Profeta's conviction on tax evasion and witness tampering charges.
"It's not revenge," Kettell said last week. "I know there are people in his grip. I know there are people being hurt."
In 1987, when state officials began a criminal investigation into the church's finances, the women decided to cooperate with the probe, with DiTosti going so far as to agree to wear a concealed microphone and tape-record Profeta's wife, Glenda.
"In this day when 'not getting involved' is the norm," Assistant Attorney General Peter A. Crusco later wrote DiTosti's employers, "and our educational system is under virtual siege with doubts abounding about the morals and values being taught in our schools, Ms. DiTosti stands out as a teacher who answered the call and assisted law enforcement officials in guaranteeing that justice be done."
As word reached the congregation about Kettell's and DiTosti's assistance to the investigation, they heard repeated reports that they had been "shunned" by their former friends for what was seen as their betrayal, and that DiTosti had even been denounced at some services.
Distraught over the uncritical reception the newly released inmate has received from his congregation, Kettell and DiTosti decided last week to discuss publicly why they broke with the church and why they helped prosecutors target the man who was once their pastor.
Profeta declined to be interviewed. But his lawyer, Stephen Scaring, described the women as simply disgruntled congregants, and said Profeta did not know why they were making the criticisms.
"There are always dissatisfied people in any congregation," Scaring said. "He doesn't know what their motives are."
But in a series of interviews last week, DiTosti and Kettell said their decisions to help investigators, and now to make their experiences public, came after much agonizing.
"I cared about him and the people there," DiTosti said. "And I was wrestling with the question: Will this be a benefit? Will this help or will this be misinterpreted? Will I be misinterpreted? Can I take a stand for the truth, to help individuals break from an addiction?"
DiTosti and Kettell both found their way to Profeta's church when seeking support during periods of personal crisis.
For Kettell, the mother of two who now works as a paralegal, discovery of the church came as her turbulent marriage was falling apart.
"My life was not good. I knew that I was sick and I needed help," said Kettell, 33, who was raised an Episcopalian, and who was not "born again" until 23, right before she first set foot in the Tabernacle in 1980. "I just prayed to God, because I was at the end of my rope."
She visited numerous churches, searching for a place that felt like sanctuary. "I said, 'God, I want a church of my own. I want my own home church,' " she recalled.
Then she attended a 1980 service at the Tabernacle. Profeta was conducting a faith-healing service, and, dressed in a flowing, light-blue robe, he headed straight for the pew where she had taken a seat.
"There's somebody here with stomach problems," Profeta said - then corrected himself. "It's not stomach problems. It's female trouble."
Kettell was experiencing menstrual-cycle problems. But shyness kept her rooted in her seat, and she watched as another woman rose and let the pastor touch her stomach.
Still, she recalled last week, "He looked me right straight dead in the eyes. That's what made me feel it was for me, that healing."
And sure enough, she said, two weeks later her problems cleared up.
On her next visit, four months later, she was puzzling over a section of scripture when Profeta appeared at the pulpit - and stunned her by picking out that very passage to discuss.
"I took that as, 'Well, God, if you want me to be here, I'm coming back again,' " Kettell said.
At the Tabernacle, with its spritually intense services, Kettell felt that at last she had found that home. The incidents when, she believes, God healed her through Profeta, and when he discussed the same scripture she had been reading, made her more certain. In the months to come, as he read from other portions of scripture, she heard many other of her spiritual questions being answered.
"This offered a respite," she said. "It was like I could go in there, and I could be in touch with God."
Madeleine Fitzgibbon, a lawyer at a Copiague firm where Kettell used to work, and who briefly represented Kettell during the Profeta investigation, put it this way: "At a time in her life when she felt abandoned and alone, this church became a family."
Like Kettell, DiTosti, 40, a high school teacher in Copiague who was raised a Baptist in Patchogue, says discovery of the Tabernacle came after years in which she had fallen away from organized religion. "I never forgot God," she said. "I always prayed." But she could not escape feelings of personal failure and hypocrisy.
"I was really searching for the Lord to touch my life and really bring me to a state of wholeness," she said.
In 1984, she was attending a church in Queens when a congregant mentioned Profeta's church and decided to take a look for herself.
On her second visit, she was drawn immediately by the music, a frothy gospel that still fills the church to its ceiling and brings congregants to their feet and into the aisle, their hands raised above their heads in praise of Jesus.
DiTosti joined the chorus, and began attending both rehearsals and services regularly. But much of what kept her coming was the music, she said.
"I wanted to sing for the Lord," she said.
At the height of her attendance at the Tabernacle, Kettell's feelings toward Profeta approached adulation. Kettell attended services six times a week. In 1982, she also began working as a volunteer on the church's "prayer phone," she said, counseling those who called in crisis.
Gradually, she said, she began performing secretarial duties, eventually getting a job as a full-time secretary, paid off the books. In 1983 or 1984, she said, she lost that job. But a year later, she began working part time in the church's nursery as a baby sitter.
Although she needed welfare to feed her children during part of this period, Kettell, like many in the congregation, did not resent Profeta's lavish lifestyle - his expensive clothing, trips and gifts - but rather loved him all the more for it, and accepted his explanation that "God wants you to have the best."
"When I saw him," she recalled, "I thought that he was a great man of God, that he was blessed. He had everything: He loved God, he was charismatic, he had money. Everything looked so beautiful."
DiTosti said she never held that degree of reverence for Profeta. She didn't much care for his preaching style, she said, preferring the styles of other ministers who visited the church from time to time. And, she said, she just had a growing feeling of unease about the pastor.
"There was nothing I could prove or say," she said, "but I just didn't have a very good feeling."
Both women described a pastor who seemed to grow more concerned with money and personal power than with preaching the gospel.
After attending the church with less and less regularity, DiTosti said, she stopped singing in the choir at the beginning of 1986, and only rarely went to services afterward. Her decision to leave was sealed, she said, after Kettell confided in her about her own experiences at the church.
During one November, 1984, service, Kettell said last week, she was in the church with her children. Angry that youngsters were playing in the aisle, she said, Profeta sent out a church usher to reprimand her, even though her children had not been responsible.
Upset, after the service Kettell went into his office to see him - and at that moment, she said, their relationship took on a new twist.
"He said, 'I'm sorry. Come here. Give me a hug,' " she recounted. "I went to hug him, like a father. But he wasn't hugging me like a father."
Over the next six months, Kettell said, a sexual relationship developed between her and Profeta, a relationship confined to periodic meetings in his church office when she came to collect her salary for the baby-sitting job. The two did not have intercourse, she said, but did engage in sex acts.
Profeta, through his lawyer, denied having a sexual relationship with Kettell. "He says that's absolutely ridiculous. It never happened," Scaring said.
Scaring also denied that Kettell had ever worked for the church as anything other than a volunteer baby sitter, and that only rarely. He said she had sought a job there and had been turned down.
Kettell says she was stricken by guilt over the relationship, particularly because she was fond of Profeta's wife, and by a growing conviction that it was spiritually harmful.
"That wasn't what I was looking for - honest to God," she said, her voice taking on an urgent tone. "I loved him. He was my pastor. He was helping me."
But eventually, in June, 1985, she said, she told him she would no longer come see him for her pay, but instead would seek it from his wife. In September, 1986, she quit her baby-sitting post and stopped attending services regularly.
A dark car blocked her in her parking space as Kettell was getting ready in July, 1987, to leave her job at the Copiague law firm for the day. Out of it jumped two men who flashed cards identifying themselves as officials of the state tax department.
They took her to a nearby diner, told her they were investigating Profeta's church, and began asking her questions. Kettell answered them.
This was several months after the fundamentalist world was shocked by Jessica Hahn's revelation that she had had sex with evangelist Jim Bakker, whose television ministry eventually collapsed under the weight of the scandal. Hahn, who was a secretary at the Full Gospel Tabernacle, has also claimed she had an affair with Profeta.
DiTosti was already cooperating with investigators. Over the next few months, the two women gave authorities initial leads in their investigation, including identifying key players in the church and discussing gifts Profeta had given people. Accompanied by her lawyer, Kettell had a lengthy meeting with investigators at which she was asked detailed questions about church finances and Profeta.
And on two occasions, DiTosti tape-recorded meetings with Glenda Profeta, who was also indicted on tax-evasion charges, but whose charges were dropped when her husband pleaded guilty. DiTosti, asserting that she was a friend of Glenda's, said that she made the tapes in the hope they would help clear Glenda, and that nothing damning emerged in the taped meetings.
"I wore a wire to help Glenda," she said.
DiTosti's and Kettell's statements, along with those of others familiar with the church and star witness Hahn, helped prosecutors develop a large enough body of evidence to charge the Profetas eventually.
In October, 1988, the Albany County grand jury hearing the case handed up an indictment charging Profeta with 18 criminal counts. He was accused of failing to pay state income tax due on $ 90,000 in church money he spent on himself between 1984 and 1986, and of coaching Hahn to lie to a grand jury about gifts he had given her. Kettell and DiTosti both testified before the grand jury.
On Jan. 24, Profeta pleaded guilty to tax evasion and witness tampering under a plea-bargain in which a judge agreed to sentence him to six months in jail and levy fines that ultimately totaled more than $ 20,000. On March 28, after a court proceeding attended by 150 of his supporters, Profeta was led from an Albany jail in handcuffs and taken to the county jail to begin serving his sentence.
Since leaving the Full Gospel Tabernacle, Kettell has taken to going to a Baptist church in Amityville. DiTosti says that she remains religious but that her doctoral studies have made it difficult for her to attend church regularly.
Kettell and DiTosti do not want Profeta to stop preaching. They still believe he has talents that can help those in need.
"My life is like 2,000 times better than when I first walked in that church . . . He helped me a lot. He really did," Kettell said. "I suffered a lot. But I also gained a lot."
But they both say that, more than anything, they want Profeta to acknowledge his wrongdoing, to repent and to set an example for the people who believe in him.
"He is affecting souls," DiTosti said. "He is affecting lives. He is affecting sheep. He is hurting people. I have to take a stand against him as a member of the Body of Christ."
And they also want Profeta to overcome the emotional pain they believe his lifestyle has brought him.
"I would like to see him be full of peace, have a lot of peace," Kettell said, "and be happy with himself."