Fred Phelps's son wrestles with notorious father's imminent death

Nate Phelps, the estranged son of the reportedly infirm founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps Sr., says that he accepts that his family has done "tremendous harm" to many people, but admits he is unsure how to feel about his father's imminent passing.

Founder of fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church said to be on death bed

Nate Phelps, the estranged son of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, Sr., left the church 37 years ago and is now a campaigner for equality. (Courtesy of Nate Phelps)

Nate Phelps, the estranged son of the reportedly infirm founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps Sr., says that he accepts that his family has done "tremendous harm" to many people, but admits he is unsure how to feel about his father's imminent passing. 

"I've come to the conclusion that there is no repairing the relationship ... we are all different, we have different ideas, we take different paths," Phelps told host Carol Off of CBC's As It Happens in an interview on Tuesday.

"I have to deal with these emotions but I truly believe I can do it."

The younger Phelps left the Westboro Baptist Church, now infamous for picketing funerals for soldiers, children and victims of anti-gay violence, on his 18th birthday. He said he made the decision two years earlier at age 16 and has not spoken to his father personally since.

“In the environment I grew up in, there was a lot of violence, control — a lot of religious dogma imposed on us ... I didn’t think I belonged there anymore. So I made the decision when I was 16 that I was going to leave," Phelps said. 

Since departing 37 years ago, Phelps had become an activist and organizer heavily involved in gay rights campaigns. He has spent considerable time with counsellors — sessions that began 10 years after leaving the controversial church — to come to terms with his childhood and family, he said. 

The Westboro Baptist Church has become infamous for staunch anti-gay positions and for picketing the funerals of soldiers, children and victims of violence. ((Doug Koontz/Associated Press))

Phelps wrote on his personal Facebook page last week that his father is on his deathbed at a hospice in Topeka, Kan., and that his father was indeed excommunicated from the church in August 2013 after a "falling out" with the "board of elders."

Phelps said the information was passed to him from a nephew who recently left the church.

A Westboro Baptist Church spokesperson confirmed that Fred Phelps — sometimes called "the most hated man in America" by his detractors — is in a care home on Sunday but would not elaborate on the specifics of his condition. 

When asked if he would try to go see his ailing father in the coming weeks, Nate Phelps paused before saying he wasn't sure.

"I'm kind of stuck in that fear that I had when I was a kid. I never really moved past that. Certainly I've grown in a lot of areas, but the idea of being in a room with him, the first thing that comes to mind is that anxiety and fear that I had towards him when I was a kid."

Phelps also said that despite likely picketers at his father's funeral, he doesn't think protest action in the event of his father's death would help to progress the public dialogue around the issues raised by Fred Phelps Sr.'s life. 

"I accept that my family has done tremendous harm to many people. I personally think that you just create more animosity and more hate by [picketing]. I don’t think it’s the best thing to do, but I wouldn't judge anybody who did," he said.