Former sect leader pleads guilty to child sex charges

The Age, Australia/March 20, 2014

By Chris Johnston

A former leader of a secretive Victorian sect has pleaded guilty to child sex charges in a Gippsland court.

Chris Chandler, 56, of French Island, a former senior member of the shadowy Bible sect known as Friends and Workers or the Two by Twos, pleaded guilty in the LaTrobe Valley Magistrate's Court on Thursday to nine charges including unlawful indecent assaults, indecent assaults and gross indecency on three young female victims.

Several charges were dropped during the committal mention hearing on Thursday but Chandler faces court again in May after entering his guilty plea.

The charges date back to the 1970s when Chandler was aged in his 20s. Some victims were under 12. Chandler was not a member of the sect then but joined only three years later.

A Fairfax Media investigation last year established senior members of the sect knew of the allegations yet promoted him, in 1991, to the senior position of "worker", or minister - meaning he was travelling throughout Victoria and Tasmania and staying in family homes as a "missionary".

From 1991 until 2004 Chandler was in Wodonga, Shepparton, Launceston and rural Tasmania. He later positioned himself within the sect as a counsellor and contact for victims of child sexual abuse.

Chandler, a self-employed ecologist who recently returned from several years in Uruguay and Brazil, resigned from the sect in 2012. Yet he went to an overnight sect convention where children were present at Speed, near Mildura, and last year went to sect meetings at Crib Point near Hastings.

A submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious groups - by an organisation called Wings, an online group of former Friends and Workers sect members - said the sect is "haphazard" in dealing with sexual abuse allegations and "the main focus has been on protecting the reputation of the Workers and not on helping victims".

The sect has 2000 Victorian members and an estimated 200,000 worldwide. It is an offshoot of the Cooneyites. The Irish founder of the Cooneyites was the Protestant evangelist Edward Cooney, who moved to Mildura and died there in 1960 - hence Victoria's strong membership.

Matthew 10 in The Bible sets out much of what the sect believes. In it, Jesus sends out his disciples to cleanse the world of "impure spirits".

The sect was linked to the suicides of Narelle and Stephen Henderson, aged 14 and 12, of Pheasant Creek near Kinglake, in 1994. It holds five conventions a year at Speed, Colac, Drouin and at Thoona near Benalla.

They have no churches or headquarters and no written policies or doctrines. Short hair is forbidden on sect women. Long hair is forbidden on men. Television, radio, movies, dancing and jewellery are usually banned in sect homes.

The Victorian and Tasmanian leader of Friends and Workers, David Leitch, is known to be close to Chandler. In 2012, Chandler and Leitch wrote a letter to all Victorian sect members announcing Chandler would step down "from the Work" because police in Gippsland had begun questioning him about the allegations that have now led to Chandler's sex charges.

In 2011 another senior Victorian "worker", Ernest Barry, was convicted in a Gippsland court on five indecent assault charges over four years on a girl, a sect member, in the 1970s.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail, but was given a suspended sentence on appeal.

Police say they knew of another 12 alleged victims, but could not lay further charges against Barry, who now lives in Warrnambool, because the additional alleged victims would not come forward or press charges.

When Chandler was a "worker" in Wodonga in 1995, the co-"worker" with him in family homes was Ernest Barry.

Then last year - this time in South Australia - the issue of child sexual abuse emerged in the secret sect again. A South Australian "worker", who has now moved to Victoria, alleged to Leitch that another fellow "worker" had been allegedly sexually abusing children.

Leitch sacked the worker who raised the allegations because he says the allegations were not true and he knew they were not true because he investigated them himself.

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