Secrets, lies and sex abuse as ex-sect leader chooses life on the inside

The Age, Australia/July 28, 2014

By Chris Johnston

Guilt can be a heavy burden - and this seems to be the case with the latest chapter in the disturbing story of a senior Victorian sect leader now in jail on child sex charges.

Ten days ago Chris Chandler, 56, drove to Melbourne from his property on French Island, in Western Port. Then he went to the Melbourne Magistrates Court to hand himself in.

Chandler was a leader of the secretive Bible sect known as Friends and Workers, or the Two by Twos, who have 2000 Victorian members. He had already admitted his guilt in eight charges in a Gippsland court including unlawful indecent assaults, indecent assaults and gross indecency on three young female victims.

But Chandler baulked at his sentence of a year's jail with a non-parole period of three months, telling his lawyers that while he was guilty, he wasn't guilty to that extent.

But then something changed. He decided he wanted to go to jail. When he turned up at Melbourne's central magistrates court to surrender - not the Morwell court his hearings had been held in, and not the one closest to his home - he hadn't told the policeman who made the charges stick what he was about to do.

Sergeant Darren Eldridge of Moe police was surprised to hear Chandler had given up his fight. He had been working on the case for two years. ''We were assisted in different ways by a number of congregation members,'' he said.

The sect is a strange offshoot of the Cooneyites; it adheres strongly to Bible sections of Matthew 10 to do with Jesus sending out disciples to cleanse ''impure spirits''.

They do not have church buildings or headquarters and do not have written policies or doctrines. Travelling missionaries live with sect families for extended periods.

Television, radio, movies, dancing and jewellery are banned. It is strong in Victoria because the Irish founder of the Cooneyites was the Protestant evangelist Edward Cooney, who moved to Mildura and died there in 1960.

A submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious groups by WINGS, an online group of ex-sect members, said it has been ''haphazard'' in dealing with many sexual abuse allegations.

The sect was linked to the suicides of Narelle and Stephen Henderson, aged 14 and 12, of Pheasant Creek near Kinglake, in 1994. Narelle's suicide note read: ''We committed suicide because all our life we were made to go to meetings. They try to brainwash us so much and have ruined our lives.''

The sect holds five Victorian conventions a year at Speed (near Mildura), Colac, Drouin and Thoona near Benalla, where a prominent sect family has a farm.

A Fairfax Media investigation last year established sect leaders knew of the allegations against Chandler but promoted him, in 1991, to the senior position of ''worker'', or minister - meaning he was staying in private homes until 2004 in Wodonga, Shepparton, Launceston and rural Tasmania.

He later positioned himself as a counsellor and sect contact for child sexual abuse victims. He recently returned from stints for the sect in South America and Africa.

The Victorian and Tasmanian leader of Friends and Workers, David Leitch, of Melbourne, is known to be close to Chandler. He would not comment but an ex-sect source claimed he has a file on alleged sexual offences by Chandler which he has not given to police. Leitch sacked a sect leader for reporting sexual abuse in 2013.

Ex-member ''Ruby'', of Gippsland - not her real name - said Chandler was close to her family and that she was sexually assaulted by him in 1989 when she was 10. Her allegations led to one of the eight charges against him. She says the pair were at a beach when he rubbed his erection against her and asked if she ''wanted to make him happy''. He later tried to have a conversation with her about sexual rights and consent, she said.

She said the sect had a ''culture of secrecy'' and distrust of outsiders. Sexual abuse of young people and children was common. She said she was visited by sect head Leitch before she went to police. ''He said to me 'if you go to the police there's not much they can do'.''

She said Chandler messaged her through Facebook claiming he was molested as a child, that he had a different memory of the beach incident and that he was not a paedophile but rather suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder.

''It is not so much what he did to me,'' she said.

''I know he did worse things to others who are not emotionally strong enough to act. I want to get it all out in the open.''

Sergeant Eldridge said Chandler had made contact with family members of other alleged victims before handing himself in.

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