FBI investigates reports of historical child sexual abuse within sect also operating in New Zealand

RNZ, New Zealand/April 19, 2024

By Amy Williams

A victim advocate says police are investigating multiple reports of historical child sexual abuse within a secretive house-church that has operated in New Zealand for over a century and is being investigated by the FBI.

The religious group meets in homes and has no official name but is commonly known as Two by Twos to those who have left, and The Truth to those who belong.

The FBI is investigating the sect in America, where more than 700 alleged offenders have been reported to a hotline, there have also been reports of abuse in the UK and Australia.

It has taken a high-profile FBI investigation overseas and multiple reports of child abuse in other countries for New Zealand victims to come forward.

Jillian Hishon grew up in the sect in Australia, but left the religious group when she married someone who was not part of it.

She now runs a hotline set up for Australasian victims of the sect known as The Truth, after evidence of child abuse emerged in America last year, and has been fielding calls from New Zealanders.

"To date, they are all historical child sexual abuse, so they've happened years ago. So these people who have abused, some are still in the church, so some of the abusers are still in the church, they're still attending meetings, some of them, some have been removed, others have already passed away."

Hishon said of the 140 perpetrators identified on the hotline, 20 percent were from New Zealand.

She said people have kept a lid on their trauma for years.

"It's been swept under the rug, you know, you think you're the only person and next thing you find out, oh no, there's actually probably someone in my meeting that was abused, they've just been told by the ministers to just put a lid on it and be quiet, and 'oh we'll deal with it', and nothing ever gets done."

A current member of the Christian sect who was born into it spoke to RNZ but did not wish to be identified.

They said there were between 50 and 60 leaders, known as Workers within the sect, who travel in pairs and stay in houses of sect members, known as Friends, where meetings were held.

"They still stay in homes because it's an itinerant ministry. That is one thing I think needs to change, that they don't stay in the homes of families with children," they said.

"The culture of don't talk about bad things, don't make trouble... for the most part historically you didn't go to police, you didn't go to media. I think the culture is you don't talk about it. It's damaging."

Hishon said the nature of the meetings in homes created an unfortunate environment for abuse.

"You could have two men come and stay in the home where there's, you know, four young children and because we trust these people in the church, there could be plenty of time for misadventure."

The member who spoke to RNZ said they understand there were at least half a dozen historical child sexual abuse reports under investigation by police in New Zealand, of people linked to the sect - some of whom were still actively involved.

They said the sect's lack of a name was going to make it hard for the police to find a pattern and link the reports of abuse.

RNZ understands police have received complaints relating to alleged child abuse by people within the sect but police have not confirmed this.

Religious expert, professor emeritus of history at Massey University, Peter Lineham, said the secretive sect has been active in New Zealand for 120 years.

He has been researching the sect since the 1970s, and said the esteem awarded to the leaders who travelled house-to-house, called the Workers, created a power imbalance.

"Potentially, this is a very vulnerable group of people because in effect the very high respect held towards the Workers or the Two by Twos meant that the ordinary people really had no other point of reference that they could compare notes about what might be happening."

Lineham said the sect appears to follow Christian beliefs but had a rigourous separation from society and refusal to identify as a group - which made it challenging for those wanting to report abuse.

"If there are issues within them, it's very difficult to come to terms with those issues because this person may deny that they are a follower of anything when challenged."

Around 20 people who had left the Two by Twos had spoken to him over the years and all carried shame and guilt and spoke about their dislike for certain leaders, he said.

"What I have seen is [an] extraordinary sort of shame about the group, the feeling that in some way or other this group was in their heads, they couldn't get it out [out of their head], they felt guilty for leaving, they found it very hard to make the break, and that's the classic behaviour of people who have been in a very closed sectarian group."

Hishon said she knew of three people linked to the sect who had been forced to leave after reports of child abuse.

But there were others accused who remained in the sect, she said.

"We're talking about the safety of children, and the safety of victims already. Like you could be sitting in a meeting in somebody's home and the person sitting across from you mightn't be your perpetrator but you know that they're an alleged perpetrator."

She said it was hard for people to speak out.

"It's almost a brainwashing of what they're preaching to make you think like that's the only place to be kind of thing until you actually get out of the church ... for somebody like myself with a Christian faith to realise that God is so much bigger than just this little church, this little faith group, and that maybe what I've been taught for the first 39 years of my life, was not exactly how it is."

Response from the church

New Zealand spokesperson Wayne Dean said he was aware that police were investigating at least one former minister for alleged historical sexual abuse.

The church encouraged any victims of historical sexual abuse to go to the police, he said.

Any alleged offender was stood down from attending church meetings pending investigation, he said.

"I am aware of 14 cases of members that have been asked not to attend meetings," he said.

"We take every report seriously. Even when it is only considered as inappropriate behaviour. As are some of the cases being dealt with at present."

Workers have a written Code of Conduct which they signed and were expected to adhere to in all situations, including when they were in members' homes, he said.

Dean said all workers had to undertake formal and refresher training to keep children safe and perpetrators were banned from meetings arranged by the ministry.

The fellowship fully cooperates with police investigations and reporting of child abuse was encouraged, he said.

"We have done risk management plans and put procedures in place to mitigate the risk of further abuse happening," he said.

"We acknowledge that these matters were not always appropriately addressed in the past, and we are truly sorry for any immeasurable long-term damage to victims. We have learnt from these experiences, and are constantly reviewing our current practices to keep children safe in our fellowship."

The church intends to have an expert external organisation to review its policies and procedures and provide independent advice and recommendations, he said.

Currently the church would have an estimated 2500 members across New Zealand, he said.

In two letters posted on a website for the sect's members last year, its Australian and New Zealand leaders, called Overseers, acknowledged cases of child sexual abuse within the group overseas and said anyone who had been affected by "sexual abuse in our fellowship including workers, reporting to appropriate authorities is required by law and we are available to speak to any people with concerns".

They said they had a zero tolerance to harming children and set up an advisory group to develop a standard policy and approach for child abuse prevention and survivor support.

"We have communicated our zero tolerance with respect to the harming of children, young people, or anyone within our fellowship and have begun actions to support this stance. The impact of child sexual abuse is devastating and far reaching. Our thoughts are with each one of you who have been affected."

The FBI declined to comment on whether it had alerted police in New Zealand to its investigation of the 2x2s sect.

Its Omaha Field Office said in February this year that it was seeking the public's help in identifying victims or individuals with knowledge of abuse and/or criminal behaviour that has occurred within a religious group that traditionally has not had a name.

"The group has often been referred to by others outside of the group as "2x2," "The Way," "The Truth," and "The Church With No Name," among others," the FBI said.

"While it is natural for parents to want to gain a better understanding of the potential exploitation of their child, further questioning of the child may lead to inaccurate statements and increased emotional trauma."

The FBI asked people with information to fill out a short questionnaire.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here