Religious sect investigated by FBI, NZ Police apologises to child sexual abuse victims

RNZ, New Zealand/May 29, 2024

By Amy Williams   

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Rebecca is not the person's real name

A woman who was sexually abused by a minister of a secretive sect as a child says the religious group's written apology is welcome but has been a long time coming.

The FBI is working with international law enforcement partners to investigate abuse within the group known as the 'Two by Twos' or 'The Truth', and police in New Zealand are investigating at least one former minister for historical abuse.

The sect has no official name or church building, is not registered as a charity and its itinerant ministers travel in same-sex pairs, staying in members' homes and receiving gifts of money for living costs.

This week, the sect's Australasian leaders have launched a website with information about its response to historical child sexual abuse and a written apology to victims.

Rebecca* (not her real name) was raised in the Two by Twos and her parents welcomed the volunteer ministers to stay in their home, for weeks at a time.

She was 12 years old when a minister groped her when she was home alone - an act she now recognises as sexual abuse.

"It was a shock and then as time went by, I kind of buried it. But as I got older ... anything to do with that part of my body I couldn't bear a stranger touching."

Rebecca told her mother the minister had touched her but it was never spoken of again in her family.

She said the minister, who has since died, moved to another town and had a reputation for putting his hands where they were not wanted.

"Instead of actually saying 'look, you can't be doing this anymore', it was like 'oh we'll just send you away for a bit'. But that's not really the way to deal with it. That's not okay."

Rebecca has filled out a questionnaire the FBI has set up to allow people to disclose any abuse within the sect.

Former insiders have described the control the closed Christian group has over its members, with many unwritten rules such as not having a TV in their homes and a dress code for women who are discouraged from wearing make up and jewellery.

The overseers step in

Last year, the sect's Australasian overseers wrote two letters to members acknowledging instances of abuse overseas, saying the group had a zero tolerance of harm towards children and encouraging victims to report abuse to the police.

The overseers said they would set up an anonymous advisory group to develop child-safe policies and lead the group's response to historical child sexual abuse.

This week, the sect launched a website for sharing information about its response and the six overseers penned an apology to victims of abuse in Australasia, acknowledging the pain and suffering experienced by victims and their families of child sexual abuse within the church.

The website does not carry any name for the sect but refers to the group as "our fellowship" or "our church".

"Across Australia and New Zealand, we acknowledge the sad truth that some people among us, including ministers of the gospel, elders and friends, have perpetrated acts of child sexual abuse. While some of these wrongdoers are now deceased, the repercussions of their actions persist."

The overseers encouraged any victims to speak to the overseers or other leaders in the fellowship.

"There are no excuses for this offending committed within our fellowship. We deeply regret all instances of abuse and any time when more could have been done to hear concerns or help victims. We firmly declare that any form of abuse is utterly unacceptable and inexcusable.

"We humbly acknowledge that no apology can erase any harm you bear. We recognise the enduring impact this trauma may have on your lives, acknowledge your pain and believe your experience."

Rebecca said she appreciated the apology, which she said was the first time victims in New Zealand have been acknowledged.

But she said the website for sharing information about historical abuse did not include facts already given to RNZ, including that one minister is being investigated by police and 14 members have been stood down due to abuse allegations.

"It was well written. There's not a lot that they can do for past things. I just hoped it's talked about directly. The trouble is communication, they haven't communicated enough," she said.

"Some people are a bit blasé about it because they don't know and they don't understand that there's somebody sitting right next to you that's hurting."

She said there would be many victims of the minister who abused her but she did not want to name him, posthumously.

In an email responding to RNZ, the sect's overseer Wayne Dean said it did not consider including the number of people stood down over allegations on the website.

He said the advisory group of members would not engage directly with the broader fellowship and would remain confidential to protect survivors in that group.

"Member confidentiality is important for the protection of survivors within the group, and to enable the group to focus on this important work in an impartial manner without external pressure or distraction."

Dean said registering as a charity was not something the group has considered at this stage.

Rebecca had a message for abusers and those who had kept them hidden.

"If you are a perpetrator, just remember that you have ruined someone's life forever and you are not sinning, you are committing a criminal offence against the law," she said.

"It's not acceptable among us, and much less those that preach the gospel, and if you have an incident in your family that you have covered over, you're a perpetrator as well."

She said all members of the sect had a responsibility to report any abuse, historical or current.

"If you have thrown it in the bin, you need to dig it out. You are responsible and don't bury your head in the sand. There are many, many victims of child sex abuse, and it's something that concerns everyone," Rebecca said.

"Mothers understand and should have been a voice in sorting this out, especially mothers who are victims themselves."

'Actions aren't matching the words'

Another member of the sect said the information on the website looked good but still did not provide a process for dealing with historical abuse.

"The actions aren't matching the words. They are looking like they are saying all the right things but they are not fixing some of the fundamental problems."

The member said it was astounding that an advisory group set up to govern its response to historical child sexual abuse remained anonymous.

The sect's website states the advisory group will advise the ministry, focusing on child safety and survivor support, drawing on expert advice.

"All members of the advisory group are part of our fellowship and consist of survivors, those who have supported survivors, workers, elders, elder's wives and friends," the website states.

"All have current working with children checks or children's worker safety checks and police clearances. All have completed recognised training on prevention of child sexual abuse and advisory group training."

The sect member said the advisory group was not independent or unbiased because it was made up of people who belong to the group.

"They are still trying to have complete control but look like they are doing the right things," the member said.

"It's unethical to have a group of people investigating abuse in the church who are all members of the church and members of the ministry."

A former member of the sect said the apology was "well-crafted and heartfelt" but also had concerns about the anonymous advisory group.

"There is still no transparency or clear action that would make a difference to victims. It's the equivalent of 'thoughts and prayers' which is just a meaningless rhetoric without specific actions for victims," the former insider said.

"Having an anonymous advisory group is appalling. Anonymity means there is no accountability. What is the qualification of these people other than perhaps being an elder's wife?

"Who is representing members who have left? This also means it is a biased view."

Victim advocate Jillian Hishon runs a hotline for abuse survivors in the sect, The Brave Truth Australia and New Zealand.

She was also concerned about the anonymity of the advisory group.

"They're asking people to fill out a contact form on the website to go to we don't know who. The people who are advising the Workers [ministers] are people who are in the church and I'm not sure that's particularly ethical, to have current members advising what to do because they're in quite a mess."

"They don't have a name and it's not legally binding because there's no name. There's no name on the website."

Another former member said an apology on a website was not enough - he wanted the overseer Dean to front up and speak to media.

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