The FBI has interviewed several individuals who have alleged they were abused by members of the People of Praise (PoP), a secretive Christian sect that counts conservative supreme court justice Amy Coney Barrett as a lifelong member, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The individuals were contacted following a years-long effort by a group called PoP Survivors, who have called for the South Bend-based sect to be investigated for leaders’ handling of sexual abuse allegations. The body, which has 54 members, has alleged that abuse claims were routinely mishandled or covered up for decades in order to protect the close-knit faith group.
It's not clear whether the FBI has launched a formal investigation into the PoP.
The Guardian has confirmed that at least five individuals were contacted by the FBI and four gave detailed accounts to agents of abusive behavior they allegedly experienced or witnessed. Individuals spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity and said they believed the FBI interviews were part of an initial inquiry.
One woman who was interviewed by agents from Minneapolis, Minnesota, said she received an update last week and was told by agents that the investigation into her own claims, which involved allegations of sexual abuse by a teacher, had been closed. The woman told the Guardian that news had left her disappointed and defeated, and full of “a lot of questions”, because the agents had seemed interested in pursuing the matter.
A spokesperson for PoP Survivors said: “We urge the FBI to use their power to unearth the long-standing pattern of child sexual abuse and coverup in the People of Praise. All perpetrators and their enablers must finally be held accountable. We must ensure that no child is victimized and silenced by a People of Praise member ever again.”
The FBI said it neither confirms nor denies the existence of investigations. It also sent a statement to the Guardian following initial publication of this story. It said: “The FBI investigates individuals who commit or intend to commit violence and other criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security. Our focus is not on membership in particular groups but on criminal activity. We are committed to upholding the constitutional rights of all Americans and will never open an investigation based solely on first amendment protected activity.”
A spokesperson for the PoP did not respond to a request for comment.
The PoP was founded in the 1970s as part of a Christian charismatic movement. The group is led exclusively by men. Like other charismatic communities, it blends Catholicism and Protestant Pentecostalism – its members are mostly Catholic but include some Protestants. In meetings, members are encouraged to share prophecies and speak in tongues. One former member said adherents believe God can speak through members to deliver messages, sometimes about their future.
A PoP handbook states that members are expected to be obedient to male authorities, or group heads, and are expected to give 5% of their earnings to the group. Heads are influential decision-makers in members’ lives, weighing in on issues ranging from dating to marriage and determining where members should live.
After a waiting period, members agree to a covenant – a lifelong vow – to support each other “financially and materially and spiritually”.
The group has been criticized for endorsing discriminatory practices. Members who engage in gay sex are expelled, and private schools closely affiliated with the group – the Trinity Schools – have admission policies that in effect ban the children of gay parents from attending.
Single members are encouraged to live with other members of the community, including families with children, a practice that former members and adults who grew up in the sect say created opportunities for sexual abuse.
Justice Barrett’s membership in PoP was first widely publicized in a 2017 New York Times report, which noted that Barrett’s membership in the “tightly knit Christian group” never came up in a Senate hearing to confirm her as an appeals court judge.
In 2020, following Barrett’s nomination to the supreme court by then president Donald Trump, the Guardian and other media outlets delved deeper into PoP, including reports about how some former members, and some children who grew up in the group, had been abused by other members of the sect.
Some but not all members who have since been critical of the PoP believe it is a cult, given the amount of control the group exerts over people’s lives.
Barrett’s membership in the group was not raised in her confirmation hearing for the high court, but media outlets reported on her role as a handmaid and that PoP had erased all mentions and photos of Barrett from its website. The Guardian also reported that Barrett and her husband, Jesse Barrett, had lived together in the home of a key PoP founder, Kevin Ranaghan, before they were married.
It was around this time that a Facebook group of PoP survivors was established, as former members of the sect, and adults who had been raised in it, began sharing stories about their experiences of alleged abuse, and how those abuse claims were allegedly mishandled. Multiple members have said that PoP’s prominence in the news triggered their desire to share stories, but that they were not seeking to target Barrett in raising their experiences.
One member, Pete Smith, told the Guardian the survivor group first contacted the FBI in 2022 through a tip line, offering a list of witnesses to the group’s alleged “crimes”. Smith said members were confused about why the FBI had not responded to reports in the press that had begun to emerge about sexual assault and other claims that victims said were swept under the carpet.
Those media reports prompted PoP to hire lawyers at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, who said they would investigate the claims. No report was ever publicly released.
The letter to the FBI, which was seen by the Guardian, alleged that PoP had engaged in a “widespread and ongoing conspiracy to cover-up the abuse of children within its families and the schools it operates”. It said members had experienced sexual abuse from non-family members of their household, from their parents and teachers.
The letter also alleged that the PoP’s alleged culture of secrecy “in any matter that would embarrass” the group had contributed to alleged coverups, which included transferring offenders to other cities. The letter said members of the group were prepared to offer sworn testimony, documents, photographs and “our collective expertise”.
Smith said he solicited the help of his senators in Oregon, where he lives, when the FBI was not responsive. The FBI ultimately responded after Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon, raised the matter on his constituent’s behalf. In a statement, a spokesperson for the senator said Wyden had contacted the FBI “not to advocate for any particular outcome, but to make sure they were aware of the claim”.
While some individuals have already come forward publicly with allegations of abuse, the Guardian interviewed one woman who grew up in a PoP household and spoke to the FBI last summer and has never shared her story publicly.
The woman, who declined to be named in order to protect her privacy, said she had been sexually and physically abused from age three to 16 by a male member of her family. When she came forward and told her mother about the abuse, the male member was forced to leave her home, but remained in the PoP community, including at one point being housed with another family that had a six-year-old child.
When her mother talked to leaders of the community, she was told it was best to not press charges.
“They were a big influence on her,” the woman said.
She later reported the abuse so that the name of her abuser was on record, though it was too late for her to press charges.