SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina district attorney says two assistant prosecutors no longer work for him amid charges they sabotaged investigations into abuse in their secretive religious sect.
District Attorney David Learner's Friday announcement came just two days after he asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into allegations by former Word of Faith Fellowship members against Frank Webster and Chris Back. As part of an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press, nine ex-congregants had said the men, both of them ministers of the sect, provided legal advice, helped at strategy sessions and participated in a mock trial for four congregants charged with harassing a former member.
"I cannot allow the integrity of the office to be called into question," Learner said in a statement. "My administration is dedicated to the fair and impartial administration of criminal justice."
The ex-congregants also said that Back and Webster, who is sect leader Jane Whaley's son-in-law, helped disrupt a social services investigation into child abuse in 2015, and had attended meetings where Whaley warned congregants to lie to investigators about abuse incidents.
On Saturday, about 120 people, including ex-members, packed a second-floor room at the Spindale House recreation center to discuss the abuse allegations and to answer questions from members of the public. Several residents said they had long heard rumors about the church and had previously been unfamiliar with its practices.
Many of those who spoke were among the 43 former congregants who participated in the AP's 18-month investigation into the evangelical sect. During on-the-record interviews, the ex-members said they had endured decades of physical and emotional abuse inside the church, including being punched, choked and thrown through walls as part of a violent form of deliverance meant to purify sinners.
Hope Eiss, who joined the Word of Faith Fellowship with her mother and brothers in 1999, traveled to Spindale from Jewett City, Connecticut, for Saturday's meeting. Eiss, 27, left the church in 2015 and had not previously spoken publicly about her experiences. She said Whaley had screamed at her often.
"She could yell at me, and I would do what she said because I was scared. I wanted to please her," Eiss told the AP following the meeting. "My baby brother is still in the church, and I want to do whatever I can to support those on the front lines of the battle. It can be hard to walk through this on my own."
Spindale resident Craig Sparks, 52, said he grew up near the church and attended the meeting to support the former members.
"They're out, but my heart still breaks for them. This takes backbone, this takes guts what they're doing," Sparks said. "It ain't right what these folks saw, what they went through."
About a dozen current Word of Faith Fellowship members also attended. After a woman in the audience told a church member, "We're not evil," the church member replied, "We love you as well," and hugged her.
Ben Cooper, an attorney who left the sect in 2014 and spoke Saturday, had said Friday that the prosecutors leaving their jobs marked the first time to his knowledge that church leadership has been held accountable for their actions.
"It's a much needed first step," said Cooper, who grew up in the church with his parents and eight siblings.
Learner's statement Friday did not say if the men resigned or if he had fired them, and the district attorney's office didn't respond to questions. When the AP story about Webster and Back was released Monday, the DA said the two men were still employees, did not face pending criminal charges and that the matter was a personnel issue. On Wednesday, in asking for the SBI to investigate, he said the men would keep working for his office during that investigation.
The SBI, North Carolina's state police, subsequently confirmed that it was investigating Back and Webster, but declined to provide any details. Learner did not say what specifically prompted the change in his assistants' employment status.
Under North Carolina law, prosecutors cannot provide legal advice or be involved in outside cases in any manner. Violation of those rules can lead to ethics charges, dismissal or disbarment. Offering legal advice in an ongoing investigation to help a person avoid prosecution could lead to criminal charges.
Back and Webster have not responded to several messages left by the AP.
The church has 750 members in North Carolina, and nearly 2,000 members in churches based in Brazil and Ghana.
As part of the AP investigation, several former followers said some congregants were sexually abused, including minors. Whaley has strongly denied that she or other church leaders have ever abused members and contends that any discipline is protected under the First Amendment's freedom of religion tenets.
She and church attorney Josh Farmer turned down repeated AP requests for interviews. But hours after the AP's initial story was released, the church posted a statement on its website calling the allegations false and made by "certain former members" out to target the church.
"We do not condone or allow abuse — in any form — at our church. Period," the statement said.
AP reporter Jeffrey Collins also contributed to this story. Weiss reported from Greenville, S.C.
Read more of AP's investigation of the Word of Faith Fellowship here: http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org