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.
Ben Cooper, an attorney who left Word of Faith Fellowship in 2014, said it's the first time he can recall 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.
The AP's 18-month investigation, supported by on-the-record interviews with 43 members of the sect, found decades of physical and emotional abuse inside the church. They said congregants were punched, choked and thrown through walls as part of a violent form of deliverance meant to purify sinners.
Learner's statement Friday did not say if the men resigned or if he 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.
Rachael Bryant, who left the church in 2015, said Back and Webster helped Whaley in a meeting where they discussed a member who said he was slapped, punched and choked for two hours to expel homosexual demons.
Back sat in a chair, imitating the victim, Matthew Fenner. Whaley then had everyone who was in the room that night to show what they did to Fenner.
"Some would point to his head and say, 'I put my hand on him right here.' But then she would start screaming: 'No, no, no, no! You did not do that! Your hand was not on his head!'" said Bryant, who said Back and Webster did nothing to stop Whaley's coaching.
Five people were charged with attacking Fenner, but no trial date has been set because of persistent legal wrangling.
The church has 750 members in North Carolina, and nearly 2,000 members in churches based in Brazil and Ghana.
The former members who spoke to the AP said abuse and violence was ever-present and not just limited to adults. Pre-teens, toddlers and even crying babies were vigorously shaken, screamed at and sometimes smacked to banish demons.
The church often used a punishment called "blasting" — an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.
Several former followers also 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.