An international investigation has picked up speed into whether a controversial Rutherford County church operated a human-trafficking pipeline with its South American congregations, U.S. Attorney Jill Rose says.
Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale has been the target of government probes in the past over whether it has mistreated children in its care or subjected its members to beatings and other abuse to expel sins, including "homosexual demons."
But Rose says an ongoing investigation into how the church treated immigrants from its two Brazilian missions has gained traction in both countries.
"We and our Brazilian counterparts are making great progress in this case," she told the Observer. Rose declined to elaborate, saying she can't discuss an ongoing investigation.
The basis of the investigation was detailed in a July report by the Associated Press, which alleged that church pastor Jane Whaley and other Word of Faith leaders operated a human pipeline that brought hundreds of young Brazilians to North Carolina over the past two decades. Most were members of Word of Faith congregations in Brazil.
Those who came were forced to work long hours for businesses owned and operated by church members for little or no pay. Many of the Brazilian women served as babysitters or helped in the church's school, according to AP interviews with 16 former Brazilian members of Word of Faith.
The Brazilians told AP they were often physically or verbally assaulted. The reporters also reviewed police reports and formal complaints lodged in Brazil about the church's harsh conditions.
In some cases, according to the AP reports, some of the Brazilians were forced into arranged marriages so they could stay permanently.
"They kept us as slaves," one former Brazilian church member said. "How can yo do that to people – claim you love them and then beat them in the name of God?"
In July, 10 former church members said they had been contacted by federal authorities investigating reports of abuse, forced labor and visa fraud, the AP said. No charges have been filed.
A spokesman for the Charlotte law firm of Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, which is representing Whaley in connection with the federal probe, said its own investigation "indicates that the church's Brazilian missions have been mischaracterized in media reports."
In a July statement released after the AP report, Word of Faith leaders said they were "appalled" by allegations that Brazilian congregants had been "enslaved."
"It is ludicrous that people now claim they were in an abusive environment at our church but admit that they traveled from Brazil to the United States many different times, returning repeatedly to their place of alleged enslavement," the statement said.
Rose has history with the church. Earlier in her career she was an assistant district attorney in a judicial district that included Word of Faith's home county of Rutherford. In 2014, as an assistant U.S. attorney, Rose interviewed several Brazilians who had accused their former church of mistreatment, the AP has reported.
Whaley and her husband started Word of Faith in 1979, building a successful, diverse, financial successful but widely debated congregation in the North Carolina foothills. The church operates within a 35-acre compound and has its own security force. Critics say Whaley's absolute control extends to where people live and when married couples can have sex.
The church's distinctive practices, including a form of prayer known as "blasting" in which a church member is subjected to prolonged shouting and shaking to expel sinful impulses, have led to the church being called a cult.
In June, the assault and kidnapping trial of Whaley's daughter, who was among a group of church leaders and members accused of assaulting Matthew Fenner to expel his "homosexual demons," ended in a mistrial due to the misconduct of a juror.
Fenner said he was leaving a prayer service in January 2013, when nearly two dozen people surrounded him in the sanctuary. He said they slapped, punched, choked and blasted him for two hours.