Two by Twos:
Friends and enemies, truth and lies
Sept 29, 2013
They have no churches or headquarters, no written policies or doctrines. But this secretive Victorian-based religious sect is again in the spotlight for sexually abusing its own child members.
Elizabeth Coleman grew up in Canberra in the furtive religious sect known as either the Friends and Workers, the Two by Twos, or The Truth. Most people have never heard of them - and this is how the sect likes it.
a culture of secrecy, cover-ups and denial
If something happened between a minister and a young girl, or a young boy, it would be swept under the carpet. The minister would be moved away and nothing would be said.
They have no churches or headquarters and no written policies or doctrines. They are highly secretive and paranoid about scrutiny: when questioned about new allegations of child sexual abuse within the sect's ranks, the ''overseer'' for Victoria and Tasmania, David Leitch, 56, of Heidelberg, says: ''We are not an organisation.''
Members are told to either deny the existence of the sect or, next best, deny it has a name. Yet the ''non-denominational'' Friends and Workers has 2000 members in Victoria, making it a global stronghold; internationally there are about 200,000 members. Core beliefs come from a very literal reading of certain sections of the Bible. But they don't call themselves Christians because they consider themselves the only true religion.
The sect is sometimes called the Cooneyites, and while the two have much in common, the Friends and Workers are strictly speaking an offshoot. The Irish founder of the Cooneyites was the Protestant evangelist Edward Cooney, who moved to Mildura and died there in 1960 - hence Victoria's strong membership.
In Canberra in the 1970s and '80s, Elizabeth Coleman's father was a sect elder, which meant Sunday morning worship was held at their home. There were always the same 20 or so people there, she says, no outsiders allowed, very formal and dour. ''No one greeted each other as they walked in. No one talked.''
Women wore long hair pinned up on their heads; short hair is still forbidden on sect women. Long hair is forbidden on men. Television, radio, movies, dancing and jewellery were banned back then, and in most sect families still are. If they do have a TV, it is often hidden in a cupboard.
These Sunday mornings at the Coleman house were about singing hymns and saying prayers and there was also a series of confessions called ''testimonies''. Coleman remembers these mornings as being very closeted and unwelcoming.
Then on Sunday afternoons were the more open ''mission meetings'', still held throughout Australia today as they were then, in public halls, organised by the religion's itinerant ''workers'' - the highly ranked ministers who, in pairs (hence the sect's Two by Two name), go into communities, country towns or regions and stay for up to a year in the homes of lesser-ranked ''friends'' such as the Colemans to do ''the Work''.
None of this is in any way wrong. Unusual, but not wrong. However, when Elizabeth Coleman turned 19 she wanted out because while she remained under the sect's control she was not allowed to believe anything other than what they preached.
Children in the sect are told that if they stray, bad things will happen - a lightning strike, for example, being hit by a runaway bus, or an illness.
''They believe that all other religions in the world are the work of the Devil,'' Coleman says. ''Going to worship at another church or finding another set of beliefs is considered worse than leaving the religion.''
When she did leave - because she wanted to explore other more open kinds of Christianity - she says she was called ''the Antichrist'' by sect members, was sent offensive mail referring to her ''coldness'' and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder on account of the ''fear'' she carried into her decision.
But what worried her most were the persistent rumours of male ''workers'' and elders sexually abusing young - some very young - sect girls and getting away with it. There was, she says, a culture of secrecy, cover-ups and denial, and a dismissal of outside authority, which meant sex crimes stayed hidden.
''If something happened between a minister and a young girl, or a young boy, it would be swept under the carpet,'' she says. ''The minister would be moved away and nothing would be said. The families would be outraged - but they would also be scared of being kicked out of the tribe. I have reason to believe this is still going on.''
The sect's method of sending itinerant, celibate ministers into family homes for extended periods of time, she says, was, and still is, dangerous.
The Victorian and Tasmanian leader of Friends and Workers, David Leitch, is known to be close to Chris Chandler, the former senior sect member who Fairfax Media today reveals will face 12 child sex charges in a Morwell court next month.
Chandler grew up in Dromana. He lives now on French Island in Western Port and describes himself as a ''self-employed ecologist''. Last year he came back from 14 years as a ''Christian teacher and counsellor'' in Uruguay and Brazil, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Last June, Chandler and Leitch wrote a letter to all Victorian sect members announcing Chandler would step down ''from the Work'' because police in Gippsland had begun questioning him about the allegations that have now led to charges involving several alleged victims.
The charges all relate to alleged indecent acts on young girls in the 1970s when Chandler was aged about 20. Some alleged victims were under 12. Chandler claims in the letter he was not a sect member at the time - but he joined only three years later.
Sources say senior members of the sect knew of the allegations that had already been made about him within sect circles at that time, but did nothing. In fact, in 1991 they promoted him to the senior position of ''worker'' - meaning he was travelling throughout Victoria and Tasmania and staying in family homes.
''He was around lots of children from that point on,'' a former sect member says. From 1991 until 2004, Chandler was in Wodonga, Shepparton, Launceston and rural Tasmania.
Sect sources have confirmed that later in his time as a ''worker'', he positioned himself within the sect as a counsellor and a point of contact for victims of child sexual abuse.
''People were drawn to him as an advocate,'' the source says.
Fairfax Media understands that after he announced he was standing down last year because of the police investigation, Chandler attended an overnight sect convention where children were present at Speed, near Mildura, and continues to attend sect meetings at Crib Point near Hastings, the closest town on the mainland to French Island.
The convention at Speed is the biggest in the state; the others are on a farm belonging to the Lowe family - sect stalwarts for several generations - at Thoona near Benalla, in Drouin and also in Colac. In New South Wales the strongholds are at Glencoe, Mudgee and Silverdale.
David Leitch denies sect leaders knew of Chandler's alleged past.
''If that had been the case he wouldn't have been involved in the way that he was.''
Leitch says he does not know if Chandler has continued to attend sect meetings since resigning.
''We would not tolerate any matters that were not upright and in accordance with the teachings of the Scripture,'' he says. ''You might have seen it in the Catholic Church and so on, but we would not tolerate any such stupidity.''
In 2011 another senior Victorian ''worker'', Ernest Barry, was convicted in a Gippsland court on five indecent assault charges over four years on a girl, a sect member, in the 1970s.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail, but was given a suspended sentence on appeal after Melbourne forensic psychologist Wendy Northey - who has also profiled gangland drug trafficker Tony Mokbel for an assessment used by his defence lawyers - gave a psychological profile of Barry to the court.
Police say they knew of another 12 alleged victims, but could not lay further charges against Barry, who now lives in Warrnambool, because the additional alleged victims would not come forward or press charges. Police also say David Leitch wore a wire to help convict Barry.
Leitch says he ''greatly assisted'' police in their investigation - to improve the sect's image, sect sources say - but he declined to confirm whether he recorded conversations with Barry for the police. ''I don't think that's a proper question to be putting to me,'' he said.
When Chris Chandler was a ''worker'' in Wodonga in 1995, the co-''worker'' with him in family homes was Ernest Barry.
Then last year - this time in South Australia - the issue of child sexual abuse emerged in the secret sect again. A South Australian ''worker'', who has now moved to Victoria, alleged to David Leitch that another fellow ''worker'' had been allegedly sexually abusing children.
Leitch sacked the worker who raised the allegations because he says the allegations were not true and he knew they were not true because he investigated them himself.
''I investigated with the actual people involved, with the people who were supposed to be the victims. They said nothing happened. [The worker] brought forward false child sexual abuse allegations and he was removed from his posting.''
Leitch says if further allegations against sect members were raised he may or he may not tell the police.
''First I would assess how genuine the allegations are. I wasn't going to involve police in that other case because I know it was totally wrong. That would be a waste of resources and it's not common sense, it's stupidity.''
In the Bible, Matthew 10 sets out much of what the sect believes. In it, Jesus sends out his disciples to cleanse the world of ''impure spirits''. Jesus ordered them to go with few belongings and seek out the homes of worthy persons to ''let your peace rest on it''.
But ''be on your guard'', Matthew 10 says, and ''when they arrest you do not worry about what to say or how to say it … for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.''
A former Victorian sect member now living in NSW says that during her time in the sect as a child and teenager it was ''95 per cent wonderful'', but the older she got and the more aware she became she realised the clandestine culture she was born into was ''misguided''.
''The culture fosters generational abuse,'' she says. ''There's little knowledge of legal matters, there's a real naivety about the wider world. Workers were highly trusted and held in the highest esteem. They had absolute authority. Worship was and still is highly conservative.''
As young sect members got older, she says, they could feel trapped and silenced. In 1994 at Pheasant Creek near Kinglake, a 14-year-old girl, Narelle Henderson, and her 12-year-old brother Stephen, shot themselves with a rifle to avoid attending a four-day sect convention.
Narelle's suicide note read: ''We committed suicide because all our life we were made to go to meetings. They try to brainwash us so much and have ruined our lives.''
That year the then leader of the sect in Victoria, John ''Evan'' Jones, then 84 years old, made a statement to police at Surrey Hills in Melbourne confirming he knew the children, but adding: ''I cannot for the life of me think of any reason why they would do such a thing.''
His statement said the sect was ''financially well-off'', with donated money controlled by a trust fund of three elders. Jones died in 2001 and is buried at Narracan East cemetery in Gippsland.
David Leitch declined to elaborate on the sect's financial affairs now, but sources said it is still well-off, with money held in private bank accounts rather than a trust, to pay for senior members' overseas missions.
In New Zealand and the United States the sect has registered companies called either United Christian Assemblies or Christian Conventions, but no such companies exist in Australia.
A heavily redacted submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious groups by an organisation called Wings - an online group of former members - says the sect is ''haphazard'' in dealing with allegations from within its ranks and ''the main focus has been on protecting the reputation of the Workers and not on helping victims''.
(The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began in Sydney last week.)
According to the submission, contact by sect leaders with victims has been minimal and ''threatening, unwelcome and intimidating'', according to Wings' submission. Victims are discouraged from making contact with police or lawyers.
One recent victim, the submission says, was asked if she ''really wanted to open that can of worms'' when seeking advice about what to do; another victim was told by sect leaders to ''heal herself in silence''.
Elizabeth Coleman, who now works at a Christian school in Canberra, says speaking out was considered the gravest of betrayals in the sect. ''You would be widely seen as selling the group out.''
But like all whistleblowers, she knew about the secrets within and knew they needed to be revealed.
Chris Johnston is a senior writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
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