CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- 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 baby sitters or helped in the church's school, according to AP interviews with 16 former Brazilian members of Word of Faith.
The Brazilians told the 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 you 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.