FBI investigating 2x2 religious sect operating in Bay Area following alleged child sex abuse

Stephanie Sierra Image
Friday, June 14, 2024
FBI probes religious sect operating in Bay Area after claims of abuse
FBI investigating non-denominational Christian religious sect Two By Twos (2x2) religious sect operating in Bay Area after alleged child sex abuse.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The FBI is investigating a religious sect that's facing widespread allegations of child sex abuse. They're called the Two by Twos (2x2) or The Church with No Name - and there's a following here in the Bay Area.

72 miles south of San Francisco, in a remote isolated location of San Martin, a special meeting took place where a group of people preached their version of the gospel.

What is the 2X2 religious sect?

It's a non-denominational Christian religious sect that's been around since the late 1800s. It was founded by Scottish evangelist William Irvine. Historical records suggest it wasn't until the early 1900s, the ministry set roots in the Bay Area.

"It's a very persuasive type of religion," said former member Michael Day.

"How would you describe this organization?" ABC's Stephanie Sierra asked.

"They use fear and manipulation, they manipulate people and the fear of the Lord to control people," said LaNette Burrage Flanigan, another former member. "They tell you, we are the only true way."

The Two by Twos are often referred to today as "The Truth" by its followers. According to the ministry's doctrine, this is the only way to find true salvation.

"Do you think they're being truthful?" Sierra asked.

"No, they're not," said Flanigan, a former member who says some members of her family were victims of child sex abuse. "I'm just broken. I could cry right now, it makes me sick."

"His type was small framed brunette girls," said another former member Sheri Autrey, who identifies as a survivor of child sex abuse.

In February, the FBI announced it was investigating the ministry and seeking victim information following allegations of child sexual abuse reported across the U.S.

Victim advocacy organizations report allegations across the world.

"If they didn't talk to God's true people, his chosen people, they're going to hell," Autrey said she was told by members of the ministry. "It was brainwashing from such an early age."

"What specifically do they do?" Sierra asked.

"They make you scared, they make it a scary place to leave," said Flanigan.

"The Way"

The church generally operates inside the private homes of members where worship services are held on Wednesdays and Sundays.

"They go two by two, that's where we get the name," said Cherie Kropp, a former member and author of a historical biography on the religious sect.

Kropp explains the hierarchy - "Overseers" are at the top, considered to be church leadership. Below them are the "Ministers" or "Workers" who travel in pairs of two men and two women as they evangelize and preach to members.

Below them, are "Elders" and "Friends" that make up the members of the congregation.

"The preachers were to be celibate," Kropp said.

These ministers often live in members' homes for a period of time before moving to the next. According to the scripture, it's considered an honor to host them.

LaNette and Lauralee

"I actually do remember workers if they stayed with us, they would stay in our room," said LaNette Burrage Flanigan, a former member who lives in Union City.

She says her cousin Lauralee Brown, was sexually abused by another member at the age of 9 until she was 13.

Stephanie: "Were the parents aware of this?"

LaNette: "No."

Stephanie: "Was there an effort to report this abuse?"

LaNette: "No, no."

Stephanie: "Why do you think that is?"

LaNette: "I think that they wanted to keep it a secret...Because I think that they believe, if you tarnish their perfect way - the perfect will - that would look bad on them."

Her cousin, Lauralee, says it's been a nightmare ever since.

"This is my little foot and slipper," showing a photographer of her alleged perpetrator.

"This was in the middle of the three years he was molesting me." She said the photo was captured the night of his engagement to another woman.

"He would immediately go back to sexually interacting with me," Lauralee said. "He would tell my father I need to go get more wood for the fire and would make sure I would go with him."

"How many times would it happen?" Sierra asked.

"It would happen about two times a week, or more," said Lauralee. "All around the truth meetings."

Lauralee says for three years she didn't understand what was happening to her, until her sixth-grade sex ed class. She was 13.

"I left the class and went outside," said Lauralee. "And it was the first time I realized what was happening to me."

She says her parents were told at that time, but didn't believe her.

"I couldn't do school, I was out. I don't know how I got through that year," Lauralee said.

Lauralee says she tried reporting it four years later.

"At 17, I told them again as if they never heard."

LaNette says it's a crooked culture that's been passed through generations.

"There was some abuse of my mom," she said. "Her father, he touched her inappropriately."

Sheri Autrey

Another former member who grew up in Visalia, south of Fresno, says her father was also a victim of abuse. Years later, Sheri Autrey says she experienced it herself.

"My abuse started with a minister," Autrey said.

At the age of 13, she says a 28-year-old "worker" by the name of Steve Rohs molested her throughout the duration of his two-month visit to her home.

"It happened on a nightly basis," Autrey said. "It was regular."

"If you questioned him, tried to report it, what would happen?" Sierra asked.

"You would get gaslit profusely and accused of having a bad spirit, or the devils getting into you... how dare you question God?" Autrey said.

In 1986, Autrey wrote a high school research paper claiming that Rohs repeatedly told her not to tell her parents.

She says he promised her, "If you ever get pregnant, then I'll marry you. He said what he was doing to me was right. Everyone in the church and public thought he was nice."

That same year, Rohs sent an apology letter to church leadership, where he stated they didn't have sex, but admitted to kissing and touching Autrey intimately. He wrote, "I did not intend to cover this up, but I did not know how to handle it other than to leave the area and beg God to forgive me."

Rohs denied promising to marry Autrey -- adding in the email, "This did not happen with anyone else."

Fast forward from 1986 to April of 2023, an email was sent to members about Rohs stating "another allegation was made from outside the state of Minnesota."

Questions about accountability

The ABC7 News I-Team tried contacting Rohs to get further response, but never heard back. ABC's Kyra Phillips tracked him down in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Here's what he had to say.

The ABC7 News I-Team tried contacting Rohs to get further response, but never heard back. ABC's Kyra Phillips tracked him down in Minnesota. Here's what he had to say.

"It was not a secret amongst leadership that he had molested me," said Autrey.

Autrey says six years later, Rohs was out of the ministry, but still leading meetings in his own home. She says she was horrified.

Rohs never faced criminal charges in this case, and likely never will.

According to the Tulare County District Attorney's Office, "Prosecutors have meticulously reviewed reports and victim accounts in this case and have determined that any potential crime falls outside of California's Statute of Limitations."

We spoke with legal expert and veteran criminal defense attorney Seth Chazin, who specializes in sex crime cases.

"Is this true?" ABC7's Stephanie Sierra asked.

"Yes. Unfortunately, the charges can't be filed in this case due to the running of the statute of limitations," said Chazin.

"Just to be clear, do either of these cases have any criminal recourse?" Sierra asked.

"No, charges were not filed prior to the alleged victims 40th birthday," Chazin said.

The Statue of Limitations

According to a well-known anti-sexual violence organization, "RAINN", only seven states have eliminated the statute of limitations for all felony sex crimes. California is not one of them. In part, because certain felony sex offenses like rape, still has a statute of limitations.

Graph not displaying correctly? Click here to open in a new window.

"We understand state lawmakers have attempted to change this," Sierra said.

"AB 2295 is simply saying there will be no statute of limitations for any child sexual assault," Chazin said.

The bill is still moving through the state legislature. For now, the only law on the books is one that allows alleged victims who file a claim within five years or by age 40 to seek civil damages for childhood sexual assaults that occurred before 2024.

And both Sheri Autrey and Lauralee Brown say there was a sense of fear that prevented them from reporting their alleged abuse at the time.

"It was such symbolization of all the power and control. Do not tarnish the image of the organization," Autrey said.

"I don't know how I went through that year," Lauralee said.

2x2 worker responds

Decades later, it's unclear who exactly to hold accountable, but we tried to reach current local leadership representing the Bay Area congregation for further comment. We never heard back.

That's until we located Gary Paul, a veteran worker who's not tied to the Bay Area, but based in Washington state, North Idaho, and Alaska. He says he was not involved in Autrey's or Lauralee's cases, but we spoke with him about the broader allegations facing the ministry. He recently visited the South Bay for what's called, a "special meeting."

These meetings only happen on rare, scheduled occasions. But they're difficult to track down as the schedules aren't posted publicly -- and several were reportedly shut down following pressure from the federal investigation.

After preaching Sunday service in San Martin, Paul agreed to speak with us virtually the following week.

After preaching Sunday service in San Martin, Gary Paul a veteran 2x2 worker agreed to speak with us virtually the following week.

Stephanie: "I've talked with numerous former members who say they have been sexually abused by ministers while they were staying in their home. They say the abuse was going on for years. What's your response after hearing that?"

Gary: "Well, I never saw it. And knowing the church leadership, I find that very difficult to believe."

According to "Advocates for the Truth," an organization dedicated to helping survivors across the world, there have been reports on more than 900 alleged perpetrators (as of June 10, 2024) that have been identified by a hotline worldwide. The nonprofit says there are more than 1,500 alleged victims that have reached out for help since its inception in March last year. Autrey is the former president and co-founder of this organization.

Stephanie: "The FBI is now investigating your church. How do you feel about that?"

Gary: "I don't think it's necessary. But , they're doing it. So that's fine. I don't think they'll find anything they don't expect."

Stephanie: "And you don't think it's necessary why?"

Gary: "Because I don't think that there's a cult of people trying to hide things... the leadership is not super secret in trying to hide things. I don't know what they're after."

Stephanie: "There are hundreds of alleged victims that have come out, indicating they were abused at one point or another. Many of whom have come out publicly to share their stories. Because the allegations were made, don't you think it's important an investigation is done to fully vet what happened?"

Gary: "I suppose it would be."

After 57 years in the ministry, Paul says he never dealt with a child sexual assault case, nor received formal training on how to respond to such allegations until after the federal investigation began.

Stephanie: "Just to be clear, is that training just voluntary or required now?"

Gary: "Voluntary."

Stephanie: "Don't you think it should be required?"

Gary: "I think it should be voluntary. We don't commonly talk about problems that are exposed."

Stephanie: "Would you consider this ministry to be secretive?"

Gary: "No, we're definitely not."

But some of those who grew up in it disagree.

Michael Day

Ex-member Michael Day says he experienced that firsthand.

"Is there a culture within this religious sect that encourages sweeping things under the rug?" Sierra asked.

"Uncomfortable topics, yes," Day said.

Day grew up in the religious sect with his cousin, John Vandenberg, a Hayward native.

Before Vandenberg died this year, some leaders within the ministry say he faced serious allegations of sexual abuse.

"It made me very, very sad," Day said. "He was on a missionary trip to the western Pacific, when he was coming back, the overseer told him that he couldn't be a worker anymore. So, he was kicked out."

Day says he was shocked. Vandenberg was like a brother to him.

"I've heard inappropriate touching of girls in the Philippines and in Mexico... but it's just hearsay," said Day.

An email from a regional leader in the sect's ministry reported Vandenberg was the subject of "several credible allegations of unacceptable sexual behavior, including a complaint of inappropriate touching of a minor, which was reported to the authorities."

"I feel really bad. Especially if they feel violated," said Day.

Day says he had 35 ministers or workers stay at his home growing up.

"One of them who John knew, and who stayed in our home, later came out as a convicted child molester," Day said. "And he had been in our home, we couldn't believe it."

"The Rules"

In the years that followed, Day says he grew out of the faith and was displeased with the hypocrisy.

"I would hear there are no rules.... We have no rules. God's going to lay his faith in you and you will know to do what's right," Day said before shaking his head.

"Yeah, there's rules, there's rules galore."

Former members say the ministry frowned upon makeup, jewelry, other than a wedding ring, cutting your hair, adorning yourself, and expected women to wear conservative clothes, particularly dresses.

Stephanie: "What happens if you wear pants?"

LaNette: "Oh, you would be looked at like, what are you wearing? Why are you wearing that? They would shun you."

We asked Gary Paul about that, but he denied any rules about makeup.

Stephanie: "What about wearing pants to Sunday service?"

Gary: "I don't feel that's very womanly...There are times when it's really not becoming or womanly to wear pants."

Not womanly to wear pants, nor go to college, according to Lauralee Brown. She says she wanted to be an attorney, but was told by the ministry, "That's too worldly, we don't think you should do that."

A religion with a strong set of rules, that preaches they are destined to find "The Truth" or the "One True Way", but questions linger as to who's really being honest.

"We were told that 'The Way' is perfect, but the people are not," said LaNette.

But some former members argue "The Way" is far from perfect, raising concerns about ministers having access to young children by moving from home to home.

"There's no accountability when you go and try and talk to them, they refuse to try and talk to you about it. They just ignore you. They just deny it," said LaNette.

We asked Gary Paul about that.

Stephanie: "Some former members believe there should be rules in place prohibiting ministers from staying in people's homes, arguing that will help protect innocent children from potentially being exposed to predatory behavior. Do you agree with that?"

Gary: "No. Nowhere in the scripture supports that. And in the multitude of years that I've been in it, it's never been a problem."

Stephanie: "How do you know it hasn't been a problem?"

Gary: "Well, it's never been a problem that I'm aware of. Obviously, it could have been, but I wasn't aware of it and I never saw it."

Stephanie: "Just because you weren't aware of it... Don't you see value in protecting future generations, given what has been publicly revealed?"

Gary: "I don't think that it would. I think it would affect the quality of our ministry and the standard of the ministry that that has been established from New Testament days. We've always stayed in the homes of God's people... staying in a home makes you very vulnerable... it's true that the children in the family home are vulnerable also, but that's the way that this the fellowship has been established."

Stephanie: "From your perspective, what will it take to see real change from all of this?"

Gary: "Well... I don't like the word change. Because there's a lot of things about the fellowship that cannot change... You can't do that."

Members of the ministry conflict with former members, yet both are on missions to seek "The Truth". The question is, will it bring justice?

Report to the FBI

The FBI Omaha Field Office is seeking the public's help identifying victims or individuals with knowledge of abuse and/or criminal behavior that has occurred within this religious group.

If you have any information about this ongoing investigation or believe your child or other children may have been victimized by people affiliated with 2x2, the FBI requests you fill out this questionnaire.

To report directly to the hotline, call 402-493-8688.

ABC7 worked in conjunction with ABC News & Nightline on this investigation. You can watch the full IMPACT by Nightline episode, "Secrets of the 2 by 2 Church" streaming now on Hulu.

Take a look at more stories and videos by the ABC7 News I-Team.