"They kept us as slaves."
One man's tearful revelation to AP national investigative reporter Mitch Weiss helped unravel a horrible secret – the former congregant of the World of Faith Fellowship sect was among hundreds who'd been dispatched from the church's two Brazilian branches to the U.S., where many say they were forced to work for little or no pay and physically or verbally assaulted.
Dozens of former congregants told similar stories of abuse and exploitation in an exclusive AP multi-format story that earns Weiss, national investigative reporter Holbrook Mohr, and Peter Prengaman, news director in Rio de Janeiro, the Beat of the Week.
The winning pair of stories are part of AP's ongoing investigative series "Broken Faith," which kicked off in late February with a piece detailing how congregants at the small North Carolina-based evangelical church were routinely punched, choked and thrown through walls in a form of deliverance meant to "purify" sinners by beating out devils.
In reporting on the church sect in 2015 and 2016, Weiss had interviewed several former members from Brazil who spoke of suffering, divided families and PTSD from years of abuse.
They pored over documents and interviewed dozens of former Word of Faith Fellowship followers in the U.S. and Brazil, detailing how the secretive sect imposed rigorous controls over its two Brazil churches, isolating congregants from outside society and splitting up families. In addition, former members said Brazilian men were forced into arranged marriages with female American congregants so they could stay in the U.S. past their visas, then were coached on how to lie to immigration authorities.
Many ex-congregants were terrified of retaliation from the church, but the team convinced them to tell their stories for the first time – on the record and many on video.
It wasn't easy getting the ex-congregants to talk since many were terrified of retaliation from the church, but the reporters eventually convinced them to tell their stories for the first time – all on the record and many on video.
Weiss had to call Andre Oliveira, the former congregant who said the Brazilians were treated like slaves, numerous times before he answered the phone. Church founder Jane Whaley had convinced congregants she was a prophet and that, if they talked, bad things would happen to them or their families.
In Brazil, Prengaman spent months reaching out to former members of the Sao Joaquim de Bicas and Franco da Rocha churches, and eventually interviewed at least 36 former members. He convinced 11 people to go on camera, and shot more than half the interviews himself. Staff photographers Silvia Izquierdo and Andre Penner provided strong images of the Brazilian church sites and former congregants.
Tracking down documents was equally time-consuming. Some people Prengaman had interviewed provided police records or pointed him to documents from a 2009 hearing in the local state legislature that provided other names to pursue. At one police station, Prengaman spent the entire afternoon getting the runaround. He eventually got what he wanted after calling the office of a Brazilian representative, whose chief of staff intervened on the AP's behalf.
Meanwhile, Mohr was able to locate and convince former members to talk on camera, including Thiago Silva, a National Guard member who had only a few hours before his unit was deployed. Flying into Boston one Tuesday afternoon, Mohr got Silva to explain the "human pipeline" that the former members said Whaley had created between her churches in Brazil and North Carolina.
Another video interview was conducted with an American woman who said she took part in an arranged marriage to keep a church member in the United States.
Reaction was swift: Brazil's justice department told the federal police to reopen an ultimately toothless 2012 inquiry into the sect.
The reaction was swift: In Brazil, the justice department told the federal police to reopen an ultimately toothless 2012 inquiry into the sect. The country's foreign ministry said it was reaching out to the U.S. consulates in Brazil and U.S. law enforcement agencies for more information, and added that its Washington, D.C. embassy wanted to interview Brazilians who came to the U.S. via the church. And a Brazilian state lawmaker called on his legislature's human rights commission to hold hearings.
Former followers in the U.S. said they had been interviewed by state and federal investigators only after AP's Broken Faith series began.
The U.S. consulate in Rio said the State Department was digging into potential visa violations. And Jill Rose, the U.S. attorney in Charlotte, confirmed for the first time that her office has an "active, ongoing investigation" into allegations against the sect. Ten former followers in the U.S. disclosed they had been interviewed by state and federal investigators only after AP's Broken Faith series began, and that the focus included allegations of visa fraud, forced labor and the treatment of foreign church members. That's despite years, even decades, of complaints about the church, which has previously escaped almost entirely unscathed.
The stories resonated with readers: Though they were released at 12:01 a.m. Monday and Tuesday, respectively, Chartbeat showed them earning engaged time of 1:30-2 minutes as late as Thursday afternoon. Monday's Facebook post reached more than 134,500 people and earned 10,398 clicks and 2,179 reactions, comments and shares. And the first day's tweets received more than 3,550 clicks and almost 650 retweets The stories were translated into Spanish and Portuguese, and every major television station and newspaper in Brazil picked up the material and produced their own follow-ups. Over 24 hours, Globo, Brazil's largest news organization, did at least three full segments, heavily crediting the AP. One segment was on its morning show, which has an average viewership of 7.5 million.
For their persistence and old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting in disclosing shocking new details about this church sect, Weiss, Mohr and Prengaman share this week's $500 prize.