Secretive Christian sect ignored sexual abuse for decades, congregants allege

"IMPACT" looks at the 2x2 church and abuse claims spanning generations.

June 14, 2024, 8:25 AM

In a secretive Christian sect unknown to most Americans, a reckoning is underway. Allegations of abuse that have been insular for so long are now coming to light.

Sheri Autrey was 14 when she says she was abused by a 28-year-old man who was a minister in her church. She says her abuse happened every night for two months.

Sheri Autrey is a former member of the secretive Christian church known by outsiders as the Two by Two church. She alleges she was sexually abused by a minister, known as a worker, when she was 14 and he was 28.
ABC News

"He'd be touching me everywhere, kissing me," Autrey, now 55, told ABC News. "And it was scary. It was scary because I knew if we got caught, I would be in trouble. I was the one doing something wrong."

Autrey grew up in a secretive sect of Christianity known by outsiders as the 2x2 church. Within the church, members refer to it as "The Truth" or "The Way" or even call it the church that has no name. What makes this religion so unique is that the ministers, known as workers, live with the congregants, moving from one member home to another, sometimes living out of a single suitcase.

Autrey's story isn't unique within her former religion. ABC News has been conducting an investigation for over a year into this organization, and has spoken to dozens of alleged survivors, from at least 34 states in the nation. The alleged abuse within the church spans generations, with some victims accusing the same perpetrator decades apart. One alleged victim said she was abused by a worker when she was 7 years old in 1955.

ABC News has been investigating this secretive sect known as the Two by Two church for a year, speaking to dozens of alleged victims of child sexual abuse, across more than 30 states.
ABC News

"The ministers stay in homes, they groom the family," Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney who represents child sexual abuse victims, including one ex-2x2 member, told ABC News. "The parents seem to have this enormous amount of trust, which is misplaced, in the religious person. And the parents are blind. Religion can be blind. Religion is great if it's used properly. But if it's not used properly, it's a disaster, it's evil."

The claims were so widespread that the FBI announced in February that it started an investigation into the church.

"The FBI focuses, in general, on bringing cases from local to global," Eugene Kowel, Special Agent in Charge of the Omaha Field Office which is leading the investigation, told ABC News in a rare, exclusive interview. "I'm trying to build an enterprise case. So, in general, the FBI doesn't stop at just an initial arrest. We will follow the evidence wherever it leads to ensure children are protected and to ensure anyone who can be held accountable is being held accountable by the criminal justice system."

While the FBI declined to give ABC News specifics into the ongoing investigation, Cynthia Liles, a private investigator who has been looking into the church and also runs an advocacy group, said over 900 alleged perpetrators have been named. She says she provided that information to the FBI.

Even former ministers of the church told ABC News that the abuse became pervasive.

A group photo at a 2x2 Church convention in the early 1900s.
Courtesy of Cherie Kropp-Ehrig

When asked if she felt that the church accepted abuse, former worker Sara Knauss responded, "I wouldn't say accepted it, but pretended it didn't exist," Knauss said.

Rather than calling the authorities, alleged abusers kept working, but in different states, according to former members.

"The typical response by the preachers when they're notified is for them to move the perpetrator to another area," Cherie Kropp-Ehrig, author of "Preserving the Truth," told ABC News. "And not to warn the people in the new area."

The church has a global presence and while it operates differently in countries like Australia, the 2x2 church in the U.S. doesn't have one official leader; it has a group of leaders known as overseers. ABC News reached out to over 20 former and current overseers in the United States. All of them denied knowing about the widespread abuse. But one overseer acknowledged that workers were moved in the past, rather than being removed from the ministry and reported to authorities.

"The 'shuffling' of abusers from state to state, from country to country, is common," Garabedian said.

People within the church knew about Autrey's abuse. Her parents wrote their overseer, Eldon Tenniswood, about her alleged abuser, Steve Rohs.

In 1986, Tenniswood wrote Rohs in a letter obtained by ABC News, "Remember, Steven, at that time you were 28 years old and she was 14 years old, which would make what you did a felony."

Rohs admitted to the abuse, writing on May 11, 1986, in a response to Tenniswood's letter, "We did… kiss and touch each other intimately. This did not happen with anyone else… 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. I was old enough to know better, but still weak in the flesh."

Eugene Kowel, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Omaha Field Office, is leading the worldwide investigation into the organization known by outsiders as the Two by Two church.
ABC News

ABC News has spoken to two other alleged victims of Rohs, who say their abuse happened decades after Autrey's.

To see Kyra Phillips' attempts to question Rohs and the full report into the Church, stream the "IMPACT x Nightline" episode "Secrets of the 2x2 Church" on Hulu beginning June 13.

While Autrey grew up in California, she now lives in Texas with her husband Dean. With her dogs, cattle, and cowboy boots, she enjoys living a little more off the grid.

"What would you say to your 14-year-old self right now?" ABC News asked Autrey.

"You're amazing," Autrey said. "You're precious. You did not deserve this. And you will have a good life. This will not define you. I will overcome."

ABC News' Caroline Kucera and Tara Guaimano contributed to this report.