Former secret cult minister admits to sexually abusing children
Robert Corfield, the man who abused a boy at an underground Christian church in the 1980s, has spoken publicly about what happened for the first time.
It was confronted by the BBC as part of a wider look into allegations of child sexual abuse over decades within the church, known as ‘The Truth’.
His name is one of more than 700 people submitted to a hotline set up to report sexual abuse within the church.
The sect says it addresses all allegations of abuse.
The church, which has no official name but is often referred to as The Truth or Way, is believed to have up to 100,000 members worldwide, the majority of them in North America.
The potential scale of the abuse was captured by a hotline set up last year by two women who say they were also sexually abused by a church leader when they were children. People have called in claiming they too have been abused, with testimonies stretching back decades to the present day.
The highly secretive and insular nature of the church has helped abuse flourish, say former and current insiders who spoke to the BBC. It has many unwritten rules, including that followers must marry within the group and keep mingling with outsiders to a minimum.
The church in Ireland was founded by a Scottish missionary in 1897 and is built on ministers who spread New Testament teachings through word of mouth.
One of its distinctive features is that pastors give away their possessions and must be taken by church members as they travel to spread the gospel. Insiders said this makes children living in the homes they visit vulnerable to abuse.
Warning: This article contains details that some readers may find disturbing
Former church member Michael Havet, 54, told the BBC that he was assaulted by Robert Corfield in the 1980s when he was 12 years old.
“People used to call me ‘Bob’s little buddy’ — I felt dirty and I still feel that way,” says Mr. Havet, speaking from his home in Ottawa.
After abusing him, Mr Havet says Mr Corfield would force him to kneel beside him and pray.
“I had to work hard to get past that and find a life of prayer again,” he says.
When Corfield was confronted with allegations of child abuse by the BBC, he admitted it had happened about six years ago in the 1980s.
“I have to admit that’s true,” he said.
Mr. Corfield was a minister – known within the denomination as “the Worker” – in Saskatchewan, Canada, at the time of the abuse.
It is the first time he has publicly admitted abusing children, although he had previously been confronted by church members and wrote two private letters to Mr Havet in 2004 and 2005 asking for forgiveness and saying he was seeing a therapist. In one letter, Corfield said he was “preparing a list of victims.”
“We don’t want to miss anyone who was a victim of my actions,” he wrote.
However, when asked about this by the BBC, Corfield said there were no other victims “in the same sense as Michael”, and that he had massaged two or three other teenagers.
The abuser was given a “fresh start.”
Mr Havet is among dozens of people who told the BBC that widespread abuse had been ignored or covered up at the Truth Sheet for decades – with some of those accused remaining in powerful positions for years.
Mr Havet believes the way the church handled his case is a clear example.
He reported his abuse in 1993 to Dale Schultz, the church’s most senior leader in Saskatchewan — known as “The Superintendent.” Moderators are senior members of the church and there is one for each US state and Canadian province where there are active followers.
But Mr. Schultz did not go to the police and, Mr. Havet says, violently assaulted him a few weeks later because he thought he had told others about the assault allegations.
“He grabbed my shoulder while screaming at me, and slammed my head into a concrete pillar, splitting it open and causing it to bleed,” Mr Havet said.
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Mr Havet says Schultz then “encouraged” him to leave the church – while Robert Corfield, who had abused him as a child, was transferred to become a priest across the border, in the US state of Montana.
Corfield told the BBC that he believed it was Schultz who decided to send him to Montana, where he remained in his position for 25 years.
“It was said that this would give me a fresh start and perhaps put distance between me and the victim,” he said.
Mr Corfield was removed from his position as minister last year after being confronted about Michael’s abuse by another church member, according to internal church emails seen by the BBC. One email also suggested “there may be additional victims.”
The former minister told the BBC that he “voluntarily resigned when Michael’s accusations were made” against him, and that he “was not informed of any allegations beyond that.”
When contacted by the BBC, Dale Schultz said via email that “much of the information you have received about me is distorted and inaccurate.” But he refused to go into any further details.
Mr Havet is one of more than 1,000 current and former members of the sect who have called a hotline set up by the campaign group, Defenders of Truth.
The group was founded last year by Americans Cynthia Liles, Lauren Rohs and Sherry Autry.
They say they have obtained the names of more than 700 alleged perpetrators in 21 countries, including the UK, Ireland, Australia and Russia. They plan to build cases against those on the list and take them to the police.
All of the women belonged to Truth, and Lauren Rohs and Sherri Autry say they were abused by the same man.
That man was Mrs. Rohs’s father, a senior minister named Steve Rohs.
Lauren Rohs tracked down Ms Autry after reading her anonymous online account of child sexual abuse, in 2019.
In the post, Ms Autry described how her attacker would sing Maneater to her by 1980s pop duo Hall & Oates when she was in his bedroom at night.
Mrs. Rohs knew immediately that the man described as the perpetrator was her father, because it was the same song she remembered him singing to her when she was a child.
“I sat there stunned,” the 35-year-old says. “It confused me beyond belief.”
She says her father subjected her to years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse from as early as she can remember.
Meanwhile, Ms. Autry says Steve Rohs stayed at her family’s home in Tulare County, California, for two months in 1982 — when she was 14 — and molested her daily.
The 54-year-old says he was singing Maneater because “part of his manipulation was that I was this wild seductress”.
There is a 20 year age gap between the two women. By the time his daughter was born, Mr. Rohs had given up his role as a laborer and started a family in San Diego, California. They later moved to the states of Washington, Idaho, and Colorado.
Lauren Rohs says her father gave various reasons for their continued move, including that “God needs us in a new place.”
The BBC put all the accusations to Rohs in emails and social media messages, but he did not respond.
The culture of abuse still exists
Ms. Rohs says that during her time at the church in the 1990s and 2000s, workers were like “demigods” and were never questioned, and that callers to the abuse hotline confirm that this culture still exists today.
Like Mr. Havet, Ms. Autry says she spoke out about her attacker — and was protected.
In 1986, she confided in her mother about being abused by Steve Rohs.
“I felt scared, dirty, ashamed, embarrassed and guilty,” says Ms. Autry, who was 17 at the time and thought she would be in “big trouble.”
But her mother immediately believed her and reported the man to a California state supervisor, who has since died.
In a letter dated 11 May 1986, written by Mr Rohs and seen by the BBC, he admitted to a supervisor that he and the teenager had “kissed and touched each other intimately” and that he had since “asked for forgiveness”.
Mr. Rohs was later brought to Ms. Autry’s home by workers where he verbally apologized to her.
“I replied that he was not sorry for what he did or he would have apologized long ago,” Ms. Autry recalled.
Despite his admission of child abuse, Mr. Rohs remained a respected and influential member of the church. In 1994, he was promoted to become an elder in the church — a person with seniority who holds meetings at his home, his daughter says.
The BBC has learned that he now lives in Minnesota with Ms. Rohs’s mother, as their daughter is estranged from them. He works as an insurance agent and was an active member of The Truth until April last year, after his daughter and Ms Autry made their allegations to the state superintendent and he was removed from meetings.
The gates are open
The catalyst for the hotline was the death in 2022 of Oregon Supervisor Dean Brewer.
He was one of Truth’s most respected leaders and worked for the group for 46 years in six US states.
His successor wrote an internal letter stating that Mr. Brewer had a history of abuse including “rape and abuse of minor victims.”
It is not clear what was the motive behind writing the message, but it leaked and quickly found its way to Facebook and TikTok.
Then more people started coming forward to tell their own stories of abuse.
“I think we thought the hotline was just for victims of Dean Brewer, but what the hotline did was just open the floodgates,” Ms. Rohs says.
Friends say they now want the kind of justice they couldn’t get for themselves.
“When I found Sherry, it was a truly rare and widespread healing,” Ms. Rohs says.
“It was sad for the survivors to come back and hear the amount of filth and evil,” Ms Autry says.
“Our situation was bad enough, but to see other people in such terrible situations – it was beyond anger. It was ugly but also very rewarding.”
Ms Autry stepped down from the team of lawyers in December.
Because Truth has no official leader, the BBC presented the allegations to more than 20 moderators in North America via email.
The only person who responded was Rob Newman, the California state superintendent.
“We actively address all allegations of abuse involving participants in our fellowship,” he wrote in an email, before Mr. Corfield’s confession.
“Our primary concern is that victims receive the professional help they need. We take all allegations of abuse seriously, strongly recommend reporter training to everyone, and encourage everyone to report cases to the appropriate legal authorities.”
Ms Autry believes change will not happen before any guilty supervisors are jailed.
“It’s a very good machine for criminals,” she says.
“It’s an ideal system that has lasted for 12 decades.”