CRIME

Probe sought after AP report on church abuse allegations

In this 2012 photo, Jeffrey Cooper holds his infant daughter at her baby dedication at the Word of Faith Fellowship compound in Spindale, N.C.

In this 2012 photo, Jeffrey Cooper holds his infant daughter at her baby dedication at the Word of Faith Fellowship compound in Spindale, N.C.  (AP)

A district attorney has asked the state to investigate two assistant prosecutors after an Associated Press story that quoted former congregants of a North Carolina church as saying the men derailed criminal probes into allegations of abuse by sect leaders.

David Learner said Wednesday that he wants the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the accusations against his employees, who are members of the evangelical Word of Faith Fellowship church.

The AP story, released Monday, cited nine former Word of Faith members who said Frank Webster and Chris Back provided legal advice, helped at strategy sessions and participated in a mock trial for four congregants charged with harassing a former member.

The ex-congregants also said that Back and Webster, who is sect leader Jane Whaley's son-in-law, helped derail a social services investigation into child abuse in 2015 and attended meetings where Whaley warned congregants to lie to investigators about abuse incidents.

Nathan Key, a spokesman for Learner, said in an email that Webster and Back will keep working during the investigation but did not say if they will continue to prosecute cases. He did not respond to follow-up questions.

Under North Carolina law, prosecutors cannot provide legal advice or be involved in outside cases in any manner. Violation of those rules can lead to ethics charges, dismissal or disbarment. Offering legal advice in an ongoing investigation to help a person avoid prosecution could lead to criminal charges.

Learner read a statement to reporters on Monday saying he wasn't aware of any investigations into his employees. "As far as I am concerned, they are my employees and this is a personnel issue," the statement said.

Back and Webster have not responded to several messages left by the AP about the allegations.

Learner is district attorney for Burke, Caldwell, and Catawba counties in western North Carolina. Word of Faith church is in Spindale in nearby Rutherford County.