Police raided a Christian sect in southern Germany, taking 40 children into foster care on suspicion they were physically abused and seizing sticks allegedly used to hit them, authorities said Friday.
Members of the so-called "Twelve Tribes" sect acknowledged that they believe in spanking their children, but denied wrongdoing.
Augsburg prosecutors said they had opened an official investigation into an undetermined number of the adult members of the sect on suspicion of causing serious bodily harm and mistreatment of children.
"The suspicion is that they hit their children — with sticks, for example," said spokesman Christian Engelsberger.
About 100 Bavarian police raided the sect's premises on Thursday, confiscating evidence including the sticks alleged to have been used, Engelsberger said.
They also identified rooms where the abuse is alleged to have taken place, Engelsberger said.
Authorities say 28 of the children were removed from one of the sect's locations near the town of Deinigen, and 12 others in the Woernitz area.
The sect said in a statement on its website that the children were aged 1 ½ to 17 and that members were told they would remain with foster parents at least until a court hearing next week.
"Where is the legal basis here?" the statement said. "People cannot be found guilty based on their association with a religious faith. ... There was no direct evidence against any individual provided."
Still, in a description of the U.S.-founded sect's beliefs, the group said its members believe in spanking their children, though "we know that some people consider this aspect of our life controversial."
"We love our children and consider them precious and wonderful — because we love them we do spank them..." the group said. "When they are disobedient or intentionally hurtful to others we spank them with a small reed-like rod, which only inflicts pain and not damage."
The sect, founded by a Tennessee high school teacher in the 1970s, today has about 2,000 to 3,000 members worldwide, according to its website.
They have previously had problems in Germany for violating laws on homeschooling their children.
The sect's practices have run afoul of the law in the U.S. as well, including in 2000 in Connecticut where a couple belonging to the group pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and cruelty for disciplining their children with a 30-inch (76-centimeter) fiberglass rod.
In 1984, authorities raided the group in Vermont and removed 112 children on abuse allegations. A judge later ruled the raid illegal and returned the children to their parents.
The raids in Germany came after an undercover reporter for RTL television passed on evidence he had accumulated over months of work, the station reported.
Engelsberger said he could not comment on where the tip came from, but said initially an area family court had ordered the children removed after receiving evidence, then his office began a legal probe after the sticks and other evidence were found during the raids.