Allegations of beatings and abuse prompted police in Germany to raid a U.S.-linked religious group and place around 40 children into protective custody, authorities said Friday.
Around 100 officers stormed two locations associated with the “Twelve Tribes” sect in the towns of Klosterzimmern and Woernitz, around 150 miles west of Munich, as investigators looked into whether the children were being beaten and physically punished.
“We have started a preliminary investigation after sticks and rods were found, which could be evidence for offenses such as dangerous bodily harm and the abuse of [children],” district attorney Christian Engelsberger told NBC News on Friday.
He added that “rooms were found that add to the suspicion of abuse.”
In a statement on its German website, the “Twelve Tribes” sect wrote that the children, aged between one-and-a-half and 17, were still asleep in bed when police launched the raids.
The older children were placed in public foster homes and the younger ones with foster parents, Gabriele Hoidn, a spokesperson for the district office in Donau-Ries, told German newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine.
"Where is the legal basis here?" the statement from the group said. "People cannot be found guilty based on their association with a religious faith ... there was no direct evidence against any individual provided."
However, in an earlier posting the U.S.-founded sect said its members do believe in spanking their children, according to the Associated Press.
“We love our children and consider them precious and wonderful,” the AP reported them saying. “Because we love them we spank them. 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."
However, the group, which claims to have 3,000 members across the globe, admitted it knew, “that some people consider this aspect of our life controversial.”
The sect, founded by a Tennessee high school teacher in the 1970s, has previously come under investigation in Germany for violating laws on homeschooling of children.
In Connecticut, a couple belonging to the group also pleaded guilty to assault after disciplining their children with a 30 inch fiberglass rod, in 2000.
However. in 1984 Vermont a judge returned 112 children from the group to their parents after ruling that a raid on the group was illegal.
German broadcaster RTL said Friday's raids were launched after one of its investigative reporters handed secretly-recorded evidence to police.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.