A Winnipeg religious group called Twelve Tribes is defending the way it physically disciplines children, using a type of stick.

Manitoba's child welfare authorities said they are looking into the group after CBC's story earlier this week. 

Twelve Tribes, a Christian sect with members around the world, defends its behaviour, even though using anything other than one's hand to physically discipline children can be considered assault in Canada.

The group's spokesperson, Maurice Welch, said the law interferes with parental authority.

"We are basing what we do on the word of God," he said. "The scriptures make it very clear that if someone 'spares the rod,' they hate their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them."

But a Winnipeg man who counted some of the community's members as friends is also raising concern about the group.

Michael Welch (no direct relation to Maurice Welch) became concerned about similar allegations and joined the group undercover last summer to investigate for himself.

Michael Welch said he lived with the group for more than six weeks in Winnipeg's Armstrong's Point neighbourhood.

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Michael Welch took this photo, showing a stick across the desk which he believes is used on the community's children for discipline, when he entered the Twelve Tribes community in Winnipeg to learn more about it. (Michael Welch)

He said while he knew he was deceiving them by not telling them he was trying to learn the truth about how they treat their children, he felt he owed it to his friends in the group to find out. 

"If the allegations ... were true, then I owed it to Stephanie [his friend], her children and anyone else who may have entered this arena to ascertain the truth," he wrote in an opinion piece for CBC.

Sticks easy to find in living quarters

Welch said it didn't take long to find the instruments the group's critics allege were used on children. 

"That very first evening I managed to find five of the rods that were described by ex-members. They are slender wooden sticks roughly 60 centimetres long. I found one above a cabinet in the main floor washroom, one in the classroom they turned into a guest bedroom for me, and three in the basement," he said. 

He said he found 20 rods over the course of his stay.

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Twelve Tribes' spokesperson Maurice Welch said the group follows what scripture says about disciplining children. (Lindsay Tsuji/CBC)

Welch said while the people were kind to him and he never saw children being disciplined with the sticks first hand, he is sure it was happening. 

"Tribe members have admitted to me that spanking takes place," he wrote. "I came close on two occasions to catching them in the act, both times at the shop [on Des Meurons Street]."

In an interview with CBC on Wednesday, Michael Welch maintained the children and adults in the insular community are at risk. 

"The kids seem very closed off from the wider world, so if there was something happening in the community I'm not necessarily satisfied that it would be dealt with in a responsible way," he said. "There's a risk to children and to adults."

Group numbers about 70 people in Winnipeg

The sect which has been around some 50 years, has about 70 members in Winnipeg, 20 of whom are children.

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Michael Welch spent six weeks undercover with members of Winnipeg's Twelve Tribes community. (submitted photo)

They live in two homes in Armstrong's Point and they own in a farm outside of Winnipeg as well as a shop on Des Meurons Street.

On Wednesday, the group declined to do another video taped interview, but did speak with CBC by phone. 

Maurice Welch was asked about whether he realized the group could be breaking the law by disciplining children with a stick. 

"We are aware of that," he said. "But we are basing on what we do on the word of God. And the scriptures make it very clear."

Welch said Twelve Tribes welcomes Child and Family Services investigation. 

Welch maintains the group answers to a higher authority and has no plans to stop using rods to on its children.