June 8, 2002
Church softens stance on hitting kids
By Jonathan Sher -- Free Press Reporter
Charges in California and a child-protection trial for an Aylmer family have prompted leaders of the Church of God to say they'll soften their commitment to faith healing and corporal punishment.
The shift was made as the family faced a trial whose contents are secret because of a publication ban by Judge Eleanor Schnall.
The family was investigated in October 2000 after failing to seek medical treatment for a child scalded by boiling water. The seven children were seized July 4, 2001, after allegations their parents struck them with objects.
Their trial and criminal charges against a couple whose toddler died of medical neglect were discussed last week at a retreat in Ohio and Indiana, said Jacob Hildebrandt, brother of Aylmer Pastor Henry Hildebrandt.
So too were practices over which the church clashed with authorities: Congregants use objects to strike their children and are encouraged to rely on faith, not doctors, to treat illness.
Both practices were addressed in a memo drafted last week by church leaders at a retreat in Ohio and Indiana.
"In cases of perceived serious illness of one of our minor children, the ministry shall advise the parents/ guardians of their legal requirement and allow seeking of medical means for the child according to the law of the land . . .
"The church shall advise the people that they are to continue to use and explore methods other than 'spanking' as forms of discipline, and that if, as a last resort, spanking is called for, it is to be administered in a loving way, without anger, in a way that will not abuse the child physically, psychologically or spiritually."
"We want to show sensitivity to these issues," church leader Danny Layne told the Press Enterprise, a newspaper near his home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
But it appears church leaders didn't give the memo to members at the retreat, which was attended by most of the Aylmer congregation. Those interviewed yesterday were unaware of the document.
Aylmer congregants returned this week. More than 100 rallied yesterday at the St. Thomas courthouse where the trial has been held for the past two weeks.
They were joined by supporters from sister churches, such as Jacob Hildebrandt, who travelled from Mexico.
"We're concerned for the family and we are here for them," he said.
The rally was led by Benjamin Tovstiga, whose family fled Canada after being approached July 11, 2001, by Family and Children's Services.
Asked about the memo, Tovstiga fell silent for several seconds before quietly excusing himself.
But Tovstiga looked joyful as he led worshippers, mostly children, in song and prayer.
"This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine," they sang, pursing their lips for the next verse, "Won't let Satan (blow) it out. Let it shine."
Inside court, the light shone briefly on a trial to determine if anything must be done to protect the children. While the media can't report evidence, Schnall made an exception for testimony on child protection legislation in Ontario.
Her ban was backed by the parents and opposed by the social agency, a reversal from last year, when church leaders publicized their side of the story while the agency was silent because of regulations that forbid disclosure.
The reversal surprised the Family Aid Society, a group that has backed the church.
"I'd like to see it become public," spokesperson Ryan Kidd said. "We'd be disappointed if the church opposes that."
But it didn't surprise Peter Thiessen, whose wife was a pastor in Aylmer until she died of untreated cancer.
"They're scared," he said of church leaders.
It's unusual for the church, which relies on word-of-mouth communication, to print a memo, particularly since leading clergy were gathered at the retreat, he said.
The memo was met with restrained optimism by the man whose agency investigated the Aylmer family on trial.
"I believe people have the potential to change but ultimately, it will be their actions, not their words, that will determine if this is a significant departure from past practice," said Steve Bailey, head of Family and Children's Services in Elgin County.
Text obtained June 8, 2002 from Aylmer Church of God
The Church of God
General Ministerial Assembly
May 22-24, 2002
WHEREAS: Our national, state/provincial and local governments have passed laws, with severe penalties, limiting our liberty to
treat our seriously ill minor children, exclusively with spiritual means.
RESOLVED: Having the best interest of our children in mind, in cases of perceived serious illness of one of our minor children,
the ministry shall advise the parents/guardians of their legal requirement and allow seeking of medical means for the child
according to the law of the land.
WHEREAS: We, as a Christian people abhor the abuse of children in any form, that we consider them the "heritage of the
Lord," and that child abuse in any form is a hideous sin and is contrary to the teaching of the Word of God.
RESOLVED: That the ministry of the church shall advise the people that they are to continue to use and explore methods other
than "spanking" as forms of discipline, and that if, as a last resort, spanking is called for, it is to be administered in a loving way,
without anger, in a way that will not abuse the child physically, psychologically, or spiritually. Spanking should always be with
careful consideration and a moderate approach.