Seized children defend faith, stir emotions in spanking case
Several angry at being taken from parents, videotaped interviews with police show
By PETER CHENEY
Thursday, June 6, 2002 , Page A13
ST. THOMAS, ONT. -- A small courtroom here echoed with sobs as two parents at the centre of a celebrated child custody case watched videotapes of their children being questioned by police.
The parents, who cannot be identified under the terms of a sweeping court order, are members of the Church of God, a religious sect that believes in corporal punishment.
Their seven children were taken from the family home by child-welfare officials last July after it was alleged the children had been "hit with objects."
The emotional complexity of the case became apparent yesterday when the children's mother broke into tears as she watched the interviews, made after her children were seized.
Although details of the testimony cannot be related under the court order imposed by Judge Eleanor Schnall of Ontario Court, several of the children expressed anger at being taken away from their parents, and defended their faith.
The scene in the courtroom has been an unusual one. On the left side of the room is a motley crowd of journalists, who attend the case even though almost none of it can be reported. On the right are the children's parents and their supporters, who dress in the simple, old-fashioned clothing dictated by their faith.
The children's father, who wears an Abe-Lincoln-style beard, a white shirt and black pants, gripped a dog-eared religious text in his hands yesterday as he listened to the interviews. His wife, wearing a long gingham dress, sat next to an interpreter who translated the proceedings into Low German, the dialect spoken by the family at home.
The case is a watershed for the Church of God, which finds itself at odds with the modern, liberal society that surrounds it.
Church members believe that children must be spanked with objects such as belts or tree branches, saying that "the hand is reserved for love."
Henry Hildebrandt, a pastor at the Church of God who has been at the centre of the controversy that erupted after the children were seized, has attended every day of the trial, sitting next to the parents. He said yesterday that the church's beliefs were rooted in the Bible, and that no earthly power could persuade them to alter their approach.
"We believe in the Bible in its completeness," he said.
"We know that many people say they believe. The difference is that we live it, no matter how that affects us."