Editorial: A sad echo from across the sea

“They’re still at it!”

That’s what we said when we read the astounding news that on September 5, almost three decades after Vermont State Police raided the Northeast Kingdom Community Church in Island Pond and seized its children, it happened again in southern Germany.

Again it was an early dawn raid on the group, which now calls itself the Twelve Tribes.  Again, the children were taken away by police who said they had “fresh evidence indicating significant and ongoing child abuse by the members.”

We imagine that our outraged amazement that they’re still at it was shared by two groups of Vermonters.

For one group, no doubt the larger group, “They” are the police and the State they serve.  And what they’re at is the persecution of a religious community for straying outside the norms of our society.

For the second group, largely made up of people closer to the story, people who perhaps had friends or relatives living with the group in Island Pond, “They” are the adults in that community.  And what they’re at is the systematic abuse of their own children, using slender wooden sticks of the sort used to hold balloons at birthday parties.

For the record, here’s what the Twelve Tribes says on its website, under “frequently asked questions,” about how it disciplines its children:

“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.”

In Vermont it was evidence of the use of these rods, which left welts on small bodies in beatings that were sometimes very lengthy, sometimes severe, that finally led authorities to resort to the raid.

District Judge Frank Mahady ruled, in 1983 after presiding over a custody battle between a father who left the group and a mother who remained, that the children “were subjected to frequent and methodical physical abuse by adult members of the community, in the form of hours-long whippings with balloon sticks.”

District Judge Joseph Wolchik, after reviewing a large collection of evidence and allegations, signed a warrant ordering police to conduct the raid of June 22, 1984.

But at the Orleans County Courthouse that afternoon, Judge Mahady ruled that the raid was unconstitutional and sent the children home to Island Pond.

Governor Richard Snelling said at the time he would submit the constitutional issue to the Vermont Supreme Court, but changed his mind.

So as a legal matter, that’s how things stand to this day.  Two judges of equal authority disagreed.  No higher court has ever resolved their dispute.

That’s a problem, because the reconciliation of practices based on sincere religious belief and laws that prohibit such practices is a difficult constitutional issue.

There can be no doubt that the adults in the Island Pond community believed they were following God’s will.  And there can be no doubt that they were breaking the laws crafted to protect this society’s most vulnerable members.

There were people, in the aftermath of the raid, who saw the need to tackle the problem, to try and draft laws that would protect children using methods less drastic than a frightening pre-dawn raid.  But public reaction against the raid was strong enough to marginalize anyone who tried to continue the discussion.

It was a stunning victory for the Island Pond community, and we said so on June 27, 1984:

“We hope we’re wrong, but can’t shake off the feeling that those children are out of the reach of the state of Vermont once and for all.  Not out of the reach of some awesome, totalitarian power.  But out of the reach of a community that surrounds them, cares for them and weeps for them.”

Maybe this time, for a different generation of children in a different country, things will work out better. — C.B.

To read the Chronicle story on the Twelve Tribes raid in Germany, click here.

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