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Leaders sought help before abuse arrests

Orthodox Mennonites discussed parenting issues

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GLADSTONE, Man. -- Leaders of an orthodox Mennonite community in Manitoba reached out for counselling and parenting advice before two members were charged with beating children with various weapons, including a whip and cattle prod.

A man and his adult son face various counts of assault and assault with a weapon. The younger man is also charged with assault causing bodily harm.

Court documents show the alleged offences involve seven children, both boys and girls, dating back to July 2011. In addition to a whip and prod, a board and a leather strap are also listed as weapons on the court file.

The community is near Gladstone, about 150 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

The pair was arrested last week and released on bail under conditions that include not contacting the children nor their relatives and staying away from the Westbourne community.

The documents on file with the court don't disclose a motive behind the alleged assaults and police have not said why they believe the children were beaten. None of the allegations has been proven in court.

Brad Reimer, a spokesman with the Mennonite Central Committee of Manitoba, said Monday leaders of the Westbourne group travelled to Winnipeg last month and met with officials about "parenting concerns."

But there was no followup, in part, because the community is so isolated and tough to reach by phone.

Reimer said he didn't know details of the group's concerns or whether they were related to the criminal allegations. RCMP said officers began investigating the two men in January.

Officials with Child and Family Services were also contacted as part of the case.

Royden Loewen, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg, is chairman of the school's Mennonite studies program. He visited the Westbourne group in December and met the elder Bauman, one of its leaders.

He said he was surprised by the charges.

"I chatted with these guys. Their whole lives stand for non-violence. They live in harmony with everything, with nature. They don't use the technology we use.

"The idea of humility and simplicity is at the foundation of their religious life."

He said most Mennonites believe in traditional corporal punishment and use the Bible to defend the stance. But they all follow the same rule: A child can't be injured or hit out of anger.

Loewen said the allegations go beyond what many Mennonite communities would find acceptable. "I doubt whether many old orders would support a cattle prod."

Loewen and others who know the group describe how it originated from an old order Mennonite community in southern Ontario. About a dozen families left and settled west near Gladstone about six years ago.

The Westbourne group, with about 100 members, is the only "horse-and-buggy" Mennonite community in the province.

There are about 6,000 others in Canada; most live in Ontario.

Those in Westbourne don't have computers or electricity. They use horses to pull farm equipment. They wear simple dress and the men grow beards.

Loewen said the community has one phone, but it's located in a small shack a couple of kilometres away in the bush.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2013 A6

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