Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mennonite community determined to heal

Residents want return to normal life after allegations of child abuse

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Chad Bauman of the Pine Creek Mennonite Church helps members of the Old Order Mennonite community with construction inside the new school. The teen is one of dozens of Mennonites from across the province and beyond who travelled to the Old Order Mennonite community to help.

IAN HITCHEN/ BRANDON SUN Enlarge Image

Chad Bauman of the Pine Creek Mennonite Church helps members of the Old Order Mennonite community with construction inside the new school. The teen is one of dozens of Mennonites from across the province and beyond who travelled to the Old Order Mennonite community to help.

BRANDON -- Where there were empty swings a year ago, now little girls in long dresses and black bonnets play.

Boys in long-sleeved shirts and suspenders, broad-brimmed hats atop their heads, watch as the men build their new schoolhouse.

The new school is a symbol of this Old Order Mennonite community's efforts to heal and return to a normal life in the wake of allegations of physical abuse against its children, one of its residents says.

"We wanted to make this statement to the public... that we are very committed to start off a new beginning here -- new hope and new life for our children," said the man, who can't be named due to a publication ban that remains in place with the ongoing criminal court cases against other residents.

Forty-two of the community's children were apprehended last year by Child and Family Services.

Sixteen community adults were charged with offences such as assault or assault with a weapon between July 2011 and January 2013.

The Crown has alleged children were spanked, kicked, strapped or shocked with a cattle prod for as little as the look on their face. Some children were made to stand still for long periods of time.

' ... We are very committed to start off a new beginning here -- new hope and new life for our children'

-- member of Old Order Mennonite community rocked by child-abuse allegations

One woman has pleaded guilty to two counts of assault with a weapon and awaits sentencing, seven other adults had their charges dropped in exchange for signing peace bonds, and another two women had charges stayed when they pleaded guilty to other charges related to the investigation. Six other accused remain charged.

But even as dark details of the abuse emerge in court, community members have worked with CFS toward the return of their children.

As of Wednesday, 25 had been returned to the community, with another three expected back within the next week. All but two of the remainder are expected to be home by the end of July, the man said.

A year ago, the same man described what some community children were subjected to as extreme discipline. Now he uses another word -- "abuse."

"The whole thing has been shameful. I'm not proud to say any of this."

Without going into details, he says things were done that shouldn't have been. Not all community members knew what other adults were doing, he said.

But on Wednesday as he helped with the continued construction of the new school, his focus wasn't on the past -- it was on the future, which seems hopeful.

The dropping of charges against a number of community members has brought the lifting of bail orders that forbid them from having contact with each other and children.

The return of children has since been easier, and life has moved closer to normal as residents can work together again on tasks such as meetings and planting crops.

It's also allowed planning of the new school.

In mid-May, the horse-and-buggy community burned down the old single-room school house -- a gesture.

The decision to build a new school -- made while many children were still in foster care -- was intended to show them their parents had faith in their return.

The old school held bad memories for some of the children, the resident said.

Some were "disciplined." The teacher was among those charged with assault, but those charges were stayed after the signing a peace bond.

When the new school opens in early September, about 20 children will attend.

Construction has been rapid, with the help of about 30 members from other Manitoba Mennonite communities.

As of Tuesday morning a concrete foundation was in place, and by day's end Wednesday, the walls and roof were in place and most of the siding on. Completion is expected before the new school year.

Donations for the new school come from across Manitoba and beyond.

Deacon Dave Klassen and 10 other members of the Pine Creek Mennonite Church helped with construction on Wednesday.

He said he's aware of the allegations of child abuse but he's still willing to lend a hand.

"We're not here to support the things that were wrong, not at all," Klassen said. "But, as they work through that, and are trying to come out right, we're just here to encourage the things that are good and show that we care in a Christian way."

-- Brandon Sun

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2014 A13

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