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This article was published 8/9/2016 (347 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The "primary inquisitor" in a "witch hunt" for sin at a southern Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community that led to widespread child abuse has been sentenced to 5½ years in prison.
Crown attorney Jim Ross said the case was about domination — the offender led an "obsessive" campaign to use physical discipline to stamp out sin, all the while sexually abusing a young woman from the community.
"This offender’s case is also about hypocrisy and the manipulation of an entire community," Ross said in Brandon Court of Queen’s Bench.
"(The offender) punished others for their supposed sexual thoughts and their imagined sexual acts, while he was carrying out the repeated sexual abuse of a young woman."
A publication ban protects the identity of the sexual-assault victim and the community, or naming the 57-year-old offender, to protect her and the child-abuse victims.
The offender’s crimes in the insular horse-and-buggy community spanned 2010 to 2013.
Sentencing began Wednesday with the offender pleading guilty to sexual assault.
He also confirmed his guilty pleas to six counts of assault with a weapon and one count of assault for the extended and repeated abuse of six children, four to 12 years old at the time, and one young man aged 21 to 22 years.
The child abuse was described as harsh discipline, but Justice John Menzies called it torture and an effort for the offender to strengthen his hold on the community.
"I don’t know how your community, how your church, came to be perverted in such a fashion to wage war on the children," Menzies said as he delivered sentence.
"Instead of being a place of comfort and refuge, your community became a place of dread and torture for so many of your children."
Ross described how the offender came to power in the isolated, patriarchal community where tradition demands residents submit to authority. It became a community one former resident would later liken to a "cult."
In the 1990s, Ross said, the offender was excommunicated from a southern Ontario Old Order Mennonite community over allegations of sexual impropriety. But, due to the custom not to involve outside authorities, police weren’t told and the allegations never proven.
He moved to another community, but disputes within other southern Ontario communities continued, and the offender convinced others to relocate with him to Manitoba in late 2006.
The new Manitoba community was isolated from other Old Order communities and church leaders.
It was conservative even by Old Order Mennonite standards, Ross said. Its treatment of children fell far outside that of other such communities.
"Harsh discipline and the sexual shaming of children are not part of Old Order Mennonite culture," Ross said.
The main abuser filled the leadership void. One of his victims said: "He ruled with an iron fist."
His influence stretched far within the group’s 14 families. He was the father or grandfather of 24 people and either brother-in-law, brother or uncle or great uncle to 28 more.
He was successful — he had a large house, was well-read, held the community birth certificates in his desk and negotiated land deals.
He saw himself as an expert in counselling. Police found a number of contemporary books about sexual abuse and psychology in his library.
Not only was he the one to deal with outsiders, he had a strong voice in the community and could pull strings behind the scenes. He would win others over with appeals to Scripture and tradition and had a powerful personality.
It was he who misdiagnosed the "problem" on the community and encouraged harsh discipline at the hands of other adults. He directed "brainwashing" sessions in which children were abused to extract false confessions that included incest.
But he not only directed the abuse, he took part in repeated and prolonged assaults on children that included strappings, spankings, prodding with a poker, hitting a boy with a board and the use of a cattle prod.
One boy, for example, at the direction of the leader, was strapped by other men 40 to 50 times, three to four times per week, leaving his back purple and blue from bruises.
Children were abused so much, some came to believe their own false memories of sexual misdeeds and that they deserved punishment.
Vomiting, bedwetting, distractedness and facial expressions were viewed as behavioural problems. Children touching themselves or each other, or those too affectionate with their parents, were also singled out for counselling.
It was the leader of the abuse who would handle the questioning during "counselling." "Stubborn" children who resisted suggestions of impropriety were punished; a confession also brought punishment for the sin; crying brought harsher punishment.
Children would have to hold body positions for extended periods of time and were denied food and sleep.
They were punched and kicked, had their ears twisted until they were swollen and bled and were hit with boards and iron rods.
It was this offender who introduced the intensely painful use of a cattle prod to "discipline" children, which left some with scars.
At one point, the children were gathered around a bonfire and told they would burn in hell for impure thoughts and actions, while this offender and his son (who also abused children) looked down from heaven.
In their false confessions, children would name others involved in "deviant" behaviour and they, in turn, were pressured into false confessions.
Ross suggested the offender was projecting his own sexual deviance onto the community — between June 2006 and January 2013, he’d repeatedly molested a young community woman on the pretense he was counselling her for prior abuse and for sexual thoughts.
The physical abuse of children began in 2011 and came to light in January 2013 after an abused young man ran away, back to Ontario. Manitoba RCMP and Child and Family Services investigated from February to June 2013.
Ross said by the time police and CFS became involved, 10 adults and 32 children were considered sexually deviant.
Of 59 children living at the community, 25 reported excessive discipline. They ranged in age from five to their mid-teens.
The remainder were under six years old and spoke poor English as their first language is Pennsylvania Dutch, or their parents didn’t want their children to give statements.
CFS apprehended 42 children from 10 families.
In the end, 13 adults were charged with assault for excessive discipline for tasks assigned by their "leader."
Eight had charges dropped in exchange for counselling, and one woman received probation, leaving four key accused men.
One key accused received six months in jail, another a year and a third (a son of the abuse leader) was sentenced to 18 months in jail.
At least 38 children have since been returned to their parents who have received counselling and taken parenting classes. Two other children are wards of their older sister, and two others are too fearful to return to the community.
The main offender and his son were banished from the the community in early 2014.
The other two key offenders have served their time and live at the community because they have repented and are viewed as "followers" in the abuse.
Once a community of 14 families, it now numbers 10 as four have left.
"The community intends to stick it out here," Ross said, adding the remaining leaders have agreed to limits on correction of children by force, there’s been counselling on the subject and CFS continues its involvement.
The Manitoba group now has closer ties to church elders. It’s forging ties with a southern Ontario community and, noticeably, men have shaven off their beards, which appears consistent with less conservative Old Order groups.
Following court, a community member handed media a written statement in which residents expressed regret for the abuse.
"We leave justice to the government and vengeance to God. Our desire is that our community may heal and our families be safe."
Ross cited psychological reports that suggested healing will prove a challenge for the children. One girl was diagnosed with PTSD and said she was so afraid of punishment she didn’t want to live.
"She heard the screams of other children who were being punished."
One expert wrote a report detailing how, in general, abused children faced chronic stress, depression, anxiety, high-risk behaviour and — ironically, in this case — loss of faith as they wonder why a higher power didn’t protect them.