Mother to appeal child custody ruling

York, Neb., (AP) - A mother will appeal a judge's decision giving custody to her three children to her former husband and ordering her not to discuss her religion with her children, the woman's lawyer says.

York County District Judge Bryce Bartu awarded Robert Peterson custody of his two children and one stepchild, ruling that their mother had used fear and corporal punishment to get the children to submit to her church's teachings.

"I used corporal punishment to make them mind, not to submit to any religious belief," Carol Peterson, the children's mother, said in an interview Thursday.

In his ruling Wednesday, Barti said that Mrs. Peterson, who had legal custody of the children since the couple divorced in February 1988, may visit the children only at the home of her parents.

Bartu also said Mrs. Peterson must abstain from using corporal punishment and promoting her religious beliefs to the children under penalty of being in contempt of court.

"In my opinion that was done to protect the kids. There's a lot of fear and coercion here," said Bruce Stephens, an attorney for Peterson.

Richard Watts, an attorney for Mrs. Peterson, the decision would be appealed.

"We will set the wheels in motion next week," he said. "At this point, we will probably be appealing the entire decision."

Watts said he was shocked by the judge's order that Mrs. Peterson "abstain from making any comments to the minor children with regard to her religious beliefs whatsoeverm under penalty of contempt."

"My jaw almost hit the desk when I read that particular paragraph."

"That's serious language," Watts said. "This woman makes a comment to her children in any way about her religion, she's in contempt of court."

Ms. Peterson is a member of the Good Life Pentecostal Church in York. She had been given custody of the children - Sadie, Cassie and William - when she and Peterson divorced in February 1988.

Bartu changed the custody Wednesday.

"If she were allowed to continue her practice of corporal punishment and fear into these children it is obvious that such acts would have not only deleterious effect upon the relationships between the respondent and the children but also upon the physical and mental well-being of the children themselves," Jeanne Huff, clerk of court, quoted from the ruling.

The judge's ruling came less than a week after a hearing where an Omaha social worker testified that the church exhibited nine of 10 criteria she said served as guidelines to define a cult.

During the hearing, Cassie Peterson had testified she once was struck with a belt more than 40 times over a 4 ½ hour period after she had been expelled from York Christian Academy, which is part of the church.

Cassie, 11, had been living with her father for about 11 months. Sadie, Peterson's stepchild and now 15, and William, 6, had been living with their mother.

Courts generally will not disqualify a parent for religious beliefs, but when such beliefs threaten the health and well-being of the children, then the courts have a duty to act, Bartu said.

"I didn't know they could do this to people. I just don't understand it," Edward Morey, pastor of the church, told The Lincoln Star. "It sounds like Russia."

An expert witness in the case, Caryn hacker, a psychotherapist and certified master social worker from Omaha, name 10 criteria that serve as guidelines in defining a cult, including having a powerful and charismatic leader who believes he is a direct descendant of God.

Hacker said in court that the Good Life Pentecostal Church practiced all of the above except communal living.

"I don't feel charismatic and powerful," Morey said. "If I was, we'd have more than 35 members."

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