Couple sentenced to probation for church-directed child abuse

Wisconsin State Journal/May 2, 2014

By Ed Treleven

Calling the abuse of their very young children on religious grounds “absurd” and “obviously dangerous,” a Dane County judge on Friday sentenced a Black Earth couple to a jointly recommended 18 months of probation, but made it clear to them that more severe punishment could have awaited them.

Dane County Circuit Judge Ellen Berz said that regardless of what their church taught them, Matthew Caminiti, 30, and his wife, Alina Caminiti, 27, should have known that striking their children, including infants, on their bare bottoms with wooden dowels was wrong and misguided.

“The troubling part is that this behavior is not simply illegal,” Berz said, “it is obviously wrong, just wrong, and you could not, with your intelligence and your love for your children, recognize that.”

The Caminitis were members of the Aleitheia Bible Church in Black Earth, which was led by Matthew Caminiti’s father, Philip Caminiti. The elder Caminiti preached that children were to be disciplined with rods, as instructed by the Bible, to cure them of selfish behavior.

Eight church members were arrested and charged with child abuse in November 2010. Three pleaded guilty and entered into deferred prosecution agreements. Another went to trial and received a jail sentence.

Philip Caminiti was found guilty after a trial in 2012 of conspiracy to commit child abuse and received a two-year prison sentence. His brother, John Caminiti, pleaded guilty to child abuse in 2011 and received a prison sentence that was later changed to probation.

In March, a jury found Matthew Caminiti guilty of four counts of child abuse and Alina Caminiti guilty of three counts. In court Friday, both said that they stopped punishing their children with rods once they learned that doing so was illegal.

“Despite a belief founded in scripture, they were willing and did modify their behavior,” said Jeffrey Nichols, Alina Caminiti’s lawyer.

Assistant District Attorney Greg Venker said he agreed with the couple’s lawyers to recommend 18 months of probation because the couple has now gone more than three years without violating a condition of their bail that they not physically discipline their children. He also said they have no rehabilitative needs, having completed the requirements of a consent decree set by a juvenile court judge.

Berz said the sentence she handed down would not be a judgment on anyone’s religion and would not be about parental rights or a statement on corporal punishment.

While she said that the physical harm done to the Caminiti children was far less serious than many other abuse cases, she chided the Caminitis for blindly following “what should have been seen as misguided.”

Infants and toddlers, Berz said, who don’t have the capacity to walk or crawl, won’t have the capacity to modify their behavior as a result of punishment they receive.

“You two should have understood that,” Berz said. “You should have understood the absurdity of your punishment.”

Berz even drew a comparison to the Peoples Temple mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 in which more than 900 died.

“One cannot help but reflect upon a group of loving parents who in blind obedience made their children drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide,” she said. “Would you do the same thing? I would hope not. But I’m not sure.”

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