Old Order Mennonite community "similar to a cult"

Brandon Sund, Canada/September 13, 2014

By Ian Hitchen

A southern Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community at the centre of accusations of widespread and horrific child abuse was being run "similar to a cult" by a man said to be able to read sin on a person’s face.

Those are the allegations detailed by RCMP in a court document, details of which couldn’t previously be released due to a publication ban that has now expired.

"This was a common theme that police encountered as several (of the) victims said that (the man) could see a person’s sins on their face," police disclosed in an affidavit.

The Brandon Sun isn’t naming the community or the accused due to ongoing court cases and publication bans that protect the identity of victims and witnesses.

All of what follows are allegations — a combination of a Crown attorney’s account and the affidavit written by an RCMP investigator. Except for the accusations surrounding the only Mennonite adult to be sentenced so far, they haven’t been proven in court.

Originally, 15 community adults were charged with assault offences said to have been committed between July 2011 and January 2013.

Many of the accused, however, later had their charges dropped in exchange for signing peace bonds. As such, they haven’t admitted to any wrongdoing, and are deemed to be innocent of the allegations against them.

Four men remain charged in connection with the abuse allegations and they’re considered innocent unless a court determines otherwise.

However, the court documents — combined with background provided by Crown attorney Nicole Roch during sentencing of one accused on Friday — finally provide insight into disturbing allegations that prompted Child and Family Services to apprehend all 42 of the insular community’s children in February and June of last year.

Roch told Brandon provincial court on Friday that about 14 families formed the Manitoba community in late 2006 and early 2007. A man and other Old Order Mennonites in southern Ontario, described by Roch as the man’s "followers," decided to move to Manitoba.

The man had been excommunicated over allegations that he’d sexually offended against women in Ontario, Roch said. However, those allegations weren’t reported to police by the Ontario Old Order Mennonite Church due to their custom to not involve outside authorities.

The man held no official position with the Old Order Mennonite church. Nor did he hold an official position with the Manitoba community, yet he wielded considerable influence over community matters.

The allegations of widespread abuse came to light when one youth, who had been living with the man and his wife in Manitoba, returned to Ontario.

The boy told the Ontario ministry that he’d been abused in Manitoba, and Manitoba police were contacted.

Much of the affidavit’s account of the RCMP investigation that began in the summer of 2012 refers to the man who was reportedly excommunicated from the southern Ontario group and left with followers to start the Manitoba community.

He remains charged with numerous assault offences in relation to the abuse investigation. He’s also charged with sexual interference in relation to an allegation that one of the girls on the community was touched inappropriately.

The allegations against him haven’t been proven, and he’s presumed innocent unless a court determines otherwise.

The police affidavit identifies 18 children who were allegedly subjected to serious physical abuse while being "disciplined" at the Manitoba community.

During the time of the alleged abuse, the children ranged from about three to 22 years old. The bulk, however, were aged six to 17 years.

Methods of punishment varied, police allege. Altogether, at various times and at the hands of a number of adults, children were strapped, punched, kicked, made to stand still for days with little food and whipped.

Numerous children were shocked with a cattle prod, including a boy aged six to eight years who was shocked by two men on more than 10 occasions each — he was strapped more often than he was shocked.

Children were punished for masturbation, not listening, failing to stand straight, failing to eat fast enough, disobeying in school, not "thinking right," for impure thoughts and wetting their pants. At times, children were punished for the look on their faces.

But much of the abuse happened during "counselling" sessions in which authorities allege children were abused into making false allegations that they’d engaged in sexual activity with their parents and siblings.

Children from two families were subjected to the sessions after they were removed from their homes and placed in two others at the community.

Children were questioned about the sexual interactions with their family members. Failing to "remember" the incidents that never happened, or a denial, would bring abuse.

In one of the worst cases, one boy who denied the allegations — on various occasions, at the hands of a number of men — was strapped, pinched, spanked and whipped. He was also shocked on his bottom, legs and hands with a cattle prod.

One girl told police that she was made to stand in the corner for up to four days. She was provided little food and not allowed to talk.

In court, Roch added that children were deprived of food, sleep and privacy.

"Some children were required to live in a shed," Roch said. "Some children were not allowed indoors, except to sleep, because they were considered to be so deviant."

Children were watched as they ate, slept, bathed and went to the toilet to ensure they weren’t touching each other or themselves.

The investigation outlined in the police affidavit frequently returns to the man mentioned above, who is alleged to have taken part in much of the abuse and of directing at least some of the counselling sessions.

Roch said it was that man who introduced the use of the cattle prod, which was used by other adults when the one man decided that children were misbehaving in a sexual way.

"(One visitor) described the Mennonite community in Manitoba as being similar to a cult in the way it was operating," wrote the officer who compiled the affidavit. "People here look up to (the man) as a leader and accept his word to be true without thinking for themselves."

Police reported that they seized books about counselling adult and child victims of sexual abuse, and about human sexuality, from the man’s property.

According to police, during the counselling, when children couldn’t recall the false accusations of sex with their family members or denied it, the man would tell them that they’d blocked out the memories. He told one girl that he could tell something was wrong by looking at her, police allege.

In some cases, those who were interrogated came to believe that the false allegations of sex were true.

One boy — strapped on more than 20 occasions by various men — told his abusers what they wanted to hear. He came to believe the false sex allegations even though he couldn’t recall details.

Roch said the children initially provided police with vague allegations of abuse by their parents, but later recanted after being removed from the abusive homes they'd been placed in.

Some of the sex allegations were determined to be false through medical examinations.

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