Family court is no forum for arguments over sect's religious authority, judge rules

Judge excludes church from custody case

The New Brunswick Telegraph Journal/May 11, 2001

By Bob Klager

Woodstock -- A Court of Queen's Bench justice refused Thursday to scrutinize what influence a controversial Plaster Rock church and Christian school may have wielded in the lives of a family "completely torn apart." Insisting family court was not the forum for pronouncements on religious authority, Madam Justice Judy Clendening also rejected an application by church leaders to intervene in the Woodstock proceeding involving custody and family support matters with members of the First Apostolic Pentecostal Church. "We're dealing with an extremely pastoral religion in which pastoral authority is a prime part of it," the church's lawyer John Friel argued in his motion for intervener status in the case.

Being permitted to question witnesses and make arguments in the custody matter was important "if it were to come to the fact the church was being put on trial - even indirectly," he said. Judge Clendening said granting the application could see the court "diverted from the real issues by becoming overly concerned about the sensitivity of an added party." "I cannot envisage how this application could have as its purpose assistance to the court," she said. "...the church's interest is in protecting their own actions, motivations and involvement with [this] family." "This is not an issue that will be decided by this court. I promise you that."

The Plaster Rock church, a divergent sect of the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI), has recently come under public scrutiny amid allegations it exercises extraordinary influence with its estimated 450 adherents. Its impact is said to stretch well into the rural community nestled in the Tobique River Valley about three hours northwest of Fredericton.

A former church member filed a defamation suit last year against Church leader Rev. Dana McKillop and other church leaders. The claims within the defamation action have not been proven in court and no trial date is set in the case.

Provisions under New Brunswick's Family Services Act prohibit the publication of any evidence that would identify a child or parent involved in a family-court matter. However, substantial testimony in Thursday's case did surround claims that church influence and direct orders by its leadership ultimately led to the family's estrangement. It created for the children an "environment of hostility" at the church's school, simply because one parent was rejecting the dictates of the leadership, one lawyer argued.

Darren McKillop, son of the pastor and the third generation of family Pentecostal leadership in Plaster Rock, did comment Thursday on the allusions to church control that shaped much of the family-court proceeding. "We haven't been involved in whether the kids go to see their [parent]; we've been accused of that, but we haven't been involved," he said outside the court. "It's free choice. And we stand by that." Consistently directing both parties away from the issue of religious freedom, Ms. Clendening reminded the parents that the Apostolic Pentecostal Church was an organization in which they, at one point, jointly immersed their family.

"It is extremely clear to me that this is a family that has been completely torn apart," the judge said. "No one is more distressed or wrecked than the other. "But I am not here to point fingers at any person or organization," she added. "...I'll say no more about that. It will be for some other court to deal with."

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