A well-respected Ontario couple -- a family doctor and his teacher wife -- are at the centre of bizarre kidnapping allegations in a case that could spark debate about whether parents are justified in breaking the law if they believe their child is in peril.
Dr. Renato Brun Del Re, his wife, Lucie, their son and several friends will appear in court in Hamilton today on kidnapping charges for their desperate efforts to remove their daughter, who is now 23, from what they believe is a cult operating in downtown Hamilton. The family, who say they implored police and government officials for help and even brought in a well-known cult deprogrammer from the United States, insist they were only doing their duty as devoted parents, intent on doing everything in their power to protect their daughter.
"You have to understand what cults do and how damaging they can be," Mrs. Brun Del Re, a 54-year-old high school teacher in Georgetown, said in an interview. "As for my daughter, when you hear from her directly that she's thinking of suicide, what kind of responsible parents would we be if we didn't do everything we could?"
Police have charged six people, including the Brun Del Res and their 25-year-old son, with charges of abduction and forcible confinement for their part in snatching a woman off the street in Hamilton in late December, forcing her into a van and bringing her back to the family home in Milton, about a half hour's drive north-east of the city.
The woman remained in the home for several days before she escaped and went to police. Her name has not yet been revealed in the court case and her mother will not disclose her name because she wants to protect her daughter's privacy.
Her family says she has returned to her former lifestyle in association with the Dominion Christian Centre, an evangelical Christian group that uses raucous, music-based services to draw wayward young adults and others to its base in one of the grittiest parts of the city's downtown core.
One of the core issues raised by this case is whether concerns over a family member's safety can override an individual right to freedom of religion -- particularly when the person involved is an adult, not a child.
Pastor Peter Rigo, who founded the Dominion Christian Centre with his wife six years ago, has denied any allegations the church is a cult. His upstart church has made headlines in the local newspaper for its unconventional practices, including its penchant for using debit machines for donations in lieu of traditional church collection envelopes.
When the church was profiled for its efforts to renovate one of the city's oldest buildings, the historic Hamilton Gas Light Building, the pastor described his flock this way: "People being saved, lives being completely transformed.... A family so hungry for real faith you couldn't beat them back from the table."
Mary Alice Chrnalogar, a U.S.-based consultant who has overseen scores of anti-cult interventions and written a handbook to assist families in breaking free from extremist religious groups, says she deplores the fact that this Ontario family has been charged for doing what they believed was best for their daughter.
"Nothing matters when your kid is in trouble. If I had a kid in a cult and was in the same place, I would do exactly the same as them," she said from her home in Tennessee. "This is a family that could be just like anyone else. The Canadian public should demand that they drop these charges -- don't put these poor parents through anything else."
She says she spoke with the family about intervention strategies, and even spoke with the woman at the centre of the alleged abduction, but she insists that she has nothing to do with involuntary deprogramming attempts. (Ms. Chrnalogar was among a group of prominent deprogrammers who became embroiled in nasty legal battles with Church of Scientology members, among others, over the lengths to which families could go in reclaiming their kin.)
Jeffrey Manishen, the Hamilton lawyer defending the Brun Del Re family, says he is collecting information about the Dominion Christian Centre from former members and others associated with the church to get a better sense of how the organization operates, who has left the church and what kinds of experiences they report. "These are very serious charges," he says.
Mrs. Brun Del Re says her family has been through so much already that the court charges barely register as another concern. She says the alienation occurred gradually between the family and her daughter, who went to Catholic schools and whom she describes as a very smart and spiritual girl who was trying to find her way as a young adult. She even attended a couple of services at the church, at her daughter's request, but grew increasingly uncomfortable as her daughter began asking the family to move closer to the Hamilton church, and eventually cut off contact with her brother and other family members.
"God would never say, 'Don't see your family any more,' " Mrs. Brun Del Re said yesterday. "We pray for her.... When you believe that what you do is right, you have nothing to fear."