Aylmer, ON-- A child welfare agency's bid to stop a pastor from counselling two members of his congregation on corporal punishment issues was rejected by Ontario family court judge Michael O'Dea.
In the latest twist of a widely publicized child custody case, Family and Children's Services of St. Thomas and Elgin County asked O'Dea last month to restrain Aylmer Church of God pastor Henry Hildebrandt from advising a couple to spank their seven children.
The agency also asked O'Dea to find the couple in contempt of court over a statement they released to the media indicating their religious beliefs stopped them from complying further with a court order that prohibits physical discipline until the case is resolved.
The judge rejected both applications, but ordered everyone involved in the controversial case to stop talking to the media.
He also ordered the parents to prevent their children from being contacted by reporters and from receiving electronic mail "from persons outside the congregation of the Church of God, Aylmer, Ontario."
More than three weeks after that order was issued, a B.C.-based Church of God web site, www.childrentaken.com, was still offering to forward e-mail to the seven children.
In addition, Justice O'Dea ordered the parents to immediately advise Family and Children's Services if they feel they might use corporal punishment.
The couple's seven children, aged six to 14, were removed kicking and screaming from their home last summer by social workers who arrived in the company of nine or 10 police cruisers.
Two weeks later, a judge ordered the children released, pending a final court decision last fall. One of the terms of release was a temporary prohibition on physical discipline.
But autumn came and went without a decision, prompting Hildebrandt to announce last month, with support from his church's international council, that he was no longer advising the parents to comply with the spanking prohibition.
The couple released a statement of their own, indicating the restriction infringed on their personal religious convictions and they could no longer comply.
The two announcements alarmed child welfare officials.
"It is most unfortunate that the parents and the church have chosen to deal with this matter publicly," Steve Bailey, executive director of Family and Children's Services, told a December 14 news conference.
"We do not have, at this time, sufficient confidence that the parents will abide by the interim order. We are further dismayed by Mr. Hildebrandt in that he seems to be counselling the parents to violate the court order," says Bailey.
Alluding to "interference from the Church of God and its leaders," Bailey said the decision to seek a restraining order on the Aylmer pastor was made after agency officials concluded the recent statements "compromised the integrity" of their plan to protect the children.
Hildebrandt held his own news conference December 17.
"The children's aid society is effectively endeavouring to sever the bond of fellowship between the family and the church. This is a tremendously serious issue as it violates the family's obvious wishes and legal right to associate closely with the church and its members," he told reporters.
The Low German-speaking couple were adherents of the Old Colony Mennonite Church before they joined the Church of God, a non-Mennonite denomination that advocates use of the rod in disciplining children.
The Winnipeg-based Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has attempted to distance itself from the case, pointing out that a "vast majority" of Low German-speaking Mennonites in the Aylmer area support restricting corporal punishment to spanking with the hand.
According to one MCC worker, most Low German teachers prefer using the rod "as described in Psalm 23" to comfort and guide, instead of beating the sheep with it.
Lawyers for the parents and Family and Children's Services were scheduled to meet January 17 for a settlement conference that Justice O'Dea ruled would be closed to the public and press.
The case is expected to go to trial by the spring of this year.