Note: This church is independent and not affiliated with the Church of God congregations.
Aylmer, Ontario -- One hundred congregants of the fundamentalist Church of God here have fled the country because they fear child welfare officials will target their families, their pastor, Henry Hildebrandt, said yesterday.
He said the hurried departures, apparently of 74 children and 26 mothers, include family members questioned last Wednesday about the way they discipline their children. One week earlier, children's aid officials and police forcibly removed seven children from a home in Aylmer amid allegations they had been spanked with sticks and belts.
Mr. Hildebrandt said his congregants' Biblically based belief that parents who spare the rod, spoil the child led them to flee Canada for fear their children will be taken too. " It"s very obvious they could"ve been the next, " he said.
Sunday school classes were cancelled yesterday and fewer than half of the Church of God's roughly 200 parishioners came to a service in which the pastor prayed for God to soften the hearts of local child welfare authorities. Mr. Hildebrandt said he would not reveal where the 100 congregants had gone and was uncertain when they might come back. " They are eagerly waiting to return as soon as they can be guaranteed a safe return, " he said.
Members of the congregation did not dispute Mr. Hildebrandt's account of the exodus, but it was not clear whether they knew of it independently or from him. Steve Bailey, executive director of the Family and Children's Services office in Elgin County, which includes Aylmer, would not say whether his officials contacted a second family in the congregation and said he was not aware of any congregants fleeing Aylmer.
He said that if anyone under investigation by child welfare officials leaves the country, they would not likely be sought. " We don"t have the resources to pursue people, " he said. The decision to remove four boys and three girls from their home on July 4 sparked an uproar from family rights organizations and Church of God congregants. They protested outside the St. Thomas courtroom where a judge ruled last week that the children will remain in foster care until a hearing into their removal is complete.
The law allows parents to spank their children with a bare hand but prohibits unnecessary force. Church of God members insist the hand is intended to show affection and the Bible allows for the use of items such as sticks to discipline children.
Mr. Hildebrandt appeared to soften his stance on corporal punishment on Friday when, in a news release, he wrote that " recent incidents have caused us to review our Church teachings and practices relating to the parenting and discipline of our children."
But yesterday he said the church was merely signalling that it was prepared to seek common ground to resolve the situation. "However, we make it clear we will not give up our Biblically held convictions, for we cannot," he said in a second release.