Allegations of horrific physical abuse of children at a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community were recently revealed in a Winnipeg courtroom.
During the case of one adult member of the community — who pleaded guilty to charges of abuse — the Crown said during "counselling sessions" in the community children were spanked, kicked, strapped and shocked with a cattle prod for perceived wrongs.
One girl was strapped and shocked for not eating quickly enough, and sometimes shocked for as little as the look on her face, court heard.
"The backdrop of it is actually tremendous physical violence with respect to the children," Crown attorney Adam Bergen said late last month as the woman entered guilty pleas to assault charges.
Neither she, nor her community can be identified due to ongoing court proceedings and a publication ban that protects the identity of the children and witnesses.
An estimated 80 to 90 people — more than half of them children, lived in the deeply religious horse-and-buggy community with traditions rooted in the 19th century.
About 16 community adults were charged with such offences as assault or assault with a weapon, the bulk of which were allegedly committed on a number of children between July 2011 and January 2013. At one point, court documents alleged there were at least 13 victims.
Community members said the charges related to "extreme discipline," while the Crown alleged that abuse was committed in an attempt to elicit false allegations of sexual abuse against certain community members.
The 57-year-old Old Order Mennonite woman who recently pleaded guilty admitted to two counts of assault with a weapon against two girls who were placed in her home after they were removed from their own. She became the first community member to be convicted of the abuse allegations.
At the time, one was 10 to 11 years old and the other six to eight.
Bergen described the events surrounding those assaults. That account outlines just some of the allegations being made against the adults of the community by the RCMP and the Crown.
What follows consists of allegations. Aside from the specific admissions made by the woman who pleaded guilty, the accusations against other community members haven’t been proven in court.
Bergen said the trouble within the community surrounded allegations of "sexual improprieties" among the parents and children of two families.
"Underlying all of this seems to be this sort of a hypervigilance over any sexual thoughts on behalf of the children, and so that is what the counselling is geared toward," Bergen said.
Those allegations of sexual abuse — repeated to police by children from those families — were later all recanted or dismissed by police as untrue, Bergen said.
In a previous court hearing, court heard the police investigation included physical examinations of the children.
It’s how those unfounded sexual allegations were drawn from the children that forms the basis for the accusations of physical abuse, Bergen said.
He said children from one family had been sent to one Mennonite man for weekly counselling for up to two years.
Then, at some point for a reason that remains unclear, there was a mass relocation of some of the children from the homes that were the subject of the sex abuse allegations that were later discredited.
Many of the girls were placed in the home of the man who’d performed the counselling, a man said to hold considerable authority in the community. He’s the husband of the woman who pleaded guilty.
The boys were placed with the man’s brother and his family.
Children were questioned about alleged sexual improprieties within their families among the parents and children. But Bergen said the inquisitor or inquisitors would ask leading questions and offer hints for responses.
When the children didn’t remember things they were "supposed to" remember, or would "remember" and admit to the improprieties, violence would follow. Violence was also part of the so-called counselling sessions.
Children were spanked, kicked, struck with leather straps on their legs and buttocks and shocked with an electric cattle prod.
"The cattle prod is used for large animals and it’s basically got an on-off switch and it’s described by all the children as incredibly painful," Bergen said.
One of the victims of the woman who pleaded guilty, the 10- to 11-year-old girl, described the abuse to police.
She said she was strapped by five men. One man in particular would do most of the strapping, and she would be strapped when she couldn’t eat, didn’t eat fast enough or was nervous or upset.
"She says on one occasion she was so nervous while she was eating that she vomited and was strapped more for that," Bergen said.
She was also shocked on her legs with the cattle prod while at the kitchen table for not eating right or for her face "not looking right."
"There’s allegations in other people’s statements about the fact that they’re told that other children and the adults can read their thoughts by looking at their faces and that often they’re punished for looking wrong, essentially," Bergen said.
One man would use the cattle prod on the girl’s stomach, the seat of her pants and on the bottom of her bare feet. She and other children were also made to stand still for long periods of time.
The second victim, six to eight years old at the time, told police that she was cattle-prodded on her back, strapped, kicked, hit in the head and sat on.
Most of this happened in the wood shed or wash house at the home where she was relocated.
"When describing the cattle prod, she said that she was so afraid of the cattle prod it would make her wet her pants sometimes just upon seeing it," Bergen said.
Peeing herself then prompted the use of the cattle prod on her, which left purple dots on her skin. She said she saw the cattle prod being used on the other girl and that it left blisters.
These are some of the general allegations against adult community members.
The woman who pleaded guilty to assaulting the two girls has only admitted to strapping the 10- to 11-year-old girl a number of times, and to using the cattle prod on her more than once as the girl sat at the kitchen table. She admitted to using the cattle prod on the younger girl once.
The woman’s sentencing has been set for a later date. There has been no mention of what sentence the Crown will seek.
Due to the allegations of physical abuse, Child and Family Services apprehended all of the community’s children in waves during February and June 2013.
At one point, 42 children were in CFS care but community members have worked with CFS toward their safe return. So far, about a dozen have been returned, which leaves about 30 still in CFS care.
The return has been smoothed by the staying of charges against six accused, but charges remain against a total of seven accused.
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