WINNIPEG - Almost two dozen children have been seized from a devout southern Manitoba Mennonite community amid charges that youngsters were assaulted with cattle prods, whips and leather straps.
Documents from Manitoba Family Services show the youngest of 23 children taken from their homes is nine months old; the oldest is 15. The documents don't detail alleged abuse but do say one 13-year-old boy "does not want to return home."
Two adults from the tiny orthodox community were charged in March with various counts of assault and assault with a weapon on several boys and girls between July 2011 and January of this year. Court documents listed a whip, a prod, a board and a leather strap as weapons.
This week, two more adults appeared in court to face similar charges involving 12 alleged victims. The allegations are similar — that the assaults were repeated and over roughly the same 18-month time frame. The two were released pending their next court appearance.
Court documents show the children seized are from five families, including one family of nine kids ranging in age from one to 13.
None of the allegations has been proven in court. RCMP are still investigating and say more charges could be laid.
The identities of the children are protected under a publication ban. The Canadian Press is not naming the accused and the small community where they live.
Family services initially wouldn't confirm the number of children taken into care.
One man driving a horse-drawn buggy told Global TV Winnipeg that family services "apprehended all our children that are minors."
"They walked into the houses, took the babies out of the cribs while they were sleeping," he said.
Manitoba Family Services says it is working with the families and children, providing counselling services and support, while the investigation continues. The agency says child protection staff are trying to find "culturally sensitive placements for the children."
Royden Loewen, chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, said the community is inherently non-violent. They shun the modern conveniences of life, including electricity and cars, and adhere strictly to Biblical teachings.
While most Old Order Mennonites believe in corporal punishment as part of their strict religious beliefs, he said they do not do so lightly.
"Humility and love are fundamental biding principles but they also do what every western society did a generation or two ago and that is use corporal punishment," he said.
"They would all teach that you never hit a child in anger. You cannot do that. You discipline a child in a lamentful way, you are duty-bound to discipline a child but you don't slap a child in anger."
Anyone who would physically abuse a child in a fit of rage would be seen as "not a true Mennonite," Loewen said. Despite their limited contact with the modern world, Loewen said Mennonites across the country have heard of this case and are "very upset" about the allegations.
"They preach absolute non-violence," he said. "They are pacifists."