A sentence could be handed down as early as Wednesday for the final man who admitted to abusing children in a small Manitoba town with cattle prods and straps. (CBC)
Unjustifiable and unfathomable. Those were just two of the harsh words a judge used to describe the abuse of children in a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community when handing down a five-year sentence to the man considered the "main actor" in the abuse.
Justice John Menzies handed down the sentence Wednesday afternoon in a Brandon courtroom full of members of the Old Order Mennonite community, which cannot be identified due to a publication ban.
The man, who previously pleaded guilty to seven counts of assault with a weapon and one count of assault, sat silently in the prisoner's box as the Crown gave a lengthy background on the case and on the small, insular horse-and-buggy community where the abuse took place between 2011 and 2013.
The man pleaded guilty Wednesday morning to one count of sexual assault. A second count was stayed by the Crown in exchange for the guilty plea.
About two dozen community members sat in court Wednesday, some with their heads down, while others held their heads in their hands. Several left the room when the Crown attorney started detailing the facts related to the sexual assault charge.
A respected elder
The Crown described the man as the "main actor" in the abuse, directing and involving others in the discipline of the community's children.
On Wednesday morning, the Crown painted a picture of a man who was considered a respected elder in the community. Parents were told to take their children to his home where they were to receive counseling.
That counseling then turned into discipline sessions and punishment where cattle prods and straps were used on the children, along with the hands of the four men and one woman who were charged.
The man's defence lawyer called his actions an "unfortunate chain of events," saying the man believed that he was doing the right thing for the community at the time. He said his client is sorry and regrets his actions.
Harsh words from judge
While delivering his sentence, Justice Menzies out the names of each of the victims of what he described as "torture." Their names are protected by a publication ban.
"I hope that as I read out those names that you could see their faces," he told the man. "This is not the type of offences that happened once, or happened twice, these are offences that were inflicted on numerous occasions over the course of years."
"Long, prolonged periods of angry questioning, isolation, physical assaults, prolonged assaults with leather belts, beaten with wooden boards, electric shock with cattle prods … Who on this earth could possibly think that that is conduct that a child justified?" he said. "What could a child do to deserve that kind of treatment?"
Menzies compared the abuse to the man and the other abusers waging a war on the community's children, turning their church, a place of comfort and refuge, into a place of terror.
"What does a young child think when they are struck 40 times with a leather strap?" Menzies added. "All you taught them was how to be victims."
Menzies said the man abused his position of trust with the victims.
"The crimes are serious, unjustifiable and, in fact, unfathomable," Menzies told the court.
The 5½-year prison term was the joint recommendation put forward by both Crown and defence lawyers earlier Wednesday morning and the worst out of all of those sentenced for the abuse to date.
Fourth man sentenced
The man was the fourth man to be sentenced for the abuse, which involved dozens of the community's children. He was lead away by Sheriff's officers showing no emotion while the community members in the courtroom stood in silence.
Two previously sentenced men received sentences of six months to a year. Another man, who was sentenced in late June, received 18 months behind bars for his role in the abuse.
A woman was handed three years probation for her role in shocking two girls with a cattle prod and hitting another one with a strap.
Thirteen people were initially charged in connection with the excessive discipline. Charges against four men and four women were stayed in 2014 after they agreed to peace bonds requiring them to enter counseling and not contact the other accused.
Social workers took 42 children from 10 families into custody after the abuse came to light.
Thirty-eight of the community members have since returned to live with their parents and away from the modern technologies, like running water, television and internet, that they would have experienced in foster care.
Two teenagers refused to return to the community. Two of the children were made permanent wards of Manitoba Child and Family Services.
Leave 'vengeance to God'
Outside court, a community leader handed reporters a statement, expressing deep regret and shame for the abuse but forgiveness for the offender.
The statement said they do not want to seek revenge or reimbursement for any of the losses they have suffered.
"We leave justice to the government and vengeance to God," the statement read.
The community is now hoping to heal and provide safety for the families, the statement said.
Court heard that 13 families lived in the small community at the time the abuse came to light. Nine remain.
Full statement from the community
As members of the [name withheld due to a publication ban] Mennonite Community, we express deep regret for the abuse and shame that took place in our midst.
We want to humbly [re-build] the community in harmony with Christ and his teaching.
We do not want to seek revenge or ask for reimbursements for the losses we suffered, instead we choose to forgive the offender and desire that he would come to full repentance so the he can be found forgiven from God as well.
We leave justice to the government and vengeance to God.
Our desire is that our community may heal and our families be safe.
I would hope that you would bring in some teachers to teach you how to interpret the Bible properly. Your theology and how you practice it is not what Jesus suffered and died for.