I know one of the lawyers who helped send one of the cult's children back to Island Pond. I have seen him with his children, who are delightful creatures, and I like him very much. When he told me his feelings as a human being were 180 degrees apart from his feelings as an attorney, I think I know what he means. It happens to all of us.
The Northeast Kingdom Community Church of Island Pond evokes two emotions in us all. Both have to do with children. Both are very powerful. And they are 180 degrees apart.
One is the simple love of children, and our instinctive urge, as adult members of the same species, to protect them. The trusting love of a helpless child is, for us, among the greatest gifts we have ever received.
The other is the terror of having our children taken away by disease, accident, or by a state that doesn't like the way we think. That loss is a nightmare all parents live with.
The state's raid on Island Pond triggers both these emotions at once. We were in Island Pond on Friday morning, and will never forget it. Even though it was something we thought must be done, something we had actively worked for, and even thought it went better than anyone had any right to expect, I could not summon up a moment's elation. Instead, the raid summoned up the terror of that loss. It was the saddest experience of my life, save for one. That was the experience of reading about Jeremy Smith, and the truck his grandfather brought him, which is published elsewhere in this newspaper.
Many children have undoubtedly suffered worse things than Jeremy. But how many could have suffered more senselessly, in the hands of their own parents?
If there is a way to help Jeremy Smith, he should be helped. If his parents can't remain true to their religious beliefs without torturing their son, they should lose their son. Not to a state that doesn't like the way they think. But to a state that accepts its responsibility to protect children from physical abuse, and is competent to do so.
This state takes protective action when children are whipped in a way that raises welts on their bodies. That seems like a reasonable standard, and we know that it is vigorously enforced in the case of almost all the children in Vermont- all but the 112 children who were found in Island Pond on Friday morning.
It's not hard to establish that the adults of the Northeast Kingdom Community Church routinely, as an article of faith, beat children with sticks until welts are raised.
They will tell you so, if you ask them. They have told Judge Frank Mahady so on two occasions. Judge Mahady sat in Essex Superior on February 17, 1983 and heard Cynthia Mattatall testify under oath about the discipline she administered to her children. "They are children," she said. "Children need correcting." She added that it is not unusual for a child to have red marks on its bottom after a spanking.
Judge Mahady ordered Mrs. Mattatall not to discipline her children with "rods or other weapons."
Judge Mahady sat in Chittenden Superior Court on May 17, 1983, and watched Eileen Gregoire flourish a baloon stick. "This is the rod I use to discipline my children," she told him. "It doesn't break any bones. At times it leaves marks which quickly fade away."
Judge Mahady heard Mike Taylor, a hulking defector from the cult, testify that he had beaten 65 children, and watched him slam the rod down on the railing of the witness stand in a demonstration.
Judge Mahady heard David Fritog, 11, testify that he had received eight "very painful" blows on the bare buttocks with a paddle made of a two-by-four, while a resident of the cult.
Judge Mahady heard his father, Arthur Fritog, testify that, before that beating, he had asked that other cult members not discipline his children.
After hearing this testimony, Judge Mahady wrote that in Island Pond the Gregoire children "were subjected to frequent and methodical physical abuse by adult members of the community, in the form of hours-long whippings with balloon sticks. If the children are returned to Island Pond, it is reasonably probably that the abuse...will resume."
That is why we have trouble understanding why Judge Mahady decided to destroy the state's effort to protect those 112 children, and sent them home to Island Pond. He knows what lies ahead for them.
The fight over Judge Mahady's ruling will rage for a long time, pitting the state's executive branch against the judiciary, the state's best lawyers against each other, and judge against judge. It will absorb enormous energy, and be a tremendous source of entertainment to the adult members of the Northeast Kingdom Community Church.
It won't bring the state much closer to the children. We hope we're wrong, but can't shake off the feeling that those children are out of the reach of the State of Vermont once and for all. Not out of the reach of some awesome, totalitarian power. But out of the reach of a community that surrounds them, cares for them and weeps for them. --C.B.
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