MASON - A judge on Thursday acquitted a middle-aged psychologist of an assault charge for pulling down a 14-year-old girl's pants and spanking her hard enough to cause bruises.
The prosecutor and children's advocates expressed surprise at the decision in a corporal punishment case that raised questions about how far a nonparent can go in disciplining another person's child.
Gary Freudenthal, 49, of Blue Ash, testified Thursday that he thought he had permission from previous conversations with the girl's grandmother - her legal guardian - to discipline the child, who was a friend of his daughter.
On Aug. 31, Mr. Freudenthal, a single father, said he was upset because the girl was picked up by police the night before on drug and curfew violations when she was supposed to be spending the night at his house after attending a football game with his daughter.
So, he went to the grandmother's Mason home about 9:30 a.m.walked into the girl's bedroom after asking the grandmother where she was, took the girl out of bed, placed her over his knee and spanked her.
When the girl laughed, Mr. Freudenthal said he pulled her bikini bottoms down and administered another spanking. A police officer testified that the spanking caused bruising on the girls' upper legs and buttocks.
"I spanked her hard enough so she could feel it ... so it would sting, so she wouldn't be able to sit down, so she would remember it," Mr. Freudenthal testified. "She was so out of control."
He said he hugged the girl after the spanking and told her, "I'm sorry it has come to this, but I want you to live."
The girl's grandmother said she did not give Mr. Freudenthal permission to strike the child, although she had discussed her granddaughter's discipline problems with Mr. Freudenthal.
City Prosecutor Robert Peeler told Judge George Parker that the issue was clear-cut: "Did he commit an act where he caused or attempted to cause physical harm?" to the teen, which are the elements of a misdemeanor assault charge.
"This case was about whether a 49-year-old man has the right to go into someone else's house and pull down the pants of the 14 year-old girl and strike her," Mr. Peeler said after Judge Parker issued his verdict.
"It was undisputed there was physical harm. My position was that under any set of circumstances, (Mr. Freudenthal) crossed the line."
Judge Parker alluded to a police report that included comments from the girl's grandmother that the spanking was "appropriate." The grandmother denied that statement from the witness stand.
Mr. Freudenthal said he was relieved by the verdict and insisted that he did nothing wrong.
"I was trying so hard to be there for this kid," he said, adding that he felt he was acting in a parental capacity that day. "Parents should be free to do what is in their best perception to control their children."
Yvette McGee Brown, president of the Center for Child and Family Advocacy in Columbus and a former domestic relations and juvenile judge in Franklin County, said she was puzzled by the verdict, given the circumstances of the case.
"It sounds like assault. There is no authority I'm aware of that gives someone who is not the parent the right to spank or hit the child," she said.
However, if consent was clearly given, a judge or jury could lean toward acquitting the defendant, she said.
"You can't hit a neighbor's dog, so what was he doing hitting a teen-age girl?" said Nadine A. Block, executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline, a Columbus-based national organization that opposes corporal punishment.
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