The Cult That Scourges Children

This is a place where reality wobbles like a table with me short leg. Here, some people say, Wait Disney characters are evil and the world is satanic. Here- in the name of God - children are often beaten, denied medical care, held out of school and secretly buried. And there seems to be We that anyone can do about it

Despite the lake and the mountains, Island Pond is one of those rare Vermont villages that: is all but devoid of charm. It is poor and dowdy. The dominant force in town is a religious commune called the Northeast Kingdom Community Church. The group - men in flowing beards, women in babushkas - practices a kind of severe Christianity called Ultra fundamentalism.

The church meanwhile, operates under a cloud of suspicion, with its leader, a former carnival barker named Elbert Eugene Spriggs, sought by federal authorities for alleged child molestation. Church spokesman Bill Smith says the group intends to stay in Vermont and will not comply with truancy laws or laws requiring birth certificates and death certificates. And he says the stern discipline the church practices will continue.

If there we victims of this carnival - mirror existence, they are the children. They grow up poor, without schools, doctors, modern toys and books, even without the fantasies, the pretending of childhood. They are shuttled from home to home and country to country. They are taken from their parents and beaten and hidden. If they get: sick, they may or may not see a doctor. And if they die, they are buried in unmarked graves and, as far as the outside a concerned, they never lived.

There is little, doubt about: the sect's stern discipline At various court hearings, current members and defectors have said the group routinely disciplines children with force. One former member said he had beaten 65 different children. An 11 year old described a beating with a wooden paddle, and a mother explained that: members of the church beat her children because "children need correcting."

Such testimony convinced the judge in one custody case to conclude that the children in the church 'were subjected to frequent and methodical physical abuse by members of the community, in the form of hours long whippings with balloon sticks.

Spokesman Smith, who sometimes identifies himself as a church elder and sometimes says he
not, explains that physical punishment starts before children are a year old. "Lessons about what
is right and wrong can be reinforces with pan" he explains. Offenses ranging from lying to
simple childish pretending, are met with a spanking with a slender rod. Fantasies, the elders have
explained, may cloud the word of God. Children have told state investigators they were punished
for offenses a innocuous as joking that it is snowing on a hot mummer day.

Severe punishment, called scourging can involve adults striking a child up to hundreds of times, over a period of hours. "We sometimes take our time, and in between tell them the word of God" explains Smith. Several individuals have told state investigators they know of one 3 year old who was scourged for eating a grope without: permission. Others said children could be beaten or scourged by any adult in the group. One told of children who were beaten not for an offense but because a parent had a dream suggesting it. While discipline is a concern relatives seem to worry most about whether nieces or nephews in the group will get sick There are doctors in Island Pond but the church does not use them. A handful of very sick members have been treated at a nearby hospital, but illness, the of childbirth and injuries am commonly treated with prayer and, in some cases, The aid of elder Richard Cantrell, who is also known as Gladheart. Cantrell was convicted of practicing medicine without a license in 1984.

Since 1980, state officials report, four of the children in the group are known to have died. One can of untreated meningitis claimed a baby bay in 1981. A minutes old child died in 1982 of unknown causes A 6 month old child being carried aboard the ferry that links Bar Harbor and Now Scotia last month was found to have died of Sudden Infant death Syndrome. The body of a fourth child, carried out the back door of a commune house in 1980 as police arrived, has not been recovered.

Smith, 29, sip his own day is typical of church members. He grew up, he says, " in the beach and drugs culture of St. Petersburg, Fla. He joined the church in 1978 in Chattanooga, after experimenting with drugs, college and a Quaker seminary. Many in the church are former drug users and drifters, he explains. Some of them have moved from one communal group to another It seems that the more down arid, out we a before coming to the church, the more filled with the spirit me becomes after joining "We know what the world a like," he says ominously. "We've seen it an."

The message found in the churches publications is a collage of opposition to modern fife. The church finds evil in technology, feminism city life and other organized religions. One article in the Island Pond Freepaper suggests that the Jonestown massacre was not a maw suicide led by a religious fanatic but a murder carried out by opponents of non traditional religious movements. Another piece in the paper attacks Wall: Disney for :liberating the susceptible imaginations of children and training diem to substitute the unreal for The real, preparing them to explore in realty the innermost recesses of their own personal fantasies."

The secular world, with it drugs, mass media, materialism and discord, are beyond redemption, Smith explains. "And we don't wont to put Humpty Dumpty together again." Instead, church followers live apart from society, attempting to show others the path to salvation an the day the modem world ends. And that day; they believe is imminent

The groups financial base is built on the capital members donate when they sell their homes, empty bank accounts and sign on Once made the church, most members keep no personal funds, although some leaders mom to have access to money and some carry checkbooks in the pockets of their flannel shirts.

Life inside the church is strictly ordered by the elders and their bible oriented rule Members are dependent on the church and on elders decision for all their material needs. Elders can and do separate children from parent if they believe the children would do better in another house. Women are expected to be submissive to men, while rank and file male members follow the directives of the elders and leader Spriggs. Some marriages are arranged, elders decide which families live together in which houses, and how their children will be educated

Information, about the outside world and the group is limited. Only certain, members of the church are allowed to read newspapers and magazines, to watch TV or ham to the radio. "Not everyone can handle such information" says Smith.