A German decision to remove children from a Christian cult was upheld this week by the European Court of Human Rights.
Forty children, according to this report, were removed from Twelve Tribes settlements near the towns of Deinigen and Woernitz to protect them from physical abuse. The court agreed canings meted out by cult members to children constituted child abuse and that the German authorities were left with no choice.
Bavarian authorities raided the settlements in 2013, and took away children aged between 18 months and 17 years. They were placed in foster care after a hidden-camera media report showed the parents caning children.
The sect did not deny using the cane, saying on its website at the time that:
When they are disobedient or intentionally hurtful to others we spank them with a small reed-like rod, which only inflicts pain and not damage.
It said they consider their children precious and wonderful and:
Because we love them we do spank them.
In its ruling, the Strasbourg court found the sect had employed:
A form of institutionalised violence against minors.
Even if social workers had stepped in
They could not have effectively protected the children, as corporally disciplining the children had been based on their unshakeable dogma.
The case was brought by four families, from whom eight children were taken. They argued Germany’s actions were a violation of European rules meant to ensure authorities’ respect for private and family life.
The court disagreed, however, saying that the action of the authorities:
Had been based on a risk of inhuman or degrading treatment, which is prohibited under absolute terms under the European Convention.
It noted that:
The parents had remained convinced during the proceedings that corporal punishment was acceptable.
The sect cult was founded by a former high school guidance counsellor and carnival showman Gene Spriggs in Tennessee in the 1970s and today is thought to have some 2,000 to 3,000 members worldwide.
In 1984, authorities raided the group in Vermont and removed 112 children on abuse allegations. A judge later ruled the raid illegal and returned the children to their parents.
Before the raids in Bavaria it had already had other confrontations with German authorities for violating laws on homeschooling their children.
In 2015 an elder of the sect was convicted in Germany of causing serious bodily injury for hitting children in his care with a 1.2-meter (four-foot) switch and sentenced to probation.
Since the raids some of the children taken had been returned to their families after growing old enough to be no longer at risk. German media have reported that other children have been returned to parents who have left the cult.
The cult has posted periodic updates online with photos of children they say have been “set free from captivity.”
The court did not say how many children remain in the care of the state.
After the raids, the German group said it had decided to relocate to the Czech Republic in an area west of Prague, and it was not immediately clear whether any of the families still live in Germany.
Twelve Tribes has a presence in the UK near Honiton in Devon. Its website says it has been running a “community” for nearly 15 years and has been:
Finding those who are not satisfied with their life, who know that the life they have been living is only vanity, and who long to be able to live a new, clean life, free from the corruption they see inside of them.
Its members consider the Old and New Testaments to be God’s direct word. The cult says it openly believes in “spanking” disobedient children to “drive out the Devil”. Its website insists:
We know that some people consider this aspect of our life controversial, but we have seen from experience that discipline keeps a child from becoming mean-spirited and disrespectful of authority.
The sect has also been accused of racism. The cult said in a statement:
Gene Spriggs has claimed Martin Luther King was:
Filled with every evil spirit there is.