Child's Death Sheds Light on Biblical Disciplinary Teachings

Churches sanction beatings for children as young as infants.

November 07, 2011, 1:20 PM

Nov. 8, 2011 — -- When Melissa Fletcher was little her mother would dress up in a gray wig and horn-rim glasses, ring the doorbell and pretend she was "Myrtle" from the child protective services.

"Where did this bruise come from?" she would ask systematically."Myrtle," a United Airlines shift control manager and devout Christian, made it a game, quizzing and recording her five little ones, drilling them to say, "I fell" or "I bumped into something."

She didn't want authorities to find out about the two- to three-hour beating sessions that her husband carried out on his children in the name of God -- so-called "breaking the will of the child".

Her family were followers of Christian author Michael Pearl, who cites the Biblical maxim, "spare the rod and spoil the child." Today, he is at the center of controversy over corporal punishment that authorities say led to the deaths of three children.

In his book, "Training up a Child," Pearl, 66, advocates use of physical punishment or "switching" even in infancy. Pearl and his wife are founders of the fundamental ministry, "No Greater Joy," which posits, "spank and save a child." ABC's "20/20" first reported the link between child abuse cases and Pearl's book in April.

In May, the 11-year-old daughter of Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Woolley, Wash., died after they allegedly used Pearl's methodology, according to a reported The New York Times. The parents were charged with homicide by abuse Sept. 29 and have pled not guilty.

Hana, who with her brother had been adopted from Ethiopia, died from hyperthermia and malnutrition and was found face-down in her back yard, according to the report.

Police said Hana had often been whipped and was forced by her parents to sleep in the barn and to shower outside with a hose. They say that her parents had used a 15-inch plastic tube that is recommended by Pearl to discipline children.

That same year, 7-year-old Lydia Schatz of Paradise, Calif., was "whipped" to death with rubber tubing for mispronouncing a word during a homeschooling lesson. She died from severe tissue damage and her sister had to be hospitalized.

Her adoptive parents, Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, were reportedly following child training advice Pearl.

Lynn Paddock of Johnson County, S.C., was convicted in the first degree murder of her 4-year-old son, Sean, in 2006, and the teachings of Pearl came up in the trial.

The boy suffocated after being tightly wrapped in a blanket and his five other siblings testified they had been beaten daily with the same plastic tubing.

"It's a good spanking instrument," Pearl told the New York Times. "It's too light to cause damage to the muscle or the bone."

But Pearl told the newspaper that it's absurd to link his book to cases of abuse. "If you found a 12-step book in an alcoholic's house you wouldn't blame the book," he said.

Disciplinary measures like these, some with wooden rods and rubber whips, are practiced in many of the thousands of Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches around the country, according to experts familair with the church.

Submission and obedience -- children to parents, wives to husbands and parishioners to "God's people," pastors and deacons -- are the important tenets of Christian fundamentalism, according to Kathryn Joyce, author of "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

"These groups know what the outside world thinks of them and that some of it is considered abuse, but they consider it Biblical," said Joyce. "They consider it Biblical. But they think this is going against my world and my church, so they put with things."

Fletcher is now a 36-year-old mother and lives in Hawaii, but she is in therapy reserved for soldiers of war because of the ritualized trauma.

"My father found a great position," she said. "Most people bend over. I would lie on the bed on my stomach and he would put my face in the pillow so no one would hear me scream. Our hands were underneath our stomach."

Years later, when her father became pastor, he brought the rod and pillow in to demonstrate it to his parishioners.ABC's "20/20" called her father for comment last year, but he refused.

Fletcher's sister, Jocelyn Zichterman, was also abused. They two became activists, and their group,Freedom From Abuse, reaches out to other "survivors" who were indoctrinated into the faith and now want out.

One survivor, Tina Anderson, made headlines when she was raped and impregnated by fellow parishioner at Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, N.H., in 1997 when she was only 14.

Anderson was forced to confess to her pregnancy congregation and was then sent to live with another IFB family in Colorado where she was homeschooled, kept from other teens and eventually put her daughter for adoption.

Anderson's rapist, Ernest Willis, 51, was convicted earlier this year and is now in prison.

Fletcher said they she can never forget the Christian beatings. At its worse when she was 12, she was "swatted" for not properly vacuuming the "fuzzies" underneath the bedroom night stand. Her father chased her around a locked room with a belt, grabbing her hair and beating her endlessly.

"That night I remember looking at my bottom and not seeing any skin color or flesh at all," said Fletcher.

Sometimes the welts would break open and bleed, but her parents never took her to the doctor.

For years, Fletcher thought her upbringing was "normal," but after getting her first job in a hospital emergency room, she realized it was child abuse.

"We had always been told to forgive and forget and it was a real awakening," said Fletcher.

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