Aylmer, Ont. - Two former members of a Southern Ontario church at the center of a controversy over spanking have been arrested in California and charged in the death of their 11-month-old baby. Rick and Agnes Wiebe, former Aylmer residents and members of the Church of God, have been charged with involuntary man-slaughter and willful cruelty to a child.
Police in San Bernardino, Calif., said the Wiebes, who left Aylmer about six years ago, were charged after they failed to seek medical treatment for their daughter, Julia, who died on July 6 from meningitis. Medical authorities have concluded the child's illness was easily curable. In Aylmer, stunned residents questioned if there was a connection between the death and church doctrine.
"If it's evident the church practices are dangerous to children, I'm very concerned," said John Vandermeersch, a local councillor. "We believe in divine healing ... but no member [of the church] would ever be forced not to seek proper treatment," said Henry Hildebrant, the pastor of the Aylmer Church of God.
When Julia Wiebe fell ill the first week of July, her parents asked fellow believers in Aylmer and elsewhere to pray for her, relatives have said. The infant's death was not the first time her parents drew the attention of the city's medical authorities.
A few years earlier, Ms. Wiebe, just days away from giving birth, refused to go to a doctor when her fetus stopped moving. The baby was stillborn. Church leader Danny Layne has defended her decision. "I respect the faith of that family," he said last month.
Last July, police and child-welfare workers removed seven children from a home in Aylmer after their parents refused to promise not to spank them with a paddle.
Church of God members follow the strict teachings of the Bible, which they say commands them to use an object-a rod, stick, paddle or wooden spoon-to discipline their children.