“Denying father loses mother custody rights”
April 5, 2004
“Denying father loses mother custody rights”
Her cult beliefs a 'grave concern,' judge's ruling says
By Joseph Brean
A mother's refusal to let her children see their father has cost her custody of them, in a strange divorce case that pitted Christianity against a cult, and the religious rights of their children against those of their parents.
The children - a seven-year-old boy and five-year-old girl - are torn between their parents' faiths, but deserve the influence of both, a judge rules. They will therefore live with their father in Toronto, lest their London, Ont., mother spirit them away to the Texas headquarters of Yisrael Hawkins' apocalyptic House of Yahweh.
Madam Justice Mary Marshman was forced to balance custody between the father, whom she suspected of encouraging the children to hit their mother and attack her with knives, and the mother, whose cultish religion is so austere that her young son and daughter cannot share a bedroom for fear of incest.
The mother tried to add her own condition to the dispute, saying she would refuse custody if their 39-year-old father were granted even the most basic access.
"This is a very difficult decision," the judge wrote, before ultimately siding with the father.
Testimony from both sides struck her as unreliable. The children were raised mainly by their mother, and their father has been largely absent from their lives, once because he was deported to the Caribbean. The judge granted him custody, however, to ensure the children can see both parents.
She ignored the mother's request and granted her monthly visits, weekly telephone calls, plus two weeks in the summer and one each at Christmas and March Break.
"It will be up to [her] to determine whether or not she wishes to see the children," Judge Marshman wrote. The two met in 1991 at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Toronto, and they were married the next year. Neither could be reached for comment yesterday.
"The marriage was a disaster almost from the beginning," the judge wrote, peppered with separations that led to squabbling over how to share the children, who lived mainly with their mother.
Some time in 2000, she left Seventh Day Adventism and became involved with the House of Yahweh, a doomsday cult in Texas founded by a former policeman and rockabilly singer named Bill Hawkins. He now goes by Yisrael, and claims he will announce the second coming of Jesus Christ and then be murdered by Satan.
In the Texas county where he is building a "holy city" of trailers, Mr. Hawkins has amassed 3,000 followers, many hundreds of whom now go by the name "Hawkins." Divorce cases in the region regularly involve one parent trying to rescue a child from a cult member.
At her trial, the mother provided the court with a pamphlet of her beliefs, and followed Mr. Hawkins's teachings by not speaking the words "Jesus" or "God," whom she considers false idols or even the word "good," because it derives from "God." Instead, she spelled them out. She testified she keeps her children out of school for religious reasons for one week around Halloween, and nearly all of December. Teachers described them both as normal students, if slightly behind in academics.
At home, they were told sharing food with schoolmates is wrong, that touching someone else's property is the same as theft, and that arms and legs must always be covered by clothing. The daughter was forbidden from sitting on her father's lap, as this would be "immoral."
"The dogmatic nature of her religion causes me grace concerns," the judge wrote. "Although I am tempted to make an order preventing [her] from imposing her religious views on the children, I am not satisfied that there is sufficient evidence that the best interests of the children dictate such a requirement."
Early last winter, just before their trial, the mother offered to give up custody of her children and get out of their lives if her ex-husband would pay her $30,000, the judge said. When he refused, she dropped the price by half, saying she needed at least $15,000 for a new car. Again, he refused.
In discussing this context of this demand for payment, Judge Marshman suspected, although it was never proved, that the father had been encouraging his children to act out against their mother by pushing, hitting, kicking and biting her, or even to attack her with a knife. It got so bad by Jan. 4 that the mother call her former husband to take them away. They have lived with him ever since.