BERLIN (AP) — The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday upheld Germany’s decision to take away the children of families in a Christian sect to protect them from being disciplined by caning, agreeing the punishment constituted child abuse and authorities were left with no choice.
Bavarian authorities in 2013 raided the Twelve Tribes sect settlements near the towns of Deinigen and Woernitz and took 40 children, between ages 18 months and 17 years, into foster care after a hidden-camera media report showed the parents caning children as punishment.
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 institutionalized violence against minors” and that 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.”
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The case was brought by four families, from whom eight children were taken, who 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 German authorities’ “decisions 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” and that German authorities concluded “they had had no other option available to them to protect the children.”
The sect was founded by a Tennessee high school teacher in the 1970s and today is thought to have some 2,000 to 3,000 members worldwide.
The sect’s practices have run afoul of the law in the U.S. as well, including in 2000 in Connecticut where a couple belonging to the group pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and cruelty for disciplining their children with a 30-inch (76-centimeter) fiberglass rod.
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 sect.
The sect 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.
The group did not immediately answer an email seeking comment or post an update online.