Photo by Dave Chidley / CP Photo
As a former Children's Aid Society social worker, I sadly learned that the unimaginable can horrifyingly be real.
I also learned that while poverty, alcohol dependency and drug addiction can have a huge impact on child welfare, religious zealotry can never be ignored.
Lev Tahor, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect believed by Quebec child welfare authorities to have been mistreating its children, tests me as a modern Canadian Jew as well.
Surely these folk have the right to practise their faith, no matter how extreme we find it; yet where is the intersection between extremist faith practice and what society should tolerate?
Known as the "Jewish Taliban," Lev Tahor translates from the Hebrew as "Pure Heart." But mind-boggling allegations of child abuse, child marriage, neglect and forced drug use to control behaviours led a Quebec court to order the apprehension of 14 children.
Former members of the group further allege that religious leaders drove followers to spy on one another. CBC's The Fifth Estate interviewed Adam Brudzwesky, ex-spouse of the daughter of one of the sect's leaders. He claims he was ordered to beat children with a wire hanger in the community school at which he worked for almost two years.
Lev Tahor has denied all these allegations, but the reports nonetheless add up to a litany of horrors that were investigated.
Last year, the 40 families making up the group moved from Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, to Chatham in southwestern Ontario, where they believed they would be safe from Quebec court orders.
Child protection workers quickly descended on Lev Tahor. They were given a 30-day reprieve to appeal the Quebec order, but as they had in Quebec, they illegally fled, this time to Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago. Last week, two Guatemalan judges ruled that Lev Tahor families were no longer required to check in with the Canadian Embassy and that the children could live with their parents pending court documents from Canada. Complicated legalities are still being processed.
However, when it comes to the protection of children there are no real borders. Society's responsibility is to defend the defenceless. The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction makes this clear.
This applies as much to alcohol-addicted child abusers as it does to religious fanatics. We must always err on the side of the innocent and offer communal protection if need be. Legal experts agree that authorities could use the Hague agreement to bring the children back to Canada.
Legitimate Jewish organizations abhor the practices of Lev Tahor. In Israel, where the cult-like group originated under the spell of leader and convicted kidnapper Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, Lev Tahor is being investigated for allegations similar to those made in Canada.
It's revealing that almost every time authorities begin investigating the sect's practices, they steal away in the dead of night.
Vaad Hoaskanim, Rabbinical Council of New York, an organization representing the Orthodox Jewish community, released a statement about Lev Tahor earlier this year that reads in part: "We have confirmed that all their behaviours are repulsive, and are clearly against the ways and the teaching of the Torah, and the teaching and guidance of our great rabbis and forefathers. The families, especially the young children, are in a horrifying situation."
Here in Canada, Frank Dimant of B'nai Brith also issued a strongly worded condemnation: "This group exhibits cult-like behaviour and is nothing more than a perversion of Judaism. What we have here is a sad example of a leader who influences and persuades others to commit vulgar acts. No strand within the normative Jewish community, from traditional to ultra-Orthodox, would look upon this group with favour."
In the end, the courts will decide what's in the best interests of the children. However, for me the signs are telling.
Extremist cults and sects, no matter their faith, have a sad history of child exploitation.
I recall a case in Ottawa back in my days as a CAS worker in the 1980s involving a Jehovah Witness baby who desperately required a blood transfusion.
The parents refused the procedure due to their religious beliefs. A family court hearing was convened at the hospital, the child was taken temporarily into care in order to save its life. I never doubted for a moment that the parents deeply loved their child.
I also never doubted that they would have let their child die to satisfy the demands of their faith.
Bernie M. Farber is a writer and human rights advocate and former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
Editor's note on breaking news: Chatham CAS says the Canada Border Services Agency arrested seven members of the Lev Tahor sect April 2. An earlier version of this story wrongly attributed a statement on Lev Tahor to the Rabbinical Council of America.