Man blames church teachings; pastor calls it a vendetta
A little more than three years ago. Bernie Tocholke left his northwestern
Wisconsin home and brought his wife and seven children south to Kenosha
to become part of a small congregation called the Church of God Restoration.
Already born-again Christians who home-schooled their children in rural
Stone Lake, the couple was attracted to the church's deeply conservative
philosophy and had decided to center their lives around its leaders and
But within two years the family had splintered amid divided loyalties
and allegations of abuse: The marriage had broken apart, the children
were scattered and Bernie Tocholke was left waging an angry public battle
against what he now calls a cult.
"I want other people warned because they are out there evangelizing." Tocholke
said. "I want other people warned about what they are all about."
It's a battle that the church's pastor, Patrick O'Shea, calls a vendetta.
But other former church members and visitors portray the Kenosha church
as controlling and having a troubling focus on the corporal punishment
of children. They report children as young as I being hit with dowels
for infractions such as squirming or falling asleep in church.
"You have to make your kids submit to you, because
if you don't they are going to go to hell," former member Crystal
Ertmer said she was taught by the church. "And you don't want them
to go to hell and burn for all eternity."
In Kenosha, the Church of God Restoration is a small congregation
that operates from a large brick church at 75th Street and 20th Avenue.
Outside, a sign announces the limes of weekly services, but, according
to former members, only a few core families attend.
For outsiders, the church members are notable for their
style of dress - conservative, plain clothing with long sleeves, dresses
and severe, pulled back hairstyles for the women.
The church has operated in the city quietly and largely without notice
since O'Shea and his family moved here from Illinois to start the congregation
eight years ago.
Focus of controversy
Across the nation and in Canada, the Church of God
Restoration has been the focus of controversy, including allegations
of extreme corporal punishment of children and a reliance on "divine healing" that
has led to the prosecution of parents whose children have died from
untreated medical conditions.
One of the most highly publicized incidents occurred in
2001 in Aylmer. Ontario, when seven children were removed from a Church
of God Restoration home by local children's welfare officials who suspected
that they were being beaten.
The children were later returned to their
family; which had agreed to be monitored by the child welfare agency.
But the incident sparked protests by church members and, according
to published reports, dozens of families affiliated with the church left
Canada with about 100 children. They reportedly resettled in Ohio and
Indiana, where laws on corporal punishment, as in Wisconsin, do not
ban striking children with objects.
At about the same time, a California couple who were members of the
church were charged with manslaughter when their 11-month-old daughter
died of meningitis after they declined to seek medical care.
O'Shea said that while his church is associated with those involved
in the controversies, he said his church does not have strict rules about
medical care and that members are able to go to doctors if they, choose.
Several former members agreed, saying they were discouraged from seeking
medical care, but that it was not banned.
He also argued that his church does not encourage
the use of sticks and other objects to punish children, saying he would
not allow that. "We
believe in spanking children; yes, we sure do," he said. "But
we do not believe in abusing children; we do not believe in leaving marks."
From drugs to God
The Church of God Restoration, including the congregation
in Kenosha, operates under the leadership of founder Danny Layne. Now
based in California, Layne is an acknowledged former drug addict who
reportedly found God in the early 1980s and became involved with the
Church of God in Guthrie, Okla. He later split with that church and formed
his own group.
His church now has branches in Canada, California, Ohio, Indiana and
Mexico as well as Kenosha, with members gathering regularly for camp
meetings at the different sites. Estimates of the church's worldwide
membership range from 500 to 1,500.
Tocholke said his family became involved with the
Church of God Restoration when O'Shea came to Stone Lake to visit the
family's church there. "They
came across as so nice, so helpful," he said.
When the family moved to Kenosha, they moved into the home of another
church member, and Tocholke, a logger in northern Wisconsin, found work
in the Kenosha area as a self-employed free trimmer. His wife, Shereen,
stayed home with their seven children, sharing home-schooling duties
with O'Shea's wife, Suzanne, who also has seven children.
After the move, Bernie Tocholke said, the church began to impose more
and more rules and more strict controls on members. There were clothing
restrictions. Watching television, listening to the radio and reading
newspapers were forbidden. Going to the doctor was discouraged.
According to Tocholke, even visits to family members outside
the church were subject to approval by church leaders.
Tocholke said he was not opposed to the corporal punishment of children,
something many faithful say is prescribed by biblical teachings. But
he contends the Church of God Restoration goes too far by teaching that
children must submit to punishment in prescribed ways that mandate the
spanking must continue if the child struggles.
After one incident, in which he says he held his then-5-year
old son while his wife hit the child repeatedly with a rod until he was
welted and black and blue, Bernie Tocholke said he became convinced the
church was wrong. -
"That's torture," he said. "The next
day I realized how cruel it was when I saw he was black and blue from
his waist to his knees ... and l said I will not abide by these rules
Tocholke said he began to increasingly go against
church dictates, although his wife remained convinced that the church
was "the most wholesome
thing there is."
The struggle between the couple and the church continued
until last April when Tocholke was working along with his two oldest
sons, then 14 and 15 years old. While at work, he received a call on
his cell phone from one of his daughters. "I don't know
what's happening," he said the girl told him, "but Mom is packing."
He said he and the two boys returned home to find the rest of the family
Eventually, Kenosha police located Shereen Tocholke and the children
at the O'Shea home. Bernie Tocholke said she would not speak to him or
allow him to see the children. Eventually he filed for divorce.
After the couple separated, Bernie Tocholke said his two oldest sons
told him that both Patrick and Suzanne O'Shea had struck them with paddles.
He reported the incident to police, who investigated but found there
was not enough evidence to substantiate charges.
In the divorce, Shereen Tocholke retained custody of the
five youngest children, while the two oldest boys stayed with Bernie
Tocholke and now live with his brother and attend public school in a
rural area north of Minneapolis. Bernie Tocholke, who has been threatened
with jail for failure to keep up with his child support payments, divides
his time between Kenosha and his brother's home.
He has become obsessed with discrediting the church,
which he feels has "brainwashed" his wife and is dominating
his younger children.
Pastor defends church
Patrick O'Shea calls Bernie Tocholke's charges ridiculous,
contending that Tocholke is an abusive man who has paid little attention
to his children. O'Shea accuses Tocholke of vandalizing his house and
spreading lies about the church among the O'Sheas' neighbors.
O'Shea maintains the church, which he likens to the
Mennonites in philosophy, does not have any rules for its members. "I don't believe in rules," he
said. "If people want (to follow church teachings) they want it
and if they don't, they don't," he said.
O'Shea adamantly denied that the church encourages corporal
punishment of children, saying his family and other church members would
never strike children with objects.
"Never, never, never," O'Shea said. "If
I saw one of those (a stick being used on a child), I would cut it
up and throw it away."
But in a Kenosha police report made during the investigation of Tocholke's
child abuse accusations, Suzanne O'Shea admitted striking children with
sticks and even showed investigators the sticks the family used.
"We spoke with Sue O'Shea who admitted that they do spank children
with instruments other than a hand because of religious beliefs," the
Several former church members or visitors - in interviews
with the Kenosha News or in documents prepared for the Tocholkes' divorce
- stated that they had seen children being hit with dowels and "spanking sticks" during
In a document obtained by the Kenosha News, a Racine
pastor told a private investigator hired by Bernie Tocholke's former
attorney that he had "concerns
(about) physical discipline of very young children, from under a year
to 1 to 2 years of age. Subject explained he saw mothers sitting next
to their young children, and the mothers would be holding a 'stick' about
a foot long and a couple inches wide. When children would make a noise,
or not pay attention, the mothers would strike the young children."
In a similar document, another former church member
said she was "particularly
appalled at parents striking very small children falling asleep."
Book guides members
Former church member Crystal Ertmer said members
were instructed in such practices. A 190-page book called "Mommy, Daddy We Would See
Jesus!" that Ertmer said was given to her by the church outlines
such practices, even giving advice on what size dowel to use depending
on the age of the child.
In chapters "The Beauty of the Rod" and "Tough
but Tender" the
book advises that "babies under the age of 12 to 15 months" can
be trained to sit quietly in church by practicing at home, striking the
child with a rod every time he squirms or wiggles during a training session. "You
will be amazed at how well he behaves in church once you have trained
him in this way," the book says.
The book advises that such punishment must always be administered in
love, not anger, and gives standard parenting advice, including telling
parents they should hug their children every day.
In other areas of the book, the author advises what infractions deserve
application of the rod, including not lying quietly during diaper changes.
It also advises not to use such practices in public, saying it would
be seen as abusive.
Ertmer joined the church with her husband, Jason, in the late 1990s.
Along with their three young children, they were members for more than
two years. She said she tried to follow the church, but struggled with
the rules, which she said dictated that children had to submit to their
parents' authority or be spanked with a rod. She admitted she sometimes
beat the children until they were black and blue.
"We did it and we were wrong for doing it," Crystal Ertmer
said. "But we thought that if you get it into them now when they
are young .. if you train them young in the ways of the Lord, then they
will follow. I got to the point that I said, 'lam not doing this to my
After the couple left the church, their children attended public school.
When school officials saw bruising on one child, they notified child
welfare authorities. Jason Ertmer, who had a previous arrest for domestic
violence, was arrested on child abuse charges and spent six months in
jail last year.
Initially, he said he didn't believe he had done anything wrong. But
he said the time in jail, along with subsequent parenting and anger management
classes, has made him believe the discipline practices he and his wife
used were wrong.
"I've learned a lot in the past year," he said. "I've
learned what love really is, and it wasn't there. It wasn't in that church."