Screwed Kenosha Style

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 their teachings.

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.

'That's torture'

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 again."

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 gone.

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 report states.

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 church services.

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 kid anymore.'"

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."


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