An Ontario pastor who finds himself at the centre of a national controversy over the spanking of children says he was not the source of illegal photographs that appeared on the Internet.
"No sir, it wasn't me," said Rev. Henry Hildebrandt, who has been charged under the Child and Family Services Act after photographs of children seized by child-welfare officials appeared on a Christian-based Web site.
It is illegal to identify children who are part of a child-welfare proceeding.
Mr. Hildebrandt, who heads the Church of God in the small Ontario town of Aylmer, has played a key role in a continuing legal drama that has focused national attention on both his town and his church. It began on July 4, when child-welfare officials took away seven children from the home of a couple who belong to Mr. Hildebrandt's congregation.
The children were removed after the parents refused to promise they would not spank their children with a rod or strap. Like other members of Mr. Hildebrandt's congregation, the parents believe that corporal punishment is decreed by the Bible under Proverbs 13: "He that spareth the rod hateth his son."
The children, aged six to 14, have since been returned to their parents pending a Family Court hearing, but the debate about their case continues. The Christian Web site that carried the children's photographs has decried the children's removal as an unjustifiable intrusion by secular authorities.
"While homosexuals are gaining their 'rights' to spousal recognition and even to adopt children, and women are gaining their 'right' to murder their unborn, unwanted babies, it would seem that Christians are losing their right to obey the Word of God," said a recent posting on the Web site, which is operated from Chilliwack, B.C.
Aylmer Police Chief Bill Segui said the charge against Mr. Hildebrandt was laid after a member of the national media brought the Web site to the force's attention. He said the site included photographs of the children -- which were later altered to obscure their faces -- as well as information about the case that could identify them.
"We are alleging that the information was put up by Henry Hildebrandt," Chief Segui said.
He also said that police have investigated the children's parents, and have presented a brief to the Crown attorney for further guidance as to whether assault charges should be laid against them for disciplining their children.
Mr. Hildebrandt said he has given little thought to the charge laid against him for his alleged role in publishing the children's photos.
"Perhaps someone believes they had to go through the paperwork -- that this was what they were supposed to do. I can respect that, even if I believe that they are wrong . . .. My main concern has been getting these children back to their parents. That has been my focus."
Mr. Hildebrandt says 25 mothers who belong to his church have fled to the United States with their children because of the situation in Aylmer. "They are afraid. They believe that officials may come to take away their children any time of the day or night."
"I believe that this case is doing what it's supposed to do -- it's awakening us to the power and authority of an agency. They were able to take children away from a family that loves them and cares for them. Their power concerns me."
Mr. Hildebrandt maintains that spanking is an essential component of parenting.