Father battles sect over custody of girl
Source: Boston Globe article archived by Factnet and Xenu directory
By Colin Nickerson
Globe STaff

    ISLAND POND, Vt. - lt's been a year
now since Juan Mattatall last saw his
youngest daughter, Lydia, 3 years old.

    He knows where she is:  Europe. And
he knows who she's with:  Gene Spriggs,
self-anointed "apostle" of a Vermont-
based fundamentalist Christian sect
called the Northeast Kingdom Communi-
ty Church, to which Mattatall belonged
for eight years.

    What he does not know is whether he
will ever see Lydia again.  Or, should he
find her, whether she would even recog-
nize him.  Since last April, when, accord-
ing to former members, her mother
"gave" her to Spriggs as a faith gesture,
the child has been taught to consider
Spriggs and his wife Marsha her parents.

    "She's been stolen from me.  She's be-
ing taught to call another man 'Papa,'"
Mattatall said in an interview last week.

    A Vermont judge awarded Mattatall
custody of his five children after an acri-
monious court battle last fall that pitted
the 41-year-old native of Chile against
not only his wife but the
entire membership of the church.
[A picture of a small girl has this title:  LYDIA MATTATAL, Taken to
Europe a year ago.]
    Mattatall was able to reclaim four of his children -- three girls
and a boy ranging in age from 8 years to 15 months -- last October,
just before they were to board a plane for Portugal with members of
the sect.  But Lydia had been taken across the Atlantic months
earlier, and the church has ignored a court order to return her.

    Custody battles are usually ugly, but the one between Mattatall
and a church that considers itself the only true expression of Christ
on earth has taken on ominous overtones.

    Shortly after the court ruling, Mattatall's former brothers and
sisters in Christ were told to pray for his death.  One elder of the
sect rose during a "body meeting" of baptized members and described a
dream in which Juan's throat was slit and his head lopped off.  The
elder suggested the gruesome vision must surely represent the will of
the Lord, according to a sect member who was present at the meeting.

    "Yes, I feel my life is in danger," said Mattatall, who spends
his days working and his nights trying to track Lydia's passage
through Europe.  [But] this is my child, the flesh of my flesh.  I
will not abandon her to them."    

    The child was reportedly spirited out of the country last April
by Spriggs, who is revered as a prophet by his followers.  Since
1980, he has spent much of his time overseas seeking to establish a
European branch of the church.

    In the last year, the only word of Lydia has come from another
little girl allegedly abducted by the sect in 1980 and found by her
family with help from the US State Department and the Roman Catholic
Church, last month in Spain.

    That child, Gabrielle Spring Howell, 7, bears scars on her legs
and buttocks that her mother, once a member of the church, claims
are the result of whippings administered by sect members.

    "These are sick and dangerous people who
would do this to a child in the name of Jesus,"
the mother, Deborah Heflin, 26, said in a tele-
phone interview from her home in Montgomery, Ala.

    A sect member denied children are abused,
saying, "We are raising our children to be righ-
teous in the eyes of the Lord."

              In Vermont since '78

    Spriggs and his followers came to Vermont
from Tennessee in 1978.  Since then, the sect
has grown to about 300 members who follow a
puritanical way of life, shunning contact with
outside society, except to preach the gospel, or
"good news" of Christ.

    In recent months, however, only bad news
has trickled out of the insular kingdom of Gene

    Former members tell of child abuse and the
use of mind control techniques and of the harsh
disciplining of adults as well as children.

    A believer accused of making advances to a
teenage girl, for instance, was told he must sac-
rifice his hand to atone. "The brother had his
arm laid out on the table and [an elder] had the
hatchet raised, all set to whack," but relented,
said a former follower who claimed to have wit-
nessed the incident. "The really disturbing
thing is, the [accused] brother was going to let
them do it.  He didn't once protest."

    Just as troublesome are accounts of severe
physical punishment meted out to children, in-
cluding infants, for even minor infractions,
such as wriggling at the supper table or talking
during prayers.  Former members insist that the
beatings go far beyond normal spankings, re-
calling instances when children were scourged
for hours with wooden rods.

    "Children are whipped harshly, bloodily and
often," said Arthur Fritog, a soft-spoken plumb-
er's apprentice who quit the sect in disgust
when instructed to pray for Mattatall's death.

    "I'd seen enough death in Vietnam," said
Fritog.  "I didn't want to do Satan's work in
Christ's name."

    Frittog said he was also deeply disturbed that
members of the communal sect were encour-
aged to discipline each others' children. "The
idea, I think, is to break down the family and
make everyone subservient to Spriggs and the

              Accused of "rebelliousness"

    Mattatall left the church last year after the elders accused him
of "rebelliousness" and sent him to the sect's house in Boston as
punishment.  He was told he could not live with his wife and children
in Vermont until he became more obedient.

    His wife, Cynthia, who now calls herself Hannah Newsong --
continues to live with the sect and regards Juan as possessed by
Satan.  Mattatall is caring for his other children.

    Despite a court order awarding Mattatall custody, the religious
group refused to return Lydia just as it has refused to return other
children to parents who depart the sect.

    And so Lydia remains in Europe, bouncing from country to
country with Spriggs.  He and a band of 26 German and American
followers known as the "Little Flock" are on a proselytizing mission
in Europe.
[A picture shows a woman giving a girl a gift.  The caption reads: 
Deborah Heflin gives her daughter, Spring, a gift after being reunited
with her following a three-year separation.  AP Photo]                                      AP PHOTO

The chlld's mother, Cynthia/Hannah, re-
cently told a Judge she did not know Lydia's ex-
act whereabouts and would not ask the church
elders to reveal it.  Mattatall's lawyer earlier this
month filed a motion seeking a contempt cita-
tion against Mrs. Mattatall.  A ruling is expected
this week.                                                                  i

    For another desperate parent, Deborah Hef-
lin, three years of uncertainty ended last                           ,
month when Spanish and US authorities de-,
scended on a tiny village in Granada province
and seized her 7-year old daughter, Gabrielle,
from the Little Flock.            

    Heflin said her estranged husband, James
Frank Howell, and members of the sect took the
girl from her grandmother's home in Alabama
three years ago.  Gabrielle was taken to Island
Pond and from there to Europe -- her passport
shows she was in Portugal, Denmark, West Ger-
many and France.

    "They were living In a filthy abandoned
schoolhouse," said Heflin, who joined the sect
while a student in Tennessee. "Her job was to
mind Lydia, cook, milk the goats and gather

    Gabrielle's rescuers were too
late to find Lydia:  Spriggs had al-
ready departed with the younger child.

    Heflin said she had called her
husband, who remains with the
church in lsland Pond, to demand
an explanation for Gabrielle's
scars.  "All he said was, Deborah,                     
why can't you look through the 
scars on her body and see what
God has done for her soul?"

    (Randolph Ryan of The Globe staff
also contributed to this report.)

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