Members of a small Wisconsin church took the "spare the rod, spoil the child" philosophy way too far, authorities say. Now they face child-abuse allegations for using actual wooden rods, dowels and spoons on the bare buttocks of children as young as 2 months old.

The head pastor of Aleitheia Bible Church, his brother and three sets of parents who are members of the congregation in Black Earth were charged after former church members told authorities that children were being mistreated.

The case involves 12 children ranging in age from infancy to 6 years old who got spankings for behavior such as being emotional, grumpy or crying, according to a criminal complaint. The parents defended their actions and said the spankings left just redness and bruising.

"It was our decision ... along with the district attorney's office, that it went beyond reasonable discipline and would be something most people would consider excessive," said Dane County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Elise Schaffer.

Six church members appeared Thursday in Dane County Circuit Court in Madison and pleaded not guilty to being a party to intentional abuse of their children and causing bodily harm. They were booked and released, Schaffer said.

Head pastor Philip B. Caminiti, 53, and his brother, John R. Caminiti, 45, were charged with at least a dozen counts of child abuse last week. The brothers are accused of using the wooden instruments to spank children in their families. They also pleaded not guilty and were released.

Philip Caminiti faces up to six years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

The children remain in their homes, and the families are working with social workers, Schaffer said.

The parents include two of Philip Caminiti's children and their spouses: Matthew Caminiti, 27, and his wife, Alina, 24; and Maria J. Stephenson, 29, and her husband, Timothy, 28. Also charged are Andrea L. Wick, 26, and Timothy J. Wick, 27.

Attorney Jeffrey W. Nichols, who represents Alina Caminiti, said his client is a "caring mother who loves her children. I believe it is important to note that the children have never been removed from her or her husband's care despite these allegations and despite some unfair characterizations of her."

Attorneys for the others charged declined to respond or could not be reached for comment.

The church was formed in 2006 when some members of the Curtis Street Bible Fellowship broke away to start their own church. Philip Caminiti held worship services and meetings at his and other members' homes.

'Pain is a good way to teach'

Authorities began to investigate the church in November, according to the complaint. Authorities say Philip expressed his belief the Bible dictates the use of a rod to punish children. He stated children only a few months old are "worthy" of the rod and that by 1 1/2 months, a child is old enough to be spanked.

According to church members, Philip would instruct parents on how to use rods to spank children's buttocks. He stated he "likes the immediacy of spanking" and "pain is a good way to teach children." The complaint also states Philip said: "If you spank early and it is done right, then kids will be happy and obedient."

Punishments would often occur during worship services when children would start crying or fail to sit still. Former church member Merry Hahn told authorities, "Phil was very strict about children being quiet during church," the complaint states.

The parent "was told to hold the baby tight and say, 'No' very loudly close to the ear. If the baby did not quiet down, the parent removed the child to a bedroom, which was usually close enough to the living room where you could hear the dowel hitting the baby."

Alex Jassen, a University of Minnesota religious studies professor, said he is unaware of similar cases involving churches, but said it's not uncommon for some Christian parents to use corporal punishment. They often cite verses in the Book of Proverbs that state: "He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently."

Some groups take a more fundamentalist approach and believe it's appropriate to literally use a rod. Yet the Bible, or religious beliefs in general, can't be used to defend instances of child abuse, he said.

"This is one of those debates among parents: Do you spank or do you not spank? Well, what does the Bible say? ... Like with anything, there are grades of application. There are some who see this as part of a bygone era and take out of Proverbs that a parent should discipline their child.

"Then there are some who take it to the other extreme, that whenever that child sasses to their parents, out comes the wooden rod."

Rose French • 612-673-4352