Christ's Household of Faith acts like a deadbeat dad

The St. Paul church has fought for 20 years to avoid paying for a former member's kids

"Yeah, I suppose that's true," says Alsbury with a chuckle. "But we'll also stop it for other things. Like last week we ended early for a women's night. Now, be sure to know we don't do it all the time. Only, say for instance, like this weekend with the Eagles/Vikings playoff game."

Football policy aside, Patricia found it particularly disturbing to watch other members administer corporal punishment to her children. She recalls a moment when her son John was working on the church's farm in Hugo. The boy picked up a cherry tomato and chucked it at another kid. A male supervisor caught him in the act. "He took John away from the others and began to beat on him, slamming his head against a steel pole," says Patricia. "And when I tried to stop the man from hurting my son he told me not to interfere with discipline and pushed me out of the way."

Christ's Household members responded to the allegation in disbelief: "You need to understand that Pat has a problem with veracity," says Alsbury.

Patricia had had enough of Christ's Household. She was tired of living on a rung lower than the men, tired of having babies. She and Michael had already had 10 children together, and Christ's Household doesn't believe in birth control.

"I just couldn't have another," she says.

In 1987, Patricia left Christ's Household. She filed for divorce and received custody of four of her children.

The next year, a Ramsey County judge ordered Michael to pay child support and spousal maintenance: $650 and $250 per month respectively. The court estimated that Michael's work for Christ's Household was worth $24,000 a year.

But Michael wasn't able to pay. Christ's Household paid him a stipend of only about $6.50 every other week. So over the next several years, payments to Patricia came in sporadically, a result of Michael taking a part-time job as a pizza-delivery driver and some "benevolence" given out by Christ's Household for care of the children.

In September 1990, under the direction of its lawyer, Christ's Household began to pay the county $105 a month for support. But by the end of the year, Christ's Household discovered it could be held in contempt for not paying Michael's full obligation required by the state, so it discontinued the payments.

In January 1991, a Ramsey County referee summoned Pastor Donald Alsbury and three other community elders to appear before the court. In his decision, the referee gave an ultimatum to the members:

"There are four minor children here who are going to receive their child support, and there is a Petitioner here who is going to receive her spousal maintenance, and if it's not paid, then we are going to come back to court later in the spring on the issue of contempt, and it's going to get more expensive for Christ's Household of Faith; and there are two, maybe three, maybe four men in this courtroom who are going to spend a good portion of the summer in the Ramsey County Workhouse if these children do not get their support and that's the firm Order of this Court."

Christ's Household chose to fight.

And now, after three rounds of appeals, two rejections from the Minnesota Supreme Court, one from the U.S. Supreme Court, and close to $729,000 in legal fees, Christ's Household and Michael Rooney are still battling the state over its insistence that the father and his church must pay to support his children and ex-wife.

     

LAST MONTH, Patricia sat down for brunch at the local Perkins in Cam-bridge. Once a town known for itspotato factory, it's now a hub for big-box retail stores. Its history as a place of Swedish ancestry is evident from the inhabitants inside the restaurant. Blond-haired men with lineman-sized bodies squeeze into the booths.

Patricia has a thin build and talks only when she can't avoid it, often struggling to remember exact dates. Alongside Patricia is her son John, a wide-shouldered man in his late 30s with a set of safety glasses perched atop his hat, and her brother-in-law Bob Skawski, wearing a flannel shirt and owning a hearty appetite. Both men have callused hands from years spent inside the machinist's shop. Sitting across the table is their attorney, Joseph Schmidt.

They begin to talk about the court case with disgust. "It's pretty simple," says Skawski. "You have kids. You better take care of them. And if you don't then you better pay for their well being. That's the law. Plain and simple."

Without the spousal support, Patricia worked two jobs at the machinist's shop to survive. At 5 p.m. or so she'd leave the office and clean the shop. "Those were my jobs," she says. "They kept me busy, working 50 to 70 hours a week."

When they get to discussing the actual court case, the details get shaky. They begin to stumble through the 20-year history. Several times Bob interrupts the conversation to make sure they're all talking about the same court appearance.

Their court saga started when Ramsey County issued the ultimatum for payment back in 1991. By the following winter, after three separate judgments, the Minnesota Court of Appeals granted an evidentiary hearing to determine what exactly the church owed to Patricia and the children. This hearing wouldn't be held until 2002, 11 years after the order.

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