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Philip Caminiti mug shot

Philip Caminiti, 54, of Black Earth, leader of the Aleitheia Bible Church, is charged with eight counts of conspiracy to commit child abuse for allegedly teaching church members how to discipline their young children by striking them with wood spoons or dowels on their bare bottoms.

A Black Earth pastor was found guilty Wednesday of eight counts of conspiracy to commit child abuse for advocating the use of wooden rods to spank children as young as two months.

A Dane County jury took only about two hours to find Philip Caminiti, 54, pastor of the Aleitheia Bible Church, guilty of having instructed members of his flock to punish children as young as infants and toddlers by striking them on the bare buttocks with wood dowels in order to teach them to behave correctly, fitting the church's literal interpretation of the Bible.

Caminiti looked ahead at Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi as she read the guilty verdicts, then smiled and hugged his lawyer, Yolanda Lehner, at the end of the brief hearing that closed a trial that started on March 12. He declined to comment on the verdicts afterward, as did Lehner. Several members of Caminiti's family wept in court as the verdicts were read.

Caminiti faces up to six years of combined prison and extended supervision on each count when he is sentenced in about two months by Sumi. In the meantime, he remains free on a signature bond but was ordered not to leave Dane County.

Assistant District Attorney Shelly Rusch, who prosecuted the case with Assistant District Attorney Greg Venker, said she was surprised that the jury deliberated for such a short time. She said she did not know what resonated most with the jury, though she speculated that the ages of the children involved in the case might have weighed on them.

The charges alleged that two of the children involved were just 2 months old when discipline was advocated by Caminiti. The oldest child was 5 when the practice was stopped after police intervened in November 2010.

Caminiti was not charged with having committed any abuse himself.

Instead, as leader of the church he told other parents, including his own adult children and his brother, how to discipline their children by striking them with wooden spoons and dowels. Using the rod, Caminiti told police, is mandated by the Bible and is intended to correct a child's behavior if they are exhibiting "selfish" crying.

But prosecutors said that the practice went beyond reasonable discipline.

"What we have here are babies and children trying to develop into individuals," Rusch told the jury in her closing argument, "and it's being beaten out of them."

She said Caminiti knew it was illegal, because he had advised his flock not to punish their children this way in public places because it might be seen as abuse.

"It is abuse," Rusch added.

But Lehner argued to jurors that there was no evidence of abuse, only "reasonable discipline" at the hands of parents who were doing as the Bible instructed.

"These children were loved," she said. "The whole idea of spanking was that they wanted them to grow up and be the kind of people to honor their God."

Caminiti, she said, did not instruct the parents to do what the Bible had already taught them, but "gave his opinion." It was not a conspiracy to talk about their religious beliefs.

"Phil never gave anyone orders," Lehner said. "He just talked to people and said what he thought."

Caminiti's brother, John Caminiti, pleaded guilty last year to causing mental harm to a child and two counts of child abuse and was sentenced to a year in prison and eight years of probation.

Also facing child abuse charges are Caminiti's son and daughter-in-law, Matt and Alina; his daughter and son-in-law Maria and Timothy Stephenson; and Timothy and Andrea Wick. Some of them testified under immunity agreements during Philip Caminiti's trial.

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