Bernie Tocholke has quite the story to tell.
It has all the elements of a good drama— a cult, child abuse, being ripped away from his family.
But for Tocholke it isn’t just a story. He says it’s his life.
Tocholke, a logger by trade, is a native of Hinckley who lived in Wisconsin for several years. He moved back home to Minnesota with two of his sons, angry and ready to do battle with the church he and his family were members of for several years, which he now calls a cult. His ex-wife, Shereen, and his five youngest children still belong to the congregation.
As part of his public battle against the Church of God Restoration, Tocholke recently released a self-published book through AuthorHouse, entitled, “Torn Asunder: In the Jaws of a Cult.”
He hopes the book can help people in a way that he never was.
“Other people will have the chance to be warned,” he said. “We got sucked into it. The people were so helpful, so kind. We saw a few things that were kind of strange, but then as we went along, more and more rules were added. Then we were too far in, and my ex-wife was just hooked on it.”
The Church of God Restoration operates under the direction of Danny Layne, a self-admitted former drug addict who found God in the early 1980s. He split from a Church of God congregation in Oklahoma and formed his own group.
The church now operates in Canada, California, Ohio, Indiana, Mexico and Wisconsin. Tocholke estimates that there are 3,000-5,000 members of the church. The members often visit the different sites for get-togethers, known as camp meetings.
In 2001, Tocholke, his wife Shereen and their seven children moved to Kenosha, Wis. to become members of the Church of God Restoration. They had already been involved in the church while living in Spooner, Wis., but Tocholke said the family was directed by church officials to move to Kenosha, a move Tocholke had been hesitant about from the beginning.
Within two years, Tocholke became more and more suspicious of the church’s teachings— “the only One, True Church”— but he was more concerned with their practices. At the same time, he said his wife grew more and more involved with the church.
Tocholke said his Shereen was told to leave him because he was no longer a “Saint.” The church teaches that a person is either a “Saint” or “Ain’t.”
Shereen and the five youngest children moved in with the pastor and his wife, and eventually Tocholke filed for a divorce because he said she wouldn’t speak to him or let him see the children.
After a long— and still on-going— battle in court, Tocholke has removed himself from the church. But he says the emotional scars will stay with him permanently.
Tocholke claims in his book that the rules of the church— and there were lots of them— were not totally made clear until his family had made the move to Kenosha.
Rules such as no TV, no fairs or most other public events, no jewelry—including wedding rings, no alcohol, no U.S. flags, no crosses, no holiday celebrations, no fancy cars, no dancing, no dating, no bingo, no bowling, no ball games of any type, no clowns, no acting and no cartoon characters.
Tocholke said this list of rules is just the beginning.
He said marriages are arranged by a pastor, and even jobs are restricted by the church. Non-permissible jobs include policeman, political office, TV repairman, doctor, nurse, pharmacist, distant trucker, military, attorney or judge, stock market or any job in a restricted place such as a casino, restaurant or salon.
Men and boys are expected to wear long, dark pants, shirts to the wrist with the collar button shut and a vest. No jeans, tuxedos or ties are allowed.
Women and girls are expected to wear dresses to the ankle, sleeves to the wrists, a vest, hair never cut or trimmed and always in a bun, never any lace or the color red. Pajamas should have the same level of modesty.
Tocholke said these clothing restrictions were always in effect, even on the hottest days of the summer.
The Church of God Restoration has seen its share of controversy, including allegations of child abuse and the use of “divine healing” instead of traditional medical treatment.
In 2001, seven children were removed from a Church of God Restoration home in Aylmer, Ontario by welfare officials who alleged that the children were being beaten.
According to the March 3, 2002 edition of The Canadian Press, the children were returned about three weeks later after their parents agreed, on an interim basis, to refrain from physical discipline and to seek medical care when necessary.
In Tocholke’s book, he describes a time when he held his five-year-old son down for at least two hours while his wife allegedly spanked him with a stick between 300-500 times. He said he had never seen such a bruising in his life.
Tocholke said from that point on, he was convinced that the church’s teachings, especially on discipline, were wrong.
“The cult taught that the parent must break the will of the child,” Tocholke wrote. “If they don’t break the child’s strong will when they are young, the child will be of no use later. When a child breaks or violates a rule, there is a discipline that the child must willfully submit to. They must on their own bend over the bed, chair or sofa to receive their designated swats. Any wrestling and swatting prior to that is extra punishment for their violation.”
David, Tocholke’s second oldest son, a soft-spoken young man who will be 21 in February, said after leaving the congregation at age 16, he realized that something wasn’t right.
“It didn’t seem like it was abuse when we were in the group, but then after we got out and looked back at it, it was like, ‘yeah, that was child abuse,’” he said. “There was too much black and blue and for the smallest things too.”
Phone calls and e-mails from the Pine City Pioneer to the Church of God Restoration for a response to Tocholke’s allegations were not returned.
A new chapter
David said he talks to his mother, brothers and sisters often. He said although his relationship with them is pretty good, his mother constantly tells him that they are praying for him and his brother.
“I still believe in God and stuff, but that group is way too strict,” he said.
As for Tocholke, he hasn’t seen five of his children since June. Although that has been hard on him, he is doing what he can to get through it, and getting his book published recently has helped.
“My family has been destroyed, so I can’t do much about that anymore,” Tocholke said. “I pity the ones that are naive and just slowly slide into it.”
• Tocholke’s book is available at authorhouse.com by searching Tocholke’s name.