Father acquitted of child abuse

Defense attorney James Galen, left, listens as Anthony Whitehorn answers questions following his acquittal of a child abuse charge in Clinton Township 41B District Court. Macomb Daily staff photo by Craig Gaffield.

By Frank DeFrank
Macomb Daily Staff Writer

For more than six months, allegations that he was a child beater hung over Anthony Whitehorn's head.

This week, a district court jury removed that burden.

Whitehorn, 52, a Mount Clemens resident and pastor of Bethel -- The House of God church he started, was acquitted Thursday of a fourth-degree child abuse charge after a three-day trial in 41B District Court in Clinton Township.

"I've heard of this type of incident happening to people," Whitehorn said. "I never thought I'd be a victim of it."

Whitehorn was accused of abusing his own son while the boy was in his custody. The pastor and his ex-wife share legal custody of the boy. Whitehorn said the incident that led to charges against him stemmed from an ongoing struggle with his son over school grades.

Whitehorn admitted to authorities and to the jury he administered corporal punishment to the then 12-year-old -- he whipped the boy on the buttocks with a belt -- but only after the father's other efforts to discipline his son failed.

"He wasn't a kid who would get corporal punishment (regularly)," Whitehorn said. "Corporal punishment for me was a last resort."

When authorities informed him earlier this year he would face criminal charges, Whitehorn said he was "devastated." For 249 days, he said, he lived with the fear that legally he could be considered a criminal for what he believed was administering parental discipline.

Even more painful: While the case was pending, he wasn't allowed to see his son, he said.

"It hasn't been the normal course of ... enjoying daily activities," he said.

Michael Servitto, the Macomb County assistant prosecutor who tried the case, said Michigan law does not forbid parents from using physical force to discipline their children. Nor does it preclude the use of a belt. The force must be "reasonable," Servitto said.

In this case, charges were brought because Whitehorn appeared to cross the legal line, Servitto said. The boy made allegations that Whitehorn "lashed" his son 15 or 20 times, Servitto said.

"(But) that's why we have a jury of peers," Servitto said. "(Jurors had to decide): Was that discipline excessive?"

James Galen, Whitehorn's attorney, said his client should not have been charged. The five women and one man who made up the jury understood the difference between child abuse and parenting.

"They all felt it was reasonable discipline," Galen said.

Galen also said Whitehorn rejected any plea bargain offers, preferring to tell his story to the jury.

"He wanted people to know he's not an abusive parent," Galen said.

Now exonerated, Whitehorn said he looks most forward to reuniting with his son and "rebuilding what we lost" over the past six months. He also said he'd like to find a way to help other parents and their children who get caught up in similar situations.

"I need to be a voice, even in this community," he said.