A few years ago, Lynn Paddock sought Christian advice on how to discipline her growing brood of adopted children.
Paddock -- a Johnston County mother accused of murdering Sean, her 4-year-old adopted son, and beating two other adopted children -- surfed the Internet, said her attorney, Michael Reece. She found literature by an evangelical minister and his wife who recommended using plumbing supply lines to spank misbehaving children.
Paddock ordered Michael and Debi Pearl's books and started spanking her adopted children as suggested. After Sean, the youngest of Paddock's six adopted children, died last month, his older sister and brother told investigators about Paddock's spankings.
Sean's 9-year-old brother was beaten so badly he limped, a prosecutor said. Bruises marred Sean's backside, too, doctors found.
Sean died after being wrapped so tightly in blankets he suffocated. That, too, was a form of punishment, Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said.
The Pearls' advice from their Web site: A swift whack with the plastic tubing would sting but not bruise. Give 10 licks at a time, more if the child resists. Be careful about using it in front of others -- even at church; nosy neighbors might call social workers. Save hands for nurturing, not disciplining. Heed the warning, taken from Proverbs in the Old Testament, that sparing the rod will spoil the child.
Paddock and other moms in her rural Baptist church chatted about the Pearls' strategies for rearing obedient children, Reece said.
"I think she was trying to do the right thing by her children," he said.
Paddock, 45, faces a possible lifetime behind bars or execution if convicted of causing Sean's death.
Paddock seems to have carefully followed the Pearls' teachings. Investigators found 2-foot lengths of plumbing supply line in several rooms of her remote farmhouse.
The Pearls offer shopping advice on their Web site, www.nogreaterjoy.org: "You can buy them for under $1.00 at Home Depot or any hardware store. They come cheaper by the dozen and can be widely distributed in every room and vehicle. Just the high profile of their accessibility will keep the kids in line."
The Pearls' first book, "To Train Up a Child," has sold more than 400,000 copies since it was published in 1994, according to Mel Cohen, general manager of the Pearls' business, No Greater Joy Ministries. After the book came out, so many readers wrote in with questions that the Pearls started a newsletter. Every two months, Cohen said, the Pleasantville, Tenn.-based ministry mails more than 60,000 newsletters to parents around the world.
The Pearls declined to be interviewed. "They feel the material speaks for itself," Cohen said.
Christian evangelicals who, like the Pearls, teach the importance of corporal punishment have loyal followers. The results are tangible, said Dot Ehlers, executive director of a Smithfield nonprofit who teaches parenting skills to mothers and fathers referred to them by the Johnston County Department of Social Services. She said about a quarter of the 60 parents she instructs each week say their faith defends and encourages corporal punishment.
The Pearls' techniques helped Sandy Hicks, a mother in Texas who said she was desperate to restore peace in her home.
"Some people would rather spend an hour reasoning with a defiant 5-year-old instead of requiring the kid to behave and giving him a swat if he doesn't," said Hicks, who said she has used a peach-tree switch to spank her four children. "Some people are just queasy about swatting their kids."
The Pearls' teachings helped mobilize another group of Christian parents to speak out against such corporal punishment. The Web site Stoptherod.net rails against the Pearls' first book; the Web site's founders, Susan and Steve Lawrence of Virginia, say the book "reads like a child abuse manual." The Web site encourages parents to post critical reviews of the book on Amazon.com.
Some of the Pearls' defenders say you can't blame them for parents who take their advice to an unhealthy extreme.
Gena Suarez, publisher of a magazine for home-schooling parents that publishes advertisements for the Pearls' books, said their teachings are often inappropriately used to defend child abuse.
"[The Pearls] are talking about something that would fit in a purse," Suarez said. "The only way you can kill a child with that is by shoving it down his throat."
The Pearls acknowledge that discipline turns to abuse when the "child is broken in spirit, cowed and subdued ..."
The minister advises one mother on his Web site: "I always give myself one swat before I swat the child to remind myself how much force to exert. It stings the skin without bruising or damaging tissue. It's a real attention-getter."
(News researchers Susan Ebbs, Becky Ogburn and Lamara Williams-Hackett contributed to this report.)