Can a woman who has been reincarnated three times be a good mother?
This question was one of many that came up as Circuit Court Judge George W. Bowling weighed three days of evidence and testimony. He listened to the tape recording of a seance tracing the woman's "life path" back 2,000 years. He heard testimony about the white and black candles she kept, the astrology classes she took. In the end, Judge Bowling awarded custody yesterday to two young boys to their 30-year-old father, Gregory Torney, who is a home builder here.
The issue arose in a bizarre custody suit in this rural county seat about 35 miles south of Washington involving Matthew Torney, who is 11 months old and Andrew Torney, 18 months.Torney claimed that his wife, Susan, was an unfit mother because she was "unstable" and relied heavily on the occult. He said she planned the daily lives of the babies after consulting astrology charts.
Susan Torney, 28, denied his charges, saying her husband wanted to take the children away because she had left him.
Considerable testimony in the trial, however, revolved around Mrs. Torney's alleged affinity for the occult. SHe testified tha she paid $50 for a 45-minute session in which she learned about earlier incarnations - first as a Jewish woman who bore two children 2,000 years ago, than as a medieval nun, and finally as an 18th century sea captain.
As the sea captain, she was told, she had been married to a woman who had been reincarnated as her present boyfriend. The 18th century sea captain and his wife had lived together for only ten years, the psychic said according to the tape. Mrs. Torney was, therefore, directed to leave her husband for her boyfriend, and to leave her children with her husband for six months while she and her reincarnated "spouse" renewed their acquaintance.
Mrs. Torney testified during the three day hearing last month that she went to the medium out of curiosity and dismissed the advice she received there as "ridiculous."
Her husband's lawyer introduced evidence, that she did, in fact, follow the seer's counsel, leaving her husband within days of the May 18, 1977, midday seance while, at the same time, leaving her children with him until the fall.
Introduced into evidence were an astrological "natal" chart prepared for one-year old Matthew Torney by Mrs. Torney's boyfriend, Mark Jeffrey Buckingham, a musician and construction worker who described himself in a deposition as vice president of The Center of Light in Marbury, Md.
Also introduced was a list of things Mrs. Torney had written down to do, at the medium's direction. These included obtaining and wearing around her neck a "Jewish star of David," which she did, according to testimony. She was further instructed to purchase one white candle for "strength, courage and spiritual awareness" and one black candle, to be burned "only at periods of great stress." The two candles were later found in a closet of Mrs. Torney's home, according to the testimony of the babysitter.
The final notation on the list said, "In fall, begin an astrological course," Mrs. Torney did this during the summer, according to evidence presented during the three-day hearing.
"It is quite evident that Susan Torney has patterned her life after the advice she received from the seance," said the lawyer for her husband, in closing arguments.
Susan Torney and her lawyer avoided discussion of her occult activities in making their case for custody of the children. Instead, they charged the husband with infidelity, physical and mental cruelty and a late-blooming vendetta against his wife that developed when he failed to woo her back with the promise of a new boat and car.
The suit shaped up almost as a cultural battle in written closing arguments by the attorneys for the couple. The two children were presently living with her father "in an excellent home ina rural setting . . . a good place to grow up," the father's lawyer wrote.
Mrs. Torney and her boyfriend, while they had the children, however, "did interesting and educational things, such as attend zoos and museums," according to the mother's lawyer.
Susan Torney's seance was suggested and arranged, according to a deposition, by another member of Buckingham's Center of Life Church, a mother of six children whose regular activities include the PTA, the Booster's Club and the Clinton Astrological Association.
In another deposition, Buckingham defended his church, which he said had about 10 members and included astrology among its beliefs.
Gregory Torney, in his deposition, said that in his custody the two young boys "will be brought up in a regular type of Christian religion and then allowed to go in whatever direction they want." He characterized his wife's beliefs as "Buddhism and Zionism and probably every other type of non-Christian religion mixed in."
What part religion - or mysticism - played in the judge's decision, if any, was unclear from his brief, two-page order that simply cited "all the testimony that has been made available" in awarding custody to the father.
Susan Torney could not be reached yesterday. Her father, Lloyd . Schermerhorn, of Hillcrest Heights, said he was "disappointed, naturally," over the decision. He added that "I don't think she really believes in reincarnation."
Astrology, he said, was "somewhat of a hobby with her . . . She's going to a Unitarian Church now in Temple Hills."