Court action planned against cult member

Boston Globe / August 31, 2000
By Jacob H. Fries

Attleboro - Angry and frustrated, Bristol County's chief prosecutor planned to return to court today after a pregnant cult member suspected of covering up the death of her last baby refused to talk about her medical condition with a court-appointed nurse, calling medicine a false god.

Rebecca Corneau, who is 81/2 months pregnant, kept her courtroom vow and would not allow public health nurse Beth Collins into the sect's house yesterday. But she conceded to talk privately with Collins behind a screen of grapevines in the backyard.

However, during the 20-minute discussion, prosecutors said, Corneau would not answer questions about her health or the unborn baby. Instead, Corneau talked about her religious beliefs, and called modern medicine a false god, said Bristol District Attorney Paul F. Walsh.

''Rebecca did exactly what she said she would - she didn't answer a single question about her pregnancy or even say she was pregnant,'' Walsh said.

As a result, Walsh said he intends to force Corneau's hand by asking the court to put specific medical questions before Corneau. If she then refuses to answer, the prosecutor said, she can be held in contempt, taken into custody, and brought to a secure medical facility and monitored until the baby is born.

''It's an emergency situation,'' Walsh added. ''If there's any difficulty with the birth, the baby could just die like that and [the sect] wouldn't do anything.''

On Tuesday, Walsh petitioned to have Corneau committed to a hospital for the remainder of her pregnancy, but Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth P. Nasif instead assigned Collins to assess Corneau's medical condition and appointed a lawyer to represent the unborn child's interests in court.

Corneau, 32, who will not answer questions about the death of her son, Jeremiah, has been declared unfit to care for her other two children.

Officials from the state Department of Social Services, who do not have jurisdiction until the child is born, are expected to take custody of Corneau's baby.

Eight adult members of the fundamentalist Christian sect, including Corneau's husband, have been jailed for contempt for refusing to cooperate in the investigation of the deaths of Jeremiah Corneau and Samuel Robidoux, a baby who also died under mysterious circumstances. Authorities say they believe the children died from neglect and were buried in a state park in Maine, though three searches for the bodies have yielded nothing.

According to prosecutors, diaries kept by the sect members suggest that Jeremiah - who Corneau claims was stillborn - was born alive but probably died because his lungs were not properly aspirated, a routine procedure in hospital births. Samuel Robidoux allegedly starved to death after he stopped nursing.

John J. Rego, the court-appointed lawyer representing Corneau's unborn child, said daily visits by a nurse are not enough to protect the baby. In effect, Rego said, the daily visits only allow officials to determine when the child is born.

''There's more than a 23-hour period when she is unmonitored and the baby is at risk,'' Rego said.

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