The battle over faith healing

When prayer pre-empts medical care, prosecutors nationwide struggle to respect parents' freedoms while protecting children's lives

The Oregonian/November 28, 1998
By Mark Larabee

Over four decades the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City amassed one of the largest concentrations of faith-healing child deaths in the United States while district attorneys and the Legislature looked the other way.

But it was the Clackamas County district attorney's controversial decision this year not to prosecute the parents of an 11-year-old boy who died of untreated diabetes that pulled Oregon into a long-simmering national debate: At what point does a parent's right to exercise free religion conflict with the state's duty to protect every child's basic right to life?

Oregon is among 43 states that grant faith-healing parents sweeping immunities from prosecution on child neglect and abuse charges. It is one of only six states that grant immunity on religious grounds for manslaughter, homicide or murder by abuse.

Child advocates think Oregon's religious shield laws are some of the nation's worst. But the state's top prosecutors disagree on whether a change in the law is necessary. Two months before the 1999 Legislature convenes, no lawmaker has stepped forward to lead a review of the state's laws.

The Oregonian examined some of the most prominent battles in the United States to end child deaths among faith healers.

The groups fighting for more restrictive laws vary from state to state: Sometimes lawmakers spearhead the effort, sometimes child-advocate groups and sometimes prosecuting attorneys. In every state, however, the Christian Science Church has led lobbying efforts for religious exemptions. As a result, prosecuting faith-healing parents who refuse medical care for their ill children has more to do with the will of prosecutors and child advocates than it does the specifics of any state's laws.

  • Michigan has successfully prosecuted faith-healing parents for years. Although some of the state's laws are similar to Oregon's, there is one major difference -- Michigan has no religious shield for homicide.
  • Just across the state line in Indiana, where one of the nation's largest faith-healing churches was founded more than 30 years ago, district attorneys ignored dozens of child deaths for years before eventually bringing charges against two parents. But a strong lobbying effort by the Christian Science Church helped defeat efforts to eliminate Indiana laws that protect faith-healing practices.
  • In Massachusetts, home of the Christian Science Church, legislators won what many thought to be a politically impossible battle to limit religious immunities after hearing gruesome tales of painful child deaths.
  • In South Dakota, one woman led a grass-roots fight that resulted in the nation's first law eliminating religious immunity for faith-healing parents.
  • In Pennsylvania, despite laws that offer some immunities to faith-healing believers, prosecutors have won case after case against parents whose children died after being denied medical care. Prosecutors there frequently intervene in an attempt to save lives, as they did in the disturbing case of Patrick Foster.

In the Lord's hands

Just before Christmas 1996, 1-year-old Patrick Foster caught a bad cold. As the sniffling persisted week after week, Daniel and Anne Marie Foster did what they had always done when one of their three children got sick, they prayed the devil would be driven away.

But Patrick was not healed. As winter turned to spring, he became more lethargic and gaunt. It was March when Daniel and Anne Marie noticed the growth bulging from their son's left side.

As the growth swelled, the Fosters increased their prayers. Four times each week they attended services at Faith Tabernacle Congregation Church in north Philadelphia, asking their pastor to pray aloud for Patrick.

Regardless of how sick Patrick got, there would be no visit to a doctor. And no medical treatment, not even an aspirin. Members of Faith Tabernacle, like thousands of faith-healing Christians across the United States, trust that God, inspired by the prayers of true believers, will heal sickness and disease. To seek a doctor's care would be to turn their backs not only on their faith, but on God himself. Patrick was in the Lord's hands, Anne Marie Foster would tell police.

But one day in early May, the Fosters' private religious beliefs came crashing through the doors of the Philadelphia prosecutor's office.

A neighbor had seen the listless boy sitting on his father's lap on the front steps. Patrick's body was so wracked by the growth that had ballooned from his kidney and attached itself to his liver and heart, that he needed his father's help just to lift his head.

The neighbor called the child abuse hot line.

Twenty-four hours from death

Social worker Michael Bonetti first looked in on Patrick only hours after the neighbor's phone call. The Fosters reluctantly let Bonetti inside their well-kept two-story brownstone.

Daniel Foster carried Patrick downstairs and laid him face down on the sofa. The boy winced, then groaned.

The growth, which at 6 pounds was now almost a third of Patrick's weight, was hidden by the rust-colored blanket pulled up over his shoulders. A pinkish rash covered the boy's cheeks and hands. His left eye was swollen shut; his lips were cracked and white from dehydration.

Bonetti urged the Fosters to rush Patrick to a hospital. They refused. The following afternoon Bonetti returned with the police and a court order demanding that the Fosters release Patrick to a doctor's care.

At St. Christopher's Hospital, doctors said Patrick likely would have died in another 24 hours. The large mass growing from his abdomen was a Wilm's tumor, a common form of childhood cancer that 90 percent of patients survive if they receive prompt treatment.

Doctors removed the tumor but doubted Patrick would live. He spent six months in the hospital, his parents and extended family always at his side. The prayers were never-ending.

But the battle over what was best for Patrick Foster was just beginning.

Prosecution or persecution?

The Faith Tabernacle Congregation church in north Philadelphia is a handsome, turn-of-the-century brick building with a granite facade in a rough, graffiti-covered neighborhood. It hearkens back to the early part of the century when the city's working class lived in row after row of brownstones and worshipped in the neighborhood churches that dot many of the blocks.

Pastor Kenneth Yeager, a powerfully built man with a firm handshake, says he's never so much as taken an aspirin because his true faith in God has always helped him deal with pain and sickness.

On a Wednesday night, nearly 200 parishioners -- women and girls in their best dresses and men in dark suits -- make their way into the church. With a soothing voice, Yeager reads anonymous prayers from parishioners praying for healings and other personal needs.

"Brother gives a note of praise for a few days of vacation....

"Sister gives a note of praise for deliverance of swelling in her feet....

"Sister asks prayers for suitable employment...."

He also offers a general prayer that the authorities will stop prosecuting and "persecuting" members of the church who refuse medical attention for their sick children. He prays that the parish can "continue to lead a quiet and peaceable life."

The following Sunday, Yeager's sermon is like a road map to the religious doctrine of faith healing. "We know it's God's work to trust him with the healing of our body," Yeager said. "Man didn't make these bodies, God did. Sometimes we hinder God's ability to help us by using human efforts.

"By putting all your faith in God, every bit, you will be saved from the power and hold of Satan and be delivered to an eternal life."

Even after losing five children, Faith Tabernacle members Dawn and Roger Winterborne continue to believe that message of healing through faith. The children, all younger than 2, died between 1971 and 1980 of cystic fibrosis, which can be treated to prolong life, often for years. Their sixth child, a 4-day-old girl, died in 1982 of pneumonia.

The couple never was prosecuted for treating their children with prayers.

"We still practice the same thing," Dawn Winterborne said. "We still believe the same way.

"They were sick," she said of her children. "There was no medical cure for them. God could have cured them, but that's neither here nor there."

The "miracle baby"

The April edition of the medical journal Pediatrics includes a study that documents 172 faith-related child deaths in the United States between 1975 and 1995. The authors say that 140 of the children died from conditions for which survival rates with medical care exceeded 90 percent. The deaths are attributed to 23 religious denominations in 34 states. Twenty of the deaths were in the Faith Tabernacle congregation.

Until 1985 Pennsylvania rarely prosecuted faith healers. That year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a faith-healing couple whose son died of untreated cancer. Since then, prosecutors have routinely investigated complaints of abuse or deaths of Faith Tabernacle children and taken their parents to court, if necessary, to protect lives.

Now under court order, Patrick Foster has lived for the past year with his aunt and uncle, Diane and Tim Foster. The judge allows Patrick to spend four hours a day with his parents and two siblings. One day each week, Patrick is allowed to visit his parents for eight hours. He says he loves his parents and knows they love him.

Dan and Anne Foster are not bad people, says Dan's brother, Tim. "They're honest and loving. They believed they were doing what was best for Patrick."

But a jury convicted them of conspiracy and child neglect, both felonies. In September, a judge sentenced them to 14 years' probation and ordered regular medical treatments for their son.

The judge also ordered them to purchase health insurance for their three children, to buy a thermometer and to take classes at a local hospital on how to recognize childhood illnesses. And he warned them that if they ignore his orders, he will send them to jail.

"The criminal law is the way we draw lines for what is acceptable in our society," said lead prosecutor Mimi Rose. "We also want the non-faith-healing community to know that this is not OK."

That message is working, Rose said, citing two other anonymous phone calls that resulted in criminal cases against faith-healing parents.

The Fosters' attorney, Arthur Jarrett, said loving parents shouldn't be prosecuted for doing what they think is best for their children.

"It's not neglect if you actually believe it and you do what your religion says to do to get healed and you do it fervently," Jarrett said. "You can't prosecute religion away. It does not alter the religious practice. Outside of venting a public desire, it furthers no interest."

But to Mimi Rose, the prosecution is furthering the interest of Patrick, the one person in the case who cannot look out for himself.

Patrick's cancer recurred this summer, and his future is uncertain. He faces chemotherapy, radiation treatments and maybe a bone marrow transplant.

Still, he tires out any adult trying to keep up with him. "We call him the miracle baby," said his aunt, Diane.

Patrick's aunt and uncle are not convinced he will be safe if he goes home. During his criminal trial, Dan Foster testified he was against the medical treatment that saved his son because it was "not God's plan." He said he would rely again on prayers if presented with similar circumstances.

Diane and Tim Foster say they will share their fears with the family court judge next month and hope they will be granted continued supervision.

"I'm not saying he shouldn't see his parents," Diane Foster said as her nephew scooted his tricycle across the back patio. "But he should be safe first. This is not religious freedom. Believe what you want. But Patrick doesn't know God. He's 3 years old."

Deaths in Indiana

On most days, Elizabeth Leach makes the short journey past the lakes, cornfields and old houses along East Backwater Road to the country cemetery in North Webster, Ind., where she buried her daughter and grandchild. Her pilgrimage goes unnoticed by most in the comfortably quaint town west of Fort Wayne, where cardboard signs advertise nightcrawlers and a big attraction is fishing at dozens of well-stocked lakes.

Most people have long forgotten the heyday of the Faith Assembly Church in nearby Wilmot, a now-defunct congregation of about 2,000. But Leach will never forget how her 24-year-old daughter, Alice, bled to death during childbirth on July 2, 1976.

Alice Leach wasn't the first to die for believing in the doctrines taught by the Faith Assembly. Nor the last. More than 90 deaths in eight states -- a majority of which were children or mothers in childbirth -- were blamed on the faith-healing practices in that one church, according to child advocates and news reports.

Indiana includes some of the same immunities as Oregon law for faith-healing parents. But unlike Oregon, it does not include a religious shield for homicide. Indiana prosecutors eventually brought charges against one couple and the church's leader. Efforts to prosecute those two highly publicized cases, coupled with the leader's sudden death, discouraged faith-healing in Indiana. But Indiana legislators have chosen not to eliminate the religious immunities that make it difficult to prosecute faith-healing parents.

That angers Elizabeth Leach, because the same thing could happen today. She thinks back on warning signs she never acted on and wonders aloud what it would be like to have grandchildren.

Twenty-eight years later, Alice Leach comes alive in the fuzzy black and white photograph in her senior-class yearbook. She's smiling and wears a cross on a thin chain around her neck. Alice was in the pep club and participated in drama, art and music programs.

Shortly after graduating, Alice joined Faith Assembly, fell in love with another member, got married and became pregnant. She never had prenatal care and decided to have the baby at home without a doctor. During the birth Alice started hemorrhaging.

Members of Faith Assembly surrounded Alice as her life slipped away over two days. The women attending the birth prayed instead of calling for an ambulance -- even after Alice died. One, a registered nurse, later lost her state license over the incident.

"Those people thought they could pray her back to life," Leach said.

Public outcry

Faith Assembly's quick rise to popularity in the late 1970s is attributed to its charismatic leader, Hobart E. Freeman.

Freeman formed his evangelical ministry after being dismissed from Grace Seminary College in 1963 for his extreme beliefs.

The Faith Assembly attracted hundreds of young families, college kids and teen-agers. Today, all that is left of Faith Assembly's first official meeting place -- known in its day as the Glory Barn -- is a stone fireplace and chimney rising out of a grass field. People lined up for hours to ensure a seat to hear Freeman preach Scripture.

The Glory Barn burned after publicity about the church and the faith-healing deaths started hitting local newspapers. Rumor was that it was arson, a fire started by opponents of the church.

"They used to joke that I burned it down," said Barbara Clouse, 68, a now-retired public health nurse and lifetime Kosciusko County resident who first brought the faith-healing deaths to light. Clouse and local law enforcement officials often sought court orders to treat ill or injured Faith Assembly children.

"They would tell me: 'Get out of here. We don't need your help; the Lord's here,' " Clouse recalled.

Faith Assembly members were told to keep secret any illness. Clouse said one couple, out of a fear of the government instilled by Freeman, kept their dead child in the trunk of their car for days before turning the body over to the local coroner.

The most disturbing case to local authorities was the March 1980 death of 4-year-old Natali Joy Mudd. She died from a tumor in her eye which eventually grew to the size of her head.

Responding to a phone call from her parents, police found blood trails along the walls of the house where the girl, nearly blind from the tumor, had dragged her head as she tried to navigate from room to room.

"It's hard to comprehend a little toddler going through all that because of religion, with all the treatments available," said Sgt. Gerald D. Oswalt, one of the police officers who investigated.

Ron and Martha Mudd never called a doctor for their daughter. The prosecuting attorney at the time, Michael Miner, never filed criminal charges because Indiana law exempts those who provide treatment by spiritual means in lieu of medical care.

Two and a half years later, the Mudds' other daughter, Leah, 5, died after a court-ordered operation to remove a basketball-sized stomach tumor.

Miner was prosecutor from 1979 to 1990. Faith Assembly fell into his lap shortly after he came to public office. Now a private attorney, Miner admits he was sometimes "ambivalent" about the faith-healing church. Not only was he concerned that he would be criticized for spending too much money on trials and police work, but he also thought any guilty verdicts probably would have been overturned because of the religious exemption in Indiana law.

Michigan prosecutes

Miner eventually charged Freeman with conspiracy, but only after public pressure mounted and prosecutors in other counties and states sought indictments against Faith Assembly parents. There were hundreds of small Faith Assembly groups in the states surrounding Indiana listening to Freeman's sermons on cassette tapes.

One of the first to take on the church was Michael Hocking, a deputy prosecutor in Lansing, Mich., about a two-hour drive north of Fort Wayne. He charged church members Kenneth and Bonnie Sealy with involuntary manslaughter for the March 11, 1982, death of their infant daughter.

Carie Sealy was born at home in the couple's apartment and lived for 12 days before dying of pneumonia. Kenneth Sealy told police he gave his daughter mouth to mouth resuscitation at least a dozen times when her breathing faltered. The baby was jaundiced and was having seizures, but the Sealys never called for help or sought a doctor.

"When she did one of these seizures, I definitely sought the Lord as to why she was sick," Kenneth Sealy said during a police interrogation. "If my God can't help her, no man can."

Another of the Sealy's children, 15-month-old Joshua, died nine days after his baby sister following a court-ordered surgery to remove a large tumor in his abdomen. The parents were not charged in that case.

Ken Sealy was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to a year in a work-release program for his daughter's death. The case against his wife was dismissed. Two years later, the Michigan Supreme Court denied his appeal.

Hocking, now 47 and a private attorney after several years as a circuit judge, sees no debate when it comes to faith healing. As he reviews the yellowing files regarding Carie Sealy's case, he shakes his head in disgust.

"Right now Carie would be a 16-year-old girl," Hocking said. "She'd have a driver's license."

It was two years after Hocking prosecuted the Sealys in Michigan that Miner sought a grand jury indictment in Indiana charging Freeman with conspiracy on the premise that he was aiding and encouraging parents to deny their children medical care. The six-member grand jury also returned indictments of reckless homicide against a couple whose daughter died of kidney failure.

But in 1984, before the case could be brought to trial, Freeman died in his Shoe Lake home of congestive heart failure and bronchial pneumonia. Without him, Faith Assembly slowly disintegrated.

South Dakota breaks ground

Joni Clark's office in downtown Sioux Falls, S.D., is adorned with Georgia O'Keefe prints, legal degrees and a plaque from the American Academy of Pediatrics. She was given the award for helping South Dakota in 1990 to become the first state to eliminate religious immunity laws.

It's a weighty accomplishment for a woman who married into a faith-healing church just after graduating from high school. She lost her first daughter just days after she was born because her church and husband wouldn't allow a doctor to be called, and she nearly died herself from the trauma of labor.

Clark went on to have four other girls with Gary Cooke before divorcing him in 1987 as their church, End Time Ministries, was moving its headquarters from the Midwest to Florida.

From the beginning of her first pregnancy, Clark was sick and weak. Her joints swelled, she had migraine headaches and it hurt just to breathe. She was lying in bed one afternoon when her husband yelled at her to get up. Lying down was admitting defeat, he told her.

"I was in so much pain," she said. "I was just praying. I couldn't do this another day."

She delivered her daughter alone in bed, a month before she was due. The child was born breech and weighed 3 pounds, 12 ounces.

Little Libby struggled for life over the next two days. She stopped breathing several times. Clark said End Time's pastor and founder, Charles Meade, told her that babies are little and sometimes forget to breathe.

"That night, Libby quit breathing again and turned blue," Clark said. "We needed help, but I could hardly get out of bed."

Her mother-in-law suggested medical help. Clark agreed but was overruled. "They told me if you think like that, that's what could kill her," she said.

Meade continued giving Clark pep talks while the new mother prayed over her child. Clark doesn't remember much of the next day. Two other couples helped as she tried to get some rest. They prayed, she recalled. Clark was drifting off to sleep when she heard someone in the next room scream.

"They were holding her in different positions trying to get her to breathe," she said, tears running down her cheeks at the memory. The baby vomited blood. "I tried to get her to breathe, and her head went limp. I knew she was gone."

An autopsy determined the cause of death was pneumonia brought on by the premature birth. Doctors later told Clark that Libby would have had a 99 percent chance of survival had she been born in a hospital.

"After my daughter died, the anger that I had, I never got over it," Clark said.

A personal war

Clark began a secret, personal war against the church, all while having four other healthy girls without the help of modern medicine. She told other women about birth control and childhood diseases and helped them get proper treatment if their babies became ill.

"I could never get past the fact that women and children were paying the price in this group," she said.

By the fall of 1986 she decided to leave the church, divorce her husband, and go to law school.

"For 10 years I did everything they told me to do," Clark said. "I lost the ability to think critically for myself. I had no idea that something that looks so much like a church could be so cult-like."

In 1989 she began lobbying to get South Dakota to change its laws granting religious defenses for the crimes of child abuse, neglect and non-support. The law also allowed parents with religious objections the right to decline immunizations and metabolic screening for newborns.

Clark told her story to community service groups, legislators and anyone else who would listen. By 1990, the State Affairs Committee forwarded a bill to eliminate these religious privileges. The Christian Science Church and its lobbyists were the only opposition. Later that year, after Clark testified in the Legislature, South Dakota became the first state in the nation to repeal its religious immunities, making it a crime to deny medical care to children.

The effect of the change has been hard to measure. Meade and most of his followers left the Midwest before South Dakota's law was enacted. Dave Nelson, state's attorney for Minnehaha County in Sioux Falls, one of the state's largest counties, said there have been no reports of faith-healing child deaths, and no faith-healing parents have been investigated or charged with crimes since he took office in 1988.

For her efforts, Clark got a letter from the governor, thanking her for her courage. She earned her law degree in 1992 and practices criminal and family law in Sioux Falls, where she lives with her four teen-age daughters.

Oregon's dilemma

When 11-year-old Bo Phillips died in his parents' bed Feb. 23 after days of painful symptoms caused by diabetes, there were nearly 100 members of the Followers of Christ Church at the Oregon City home praying he would be healed.

The boy is one of more than 70 children in the faith-healing church who have died since 1955 and one of at least 21 who doctors say could have been cured with basic medical care. Little is known about how most of the children died -- including 15 infants listed as stillborn -- because death investigations before 1985 were either inconclusive or nonexistent. In addition, three mothers have died in childbirth in the past 10 years.

Police saw Bo Phillips' death as a clear case of abuse because the state medical examiner ruled that the disease was easily treatable. "If you or I did this to our child, we would be prosecuted," said Jeff Green, a Clackamas County sheriff's detective.

But District Attorney Terry Gustafson did not take the case to a grand jury. Instead, she called for legal reform. Gustafson said Oregon's criminal law -- which includes shields for faith healers -- is poorly worded and confusing, robbing faith-healing parents of their rights to due process.

Not all prosecutors in Oregon agree with her decision. Attorney General Hardy Myers and others think the law is clear in allowing prosecution of faith-healing parents. But they will support changing it to erase any confusion.

The Phillips case and the subsequent legal debate may make its way to the Legislature next year. Child advocates working to eliminate religious shields nationally have begun an effort to get a bill introduced in the 1999 session. Gustafson promises to lobby on her own. Sure to follow will be lobbying pressure of the Christian Science Church, the nation's most staunch defender of religious shield laws.


To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.