The two small graves lie in the southeastern section of the old cemetery, near a stand of pine. They are surrounded by the resting places of other infants, many of whom never received first names: here is a placard denoting Baby Girl White, and another for Baby Boy Morris. Only a few life spans are commemorated, and many of these are shockingly short: weeks, days and even hours. Russ Briggs comes here often; he cannot stay away. “Those two, right there, those are my boys,” he says, his voice cracking. “I could have saved them, but I let them die.”
Briggs doesn’t know for sure what killed his sons, but he believes that “if there had been an incubator, or modern medicine, I know they would have made it.” So might many of the children surrounding them. Recently the Portland exurb of Oregon City has been shaken by what appears to be an ongoing horror in its midst. In June, Oregon state medical examiner Larry Lewman stated suspicions about the cemetery’s owners, the 1,200-member Followers of Christ church. Over 10 years, he alleges, the faith-healing congregation’s avoidance of doctors and hospitals may have cost the lives of 25 children, some under excruciating circumstances. A series by the Oregonian newspaper announced that of 78 minors buried in the graveyard over 35 years, 21 “probably would have lived with medical intervention, often as simple as antibiotics.” If so, the cemetery may represent one of the largest concentrations of faith-healing-related fatalities in decades.
It also represents a legal conundrum. Terry Gustafson, district attorney for the Oregon City area, says of a recent death, “If you or I had committed the same crime against our own child, we would be looking at 25 years in the penitentiary.” Yet Gustafson refuses to prosecute, calling it futile. Reason: an Oregon statute that exempts faith-healing parents from manslaughter charges. In protesting that law, Gustafson finds herself in high-powered company: the Academy of American Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the National District Attorneys Association all oppose similar immunities in six states and lesser exemptions countrywide.
The problematic laws have defenders. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, the largest U.S. religious body favoring spiritual healing over medical attention, has long argued for them. Christian Science spokesman Gary Jones describes as “terrible” the prospect that public rage at the Oregon deaths might “stop the inquiry into more effective means of treatment” by spiritual means. Champions of repeal, of course, feel otherwise. A report in the April issue of the professional journal Pediatrics documented 140 child deaths “from religion-motivated medical neglect” between 1975 and 1995, attributed to 23 religious denominations in 34 states. Its co-author, Texas critical-care pediatrician Seth Asser, believes there are hundreds of similar, unreported fatalities. “Kids die from accidental deployment of air bags, and you get hearings in Congress,” says Asser. “But this goes on, and dozens die, and people think there’s no problem because the deaths happen one at a time. Yet the kids who die suffer horribly. This is Jonestown in slow motion.”
The Followers of Christ Church seems to have originated in Kansas in the early 1900s. Its breakaway Oregon City branch was led by Walter White, an authoritarian, apocalypse-preaching pastor known as the Apostle, who died in 1969. After finishing their schooling, church members try to avoid socializing with the outsiders, but several own local businesses. “These are law-abiding people with a good work ethic,” says a prosecutor’s investigator. “The only way they really differ is in their faith healing.”
It is a mortal difference. Like many fellow Pentecostals, the Followers believe the Bible prescribes prayer and the laying on of hands to cure physical ills. Unlike most, however, Followers reportedly refuse medical treatment–for themselves or for their children. Emergency workers recall face-offs with church members who tried to persuade them not to take injured fellow worshippers to the hospital; the Oregonian found a state legislator’s complaint about Followers children arriving at school with home-set bone breaks. After Lewman took the medical examiner’s job in 1986, he encountered far worse and began recording what he calls “painful, torturous deaths that sometimes lasted days, if not weeks.”
Finally, after three Followers children died what he considered needless deaths in a seven-month span, Lewman began aiding the Oregonian investigation. He says one shocking case was that of Alex Dale Morris, a four-year-old who complained of fever in February 1989. Fellow Followers laid hands on Alex, anointed him with oil and prayed over him for 46 days. On Day 44, a police officer acting on a tip paid a call but left after the boy himself claimed good health. Alex died two days later; his autopsy revealed an infection had filled one entire side of his chest with pus. Basic antibiotics, says Lewman, could have saved him.
The death Gustafson considered prosecuting was of Bo Phillips, 11, last February. Bo suffered a diabetic crisis and was treated with liquids, prayer and anointings. County sheriff’s detective Jeff Green recalls arriving at the Phillips house to find 200 or more church members. Bo’s body “was lying in bed, covered with a sheet. His eyes were sunk into his head, and his face was completely yellow. The suffering that boy must have endured…” Bo’s parents, says Green, were devastated, but “I kept asking the father why he let the boy die, and the answer boiled down to what he told me flat out: ‘It was my choice.’”
At first glance, the Phillipses seemed prosecutable. Child-neglect laws in nearly every state make parents who fail to obtain medical treatment for their seriously ill children liable. However, a 1974 federal child-care program made funding contingent on the states’ exempting faith-healing parents. That requirement no longer exists, but 41 states retain exemptions from local civil-abuse and -neglect laws. In Oregon, Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, Ohio and West Virginia there are also exemptions from criminal homicide or manslaughter charges. Says Gustafson: “I’ve spent nights trying to figure out a way to bring the message to this church that you can’t kill your kids on the basis of religious beliefs. But the law is clearly on their side.” For their part, the Followers have mostly kept silent about the news stories as well as Lewman’s and Gustafson’s activities. A church-board member told TIME, “I know what the D.A. here is trying to do, but it’s our business, and we just don’t want to talk about it. Just don’t believe everything you read.”
The Oregon deaths make even some of the exemptions’ predictable champions a bit queasy. Jones, of Christian Science, says he personally believes “taking care of a child is a sacred responsibility. If one form of treatment is not working, parents have an obligation to investigate other alternatives,” including doctors or hospitals. He maintains, however, that even Oregon-style exemptions (he prefers “accommodations”) are “a door to religious freedom.” Steven McFarland, head of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, a conservative Christian group, demurs. “The First Amendment protects religious belief absolutely, but not religious practice. Child welfare is a classic example,” he says. “If irreparable harm to a child is about to occur, the state’s duty to protect the child trumps. Those folks in Oregon should know that the cost of their belief can be criminal prosecution if they allow a child to die.”
More common than a blanket defense of exemptions is a query: Isn’t there a way to discourage faith-healing-related deaths that is less harsh and more proactive than throwing well-meaning, bereaved parents in jail after the tragic fact? In 1994 Minnesota passed a law requiring parents to alert authorities if their medical boycott endangered their children, leaving it to the state to intervene if necessary. The results are inconclusive: a check on the state’s biggest county shows that no one has self-reported. And Michael McConnell, a lawyer who has defended faith-healing parents in neglect cases, is worried that exemption-repeal advocates have no patience for more such experiments. Anger, he suggests, has made them “so contemptuous of the parent that they are likely to overlook solutions that would work much better.”
Perhaps, but Russ Briggs feels no contempt. Briggs watched first one and then another son die during childbirth unattended by doctors or trained nurses; he left the Followers in 1981, after deciding to seek medical help for a back injury. Briggs supports the Oregon exemption-repeal drive, but despite being shunned by his former community, he bears no discernible rancor. “They’re still believing in a faith, so there’s no blame for them,” he says. “Their children died, and they allowed it to happen because of a belief that they still have. That takes away the blame. It’s only when you no longer have that belief that all the sudden it comes to you: How could I ever have done that?”
With reporting by Dan Kray/Oregon City