An Oregon City couple who tried to heal their dying daughter with prayer walked hand-in-hand into a crowded Clackamas County courtroom Monday and pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment.
Carl Brent Worthington, 28, and Raylene Marie Worthington, 25, are the first parents prosecuted since Oregon cracked down on faith-healing deaths nine years ago, according to legislators and legal experts. If convicted, they could spend more than six years in prison.
National advocates for religious freedom and child welfare have been following the Worthington case, and reporters shadowed the defendants from the moment they arrived Monday at the Clackamas County courthouse, flanked by attorneys.
The Worthingtons, members of Oregon City’s Followers of Christ Church, barely spoke a word as Judge Kathie Steele explained the charges. In subdued voices, they answered “yes” and “yes, your honor” to acknowledge they could face prison time, then dodged television cameras as they left the courtroom.
They remain free on $250,000 bonds. A trial is set for mid-June.
Their 15-month-old daughter, Ava Worthington, died at home March 2 from bacterial bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection. Both conditions could have been treated with antibiotics, according to Dr. Christopher Young, a deputy state medical examiner. Her breathing was further compromised by a benign, four-inch cyst on her neck that had never been medically addressed, Young said.
The Followers of Christ, a non-denominational congregation with roots in the 19th-century Pentecostal movement, came under state scrutiny in the late 1990s after several church children died from medically treatable conditions. The deaths prompted the Oregon Legislature to remove religious shield laws for parents who treat gravely ill children solely with prayer, setting the stage for the Worthington case.
A spokeswoman for the Christian Science Church, which lobbied for Oregon’s original faith-healing shield laws, acknowledged that the church has been following the Worthington case but declined to comment.
Shawn Peters, author of “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law,” a book that includes passages on Oregon City’s Followers of Christ Church, said the Worthington case “will be the test for the new law in Oregon.”
Peters said it’s hard to say whether faith-healing deaths are increasing or decreasing across the United States, but he noted that they are continuing. Two weeks after Ava Worthington’s death, an 11-year-old Wisconsin girl died from an undiagnosed diabetic attack after her parents tried to heal her with prayer. The parents in the Wisconsin case have not been charged with a crime.
Between 1999, when the new law took effect, and the Worthington case, prosecutors found no incidents of significant medical neglect among Followers of Christ Church members.
The Worthingtons were indicted Friday after a Clackamas County grand jury heard testimony from medical examiner Young, child-abuse detective Michelle Finn, and three relatives of Carl Worthington: his parents, Guy and Julie Worthington, and his sister, Danielle Fullington.
The grand jury brought two charges: second-degree manslaughter and second-degree criminal mistreatment. The parents’ “failure to provide medical care caused the death of their daughter: That’s what the grand jury’s charged them with,” explained chief deputy district attorney Greg Horner.
The Worthingtons reportedly also have a young daughter.
The Department of Human Services confirmed that the agency has “an open case with the family, and as is normal when we have an open case, we pay attention to other children in the family, “said Greg Parker, DHS spokesman. “The family is working with us.”
On Monday, a pair of defense attorneys representing the Worthingtons said they were waiting to see reports and evidence in the case and wouldn’t comment on the charges.
“They’re presumed innocent at this time, and we ask that no one prejudge them,” said attorney John Neidig, who represents Raylene Worthington. “They have not had the time to breathe properly since this tremendous tragedy, and we hope to provide them with a little privacy and respect.”
Reporter Steve Mayes contributed to this report.
• Original title: Child’s death tests Oregon law on faith healing; Parents plead not guilty in their 15-month-old daughter’s death