Log on to the Web site set up by defense attorneys for the Followers of Christ couple being prosecuted for the faith-healing death of their 15-month-old daughter and you’ll find information on religious freedom and several articles on the miracles of faith healing.
At www.worthingtondefense.info, you also can meet the lawyers who are nudging Carl and Raylene Worthington toward a long court battle, one the lawyers know will be expensive for their clients. They hope others will donate toward protecting parents’ right to do nothing other than pray as they watch their children die.
What you won’t find there is a single detail from stories in The Oregonian documenting the pain inflicted on dozens of children born to Followers of Christ over the years.
Details like the 1998 deaths of Valarie Shaw and Holland Cunningham.
Shaw, age 5, died after being very sickly since birth because of a congenital defect that blocked a kidney and led to a massive infection that was never treated.
Cunningham, age 6, died after 30 hours of excruciating pain from a hernia in his small intestine.
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In the months after those stories and others came to light, Oregon legislators gave district attorneys a stronger tool to prosecute faith-healing deaths of children. For 10 years now, it has seemed the unnecessary deaths were finally over.
But only days after the Worthingtons’ March 2 arrest, the anonymous e-mails and phone calls from Followers who had quit the church started to roll in.
“I was a member of the church of Followers of Christ for 40 years,” said one woman, “and many, many of my friends have died.”
The woman, like all the other people who got in touch with me, would tell me her story only if I agreed to withhold her name. In her case, that was because she has a son with a wife and children still under the suffocating control of the Followers’ isolationist doctrines.
She hasn’t talked to her son for more than a decade. Over the years, she’s continued to send him birthday cards but has never received a response.
Her son, like the rest of the church members, will have nothing to do with her. “I am considered a dead person.”
She understands from friends with contacts in the church that not much has changed. Followers children are still discouraged from having friendships outside the church. Members marry only other members. Anyone who leaves is forever shunned.
She knows the church’s hold. Church leaders discouraged her from leaving her abusive husband because the man was in charge.
Even when she lapsed into mental illness, she was told it was the devil’s doing and only prayer could help.
“I lived in horrible fear. But I was even more afraid to leave. I had no idea how to manage on the outside.”
Finally, she decided she alone was responsible for both the decisions she made and those she didn’t, so she left.
“When I walked out of my house, it was like stepping off the edge of the Earth, with my son left behind and nobody to go to for anything.”
Even now, there’s not a day that goes by she doesn’t think of all those she left behind. She still runs across church members, but they won’t look at her, won’t talk to her.
But their silence can’t hide what she knows.
“They should have to answer for what’s happened,” she said of the death of the Worthingtons’ daughter, Ava. “They are all individuals who have a right to make decisions.
“But all those little children born into the church — they do not have a choice. Somebody decides for them.
“And the people who make those decisions are responsible for those choices.”