In the winter of 1989, 4-year-old Alex Morris of Oregon City, Ore., developed a fever and complained of chest pains. His parents, members of the Followers of Christ Church, a religious denomination that practices faith healing and shuns members who seek standard medical help, anointed their son with oil and organized prayer sessions with other members of the congregation. Over the next month, Alex's medical condition deteriorated, and he eventually died of a massive chest infection. Oregon medical examiner Dr. Larry Lewman stated that during the course of his illness, the little boy had suffered greatly.
"It was a horrible thing," Lewman stated. "The kid was getting sicker for days and days. At times the child would have been overwhelmed with fever and pain." Dr. Lewman noted that an ordinary regimen of antibiotics probably would have saved Alex's life.
In his book, "When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law" (2008), Shawn Peters notes that the 1980 case of Natali Joy Mudd, whose parents were members of the Faith Assembly Church, was "especially horrific." The child had a large, rapidly growing and malignant tumor near her right eye that killed her. When Natali's parents reported the child's death to authorities, police officers discovered streaks of blood along the walls where the nearly blind 4-year-old "had dragged her grotesquely disfigured head" as she groped her way through the house. One of the investigators stated, "It's hard to comprehend a little toddler going through all that because of religion, with all the treatments available." Two years later the Mudds' other daughter, Leah, died after an operation to remove a long-untreated, basketball-size stomach tumor.
As there is no national database that tracks the number of children who die annually because their parents deny them medical treatment for religious reasons, our knowledge of these tragic events is incomplete; however, there have been attempts to gain some measure of the frequency of these fatalities. In a 1998 Pediatrics journal article, Seth Asser and Rita Swan reported on their investigative research of 23 faith-healing churches in 34 states. The researchers examined the cases of 172 children who died between 1975 and 1995 in which there was evidence that parents withheld medical treatment because of a reliance on religious rituals, and documentation existed that determined the cause of death.
Asser and Swan concluded that in 140 of these deaths, survival rates with medical care would have exceeded 90 percent. Eighteen more deaths had expected survival rates of more than 50 percent. Seth and Swan found that all but three of the children who died would have experienced some benefit from medical treatment. The researchers concluded, "We suspect many more fatalities have occurred during the study period than the cases reported here. ...We felt that this study was the tip of the iceberg."
In "When Prayer Fails," Shawn Peters reports on the investigative work of Mark Larabee, a reporter for the Oregonian. Along with medical experts, Larabee examined the deaths of 63 children who were buried in the Followers of Christ Church cemetery in Oregon City from 1955 through 1998. The researchers concluded that at least 21 of the children likely could have been successfully treated by medical professionals. In many instances the deceased would have required nothing more than a simple regimen of antibiotics. Approximately half of the children perished before their first birthdays. The investigators also uncovered more than a dozen stillbirths. Based on this investigation, Larabee concluded that the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City had "amassed one of the largest clusters of child deaths recorded among the nation's spiritual-healing churches."
A 1995 study by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect wanted to know if faith-based medical neglect posed a greater risk to children's health and well being than the much more publicized threat of ritualistic Satanic abuse. By way of surveying thousands of mental health professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers) and interviewing parents who withheld medical treatment from their sons and daughters for religious reasons, the study concluded that "there are more children annually being abused in the name of God than in the name of Satan." (There is no hard evidence that children are systematically abducted and abused in Satanic rituals in the United States.)
After examining all of the available evidence, Shawn Peters argues that since the end of the 19th century, hundreds of children have died "in agony, aided by little more than the ardent bedside prayer of their parents and fellow church members."
As one might expect, practitioners of faith-based child healing in lieu of medical treatment vigorously and vociferously defend their behavior, often citing scripture as the ultimate authority in human affairs. A favorite is Mark 6:13, which describes how the apostles healed the sick as they moved among the people and preached: "They drove out the demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them."Another standby is Mark 5:34, wherein Jesus cures a hemorrhaging girl who was not successfully treated by physicians: "Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace! Be cured from your illness."
After 8-year-old Tony Hayes died from what authorities described as a "treatable" form of leukemia, his father Loyd Hayes, a member of the Church of the First Born in Oregon, stated, "Obviously, the Lord didn't spare my son. But he knows what is best. I believe in heaven and a hell. If the Lord had spared him, maybe he wouldn't have walked with God (in heaven)." Regarding Tony's death, a church elder spoke in terms of a less-than-all-powerful God whose healing abilities are still a far cut above those of medical doctors: "People die. God can't cure everyone. But he cures more than they do in hospitals." A female member of the congregation stated that the next time one of her boys was ill, she would call the elders together to pray "just like they did with Tony. We trust in the Lord."
Defiance on the part of faith-healing parents who have lost a child is not uncommon. In 2008, an 11-year-old girl in Wisconsin died from an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes. Speaking of her daughter Madeline's death, Leilani Neuman said, "I do not regret trusting the Lord for my daughter's health." Her husband, Dale Neumann stated, "I am guilty of trusting the Lord's wisdom completely. ... Guilty of asking for heavenly intervention. Guilty of following Jesus Christ when the whole world does not understand. Guilty of obeying my God."
Dawn and Roger Winterborne of The Faith Tabernacle Church in Philadelphia lost five children (all under 2 years of age) to cystic fibrosis, a disease that can be treated to prolong life. A sixth child, a four-day-old girl, died of pneumonia. In spite of these deaths, the Winterbornes continued to believe in faith healing.
"We still practice the same thing; we still believe the same way," Dawn Winterborne stated. "There was no medical cure for them. God could have cured them, but that's neither here not there."
For those who believe passionately in faith healing and eschew any manner of medical treatment when dealing with the illness of a child, if the child recovers, this improvement is considered proof of the efficacy and legitimacy of their beliefs and behavior. If the child dies, the death is viewed as God's will, and their belief in the almighty, as well as faith healing, is not diminished.
George Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology as a professor at the University of San Diego. A list of sources will accompany Part 2 of this series in the next issue of the Enterprise.