By Jessica Bruder and Dana Tims
Religion News Service
Saturday, April 5, 2008
OREGON CITY, Ore. -- A couple who tried to heal their dying daughter with prayer walked hand in hand into a crowded 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 almost a decade ago. If convicted, they could spend more than six years in prison.
The Worthingtons, members of Oregon City's Followers of Christ Church, barely spoke as Judge Kathie Steele explained the charges. In subdued voices, they answered "yes" and "yes, your honor" to acknowledge that they could face prison time. 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 Christopher Young, a deputy state medical examiner.
Ava's 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 nondenominational 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 state lawmakers to remove religious shield laws for parents who treat gravely ill children solely with prayer.
Between 1999, when the law took effect, and the time of the Worthington case, prosecutors found no significant medical neglect among Followers of Christ Church members.
A grand jury brought two charges against the Worthingtons: 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," said Greg Horner, the chief deputy district attorney.
On Monday, the Worthingtons' attorneys said they were waiting to see reports and evidence in the case and would not comment on the charges.
"They're presumed innocent at this time, and we ask that no one prejudge them," said attorney John Neidig. "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."
Of dozens of children buried since the 1950s in the Followers of Christ Church cemetery, at least 21 could have been saved by medical intervention, according to a 1998 analysis by the Oregonian newspaper. None of the deaths from that era resulted in prosecution.
According to church tradition, when members become ill, fellow worshipers pray and anoint them with oil. Former members say that those who seek modern medical remedies are ostracized.
Deaths associated with the church prompted a firestorm among lawmakers over religious freedom, parental rights and the state's responsibility to protect children. Oregon Sen. Peter Courtney (D) said that he hasn't heard of any cases since the law passed involving children who died because their parents chose prayer over medical care. "I really thought we'd resolved it," he said.
At the church-owned Carus Cemetery, fresh earth marked the spot where Ava was buried. Two large memorial ribbons lay against a fence. Adjacent to the site is a grave marker for "Baby Boy Worthington," dated 2001.
Officials declined to comment on how the boy was associated with the family or how he might have died.
Jessica Bruder and Dana Tims write for the Oregonian in Portland, Ore. Stuart Tomlinson contributed to this report.