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Faith Healing: Child Abuse, Torture and Homicide

David Kostinchuk

The right to refuse medical treatment based on religious grounds is recognized in most societies. However, can this right be taken too far? Should religious beliefs replace medical procedures if the result may be death of the individual? And most importantly, should a parent be allowed to obstruct medical personnel when the health and well being of a child is concerned? These are some questions for you to consider as you read this article. The purpose of this article is threefold; firstly, to question the appropriateness of faith healing as a mutually exclusive alternative to modern medicine. Secondly, to illustrate a number of case studies wherein children have died from preventable disease as a direct result of a parent's religious beliefs. Thirdly, to expose some of the fundamentalist religious movements which appear to be connected to a disproportionate number of faith-related child deaths.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines torture as; 1.infliction of severe bodily pain, severe physical or mental pain. 2. Subject to torture; force out of natural position or state; pervert meaning of words.

Can faith healing be likened to torture? If the individual is of sound mind and legal age, perhaps not, but what about infants, young children, or teens? A child who is denied medical treatment will suffer for very abstract reasons, which in all likelihood he or she does not understand. They are made to suffer by those they trust, and have power over them. They cannot seek out treatment themselves, and are therefore forced to suffer until they are overcome by their illness. In my opinion, if this is not torture, it is at least an extreme form of child abuse. A study by the medical journal Pediatrics (Apr.1998) states that of 172 faith-related child deaths in the U.S. between 1975 and 1995, the survival rate of 140 of these children was 90%. Eighteen other children had a survival rate of 50%, and all but three could have benefited from medical treatment. "Faith Healers Cause Of Preventable Child Fatalities" American Academy Of Pediatrics 26 Apr. 1998

The Law: Freedom to Choose Faith Healing

Citizens in North America are guaranteed freedom of religion.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits any action by the American government that restricts "the free exercise of religion". Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of conscience and religion". Courts have generally interpreted the concept of religious freedom very broadly, to include both religious belief and religious practice, e.g. the personal freedom to choose prayer and/or religious ritual in place of medical treatment for a disease or disorder. When faced with a medical problem, an adult can seek medical attention, use faith healing in conjunction with medical attention, or pursue no treatment at all, and let nature takes its course. However, some parents or guardians may wish to exercise the same options for their children. The result is sometimes conflict with civil authorities. "Religious Groups That Reject Medical Treatment In Favor Of Prayer" Ontario Consultants On religious Tolerance 26 Feb. 2001.

The Players

The Bible Reader Fellowship evangelical group, located in California, avoids medical treatment and fails to record births and deaths as required by law. (AP On Line, September 30, 1998)

Christian Science Church Parents are unwilling to seek medical help for their children. Children have and continue to die of cancer, ruptured appendixes, diphtheria, and other diseases that are curable with modern medicine. (Fraser, Caroline "Suffering Children And The Christian Science Church" The Atlantic Monthly, April 1995 )

Members of End Time Ministries have exclusive beliefs in faith healing. In addition to rejecting medical treatment for children, they also have unattended childbirth; this absence of medical intervention is known to be the cause of a significant number of stillborn babies. "Religious Groups That Reject Medical Treatment In Favor Of Prayer" 26 Feb. 2001. " Ontario Consultants On Religious Tolerance 26 Feb. 2001.

Followers of Oregon-based Christ Church believe that illness can be cured by prayer and anointing oil (Ottawa Citizen, June 26, 2000). Their followers refuse medical treatment for their children, believing that the 'laying on hands' leads to healing. This is a practice followed many Pentecostal sects. (Van Bliema. David Faith Or Healing" Time Magazine, Vol. 152, No. 9. August 31, 1998)

Members of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation Church believe that God, inspired by prayers of true believers, will cure the sick. Seeking medical care is regarded as turning their backs on their faith and God himself (Larabee, Mark "The Battle Over Faith Healing" The Oregonian, November 28, 1998 ).

Faith Assembly Members were told to keep illness a secret. This is an attempt to hide medical information to government authorities, so the members will not be forced to obtain medical care (Larabee, Mark "The Battle Over Faith Healing"The Oregonian, November 28, 1998 ).

Followers of the General Assembly Church of The First Born state that a major component of their belief is the sovereign power of God to heal (Torkelson, Jean Rocky Mountain News July 28, 2000)).

The Faith Tabernacle Church encourages people to follow what they see as the will of God. Unfortunately, many feel that medical treatment is against God's will. The members use this reasoning to deny medical treatment to their children. "Religious Groups That Reject Medical Treatment In Favor Of Prayer" Ontario Consultants On Religious Tolerance 26 Feb. 2001

The Victims

Twelve-day-old Carie Sealy died of pneumonia without receiving any type of medical attention. Her parents, Kenneth and Bonnie Sealy, were members of the Faith Assembly Church. They believed that if God could not help, no man could (Larabee, Mark "The Battle Over Faith Healing" The Oregonian Nov. 28, 1998.).

Newborn infant Warren Reed died of pneumonia and meningitis. His parents recognized the symptoms, but refused to get medical care. Dr. Rob Kurtzman stated that the heart defect Warren had at birth is rarely fatal if medical help is given. His parents Billy and Barbara Reed are members of the General Assembly Church of the First Born ( Lofholm Nancy Denver Post August 3, 2000)

In Philadelphia, one-year-old Patrick Foster, whose parents were members of Faith Tabernacle Congregation Church, is another example of a child suffering due to religious beliefs. Patrick needed help to lift his head because his body was engulfed by a growth that emerged from his kidney and attached itself to his liver and heart. The police came for Patrick. At the hospital, it was discovered that Patrick had a Wilm's tumor, a childhood cancer that 90% of the patients survive if they receive prompt medical treatment. Fortunately, Patrick lived because of police intervention (Larabee, Mark "The Battle Over Faith Healing The Oregonian Saturday, November 28 1998 ).

Sonia Hernandez, a one-year old, died of pneumonia. Her parents Guillermo and Luz Hernandez were members of End Time Ministries. The girl was blind, deaf and suffered from cerebral palsy. The parents also believed in faith healing as a substitute for medical attention (Callahan, Joe Lake City Reporter, September 4, 1992)

In Colorado, 18-month-old Warren Trevette died of suspected congested heart failure while his parents and church elders of the General Assembly of the First Born prayed for his cure (Torkelson, Jean Rocky Mountain News July 28, 2000 ).

In Boston, two-year-old Robyn Twitchell died of peritonitis and a twisted bowel after a five-day illness that began with his screaming and vomiting. His parents, members of Christian Science, refused to get medical treatment for their son.

Two-year-old Justin Barnhart, whose parents were members of the Faith Tabernacle Church, died of Wilm's tumor because the parents depended on prayer and rejected medical help. Medical intervention is successful in 90% of these cases. (Cult Observer, May/June 1988, p. 6. From "U.S. Supreme Court Will Be Asked to Review Faith-death Conviction," CHILD Newsletter, Spring, 1988, p. 4).

Natili Joy Mudd, a four-year-old from Indiana whose parents were members of the Faith Assembly Church, died from an eye tumor the size of her head. Police discovered blood trails on the walls where the nearly blind girl attempted to go from room to room. The Mudd's other 5-year-old daughter died after a court ordered operation to remove a basketball-sized tumor in her stomach (Mark Latrabee "The Battle Over Faith Healing" The Organian, Nov.28 1998).

In Oregon City, four-year-old Alex Dale Morris received prayers for 46 days before he died. His parents, members of the Followers of Christ church denied the boy medical attention. His autopsy revealed that massive infection in his chest had filled one entire side of his chest with pus. Antibiotics could have saved him. (Van Biema, David " Faith Or Healing" Time Magazine August 31, 1998 Vol.152 No. 9)

In Florida, Amy Hermanson, aged 7 died of diabetes. Her parents are members of the Christian Scientist Faith, and claimed their religious beliefs kept them from taking her for medical attention. "The Unacceptable Cost Of Religious Superstition" 26 Feb. 2001.

Bo Phillips, 11, died Feb. 23 of diabetes after suffering painful symptoms for a week. His death could have been prevented with medical care. His eyes were sunken and his face was yellow. His parents were members of the Followers of Christ Church. When his father was asked why he let the boy die, the father said it was his choice (Van Biema, David "Faith Or Healing" Time Aug. 311998 vol. 152 No9).

In Alberta, Calahan Shippy, age 14, died of diabetes as a result of his parents refusal to get medical help. His father stated he has the right to not seek medical help for his eight children. The father is a member of the Followers of Christ sect. A pathologist said the boy might have lived if he had received medical help a few hours before he died (" Alberta Couple Gets Suspended Sentence In Diabetes Death" Ottawa Citizen, June 26, 2000).

Sixteen-year-old Shannon Nixon died of treatable diabetes complications. Five years before, her younger brother Clayton died of an inner-ear infection. Their parents, Lori and Dennis Nixon, were members of the Faith tabernacle Church and refused to let their children have medical attention (Blair, Jeffroy "Faith-Healing Convictions Upheld" Deloit Daily News Apr. 30, 1997).


The children cited in this article are victims. They go through untold agony and suffering because their parents somehow believe that faith healing and modern medicine are mutually exclusive. The absence of medical treatment for these children was not because of economic hardship or unavailability, but rather a belief system that opts for prayer instead of medical treatment. As a society, we must ask ourselves- where are the children's rights in regard to medical treatment, and the right to not suffer needlessly? It is ironic that from a military perspective, it would be regarded as torture for medical treatment to be withheld by armed forces members. In all likelihood, the personnel involved would be charged with war crimes or crimes against humanity, regardless of their excuses.

It is also ironic that many who promote faith healing to such extremes look down not only other religions, but also on mainstream Christians. Those who oppose their fundamentalist rhetoric are labeled as "false believers". This is one example of numerous techniques used to promote an "us versus them" mindset among their followers. This line of thought discourages critical thinking, and is at the core of most fundamentalist regimes.

What Can Be Done

It is essential that the health and well-being of children take priority over religious beliefs, especially in cases where those beliefs promote suffering and medical neglect. Therefore, the following points may serve as a guideline in establishing this.

Laws should be enacted and enforced that protect children from medical neglect brought about by the promotion of faith healing.

Declare that faith healing on minors be done only as a supplement to modern medical treatment.

The parents of children who die as a clear result of medical neglect should be charged with homicide.

If a child's death can be clearly linked to medical neglect, and that neglect can be traced to the caregiver's religious beliefs, then there must be consequences for those who actively encouraged and enforced faith healing. While a child's safety is ultimately the responsibility of the parent or guardian, the role of the church, ministry, cult or sect must also be investigated. Letting your child die doesn't come naturally. Someone conditioned the parent to think this way, and they should be liable as well.

Ministries that use staged faith healing demonstrations as fund-raising or publicity stunts should be charged with grand larceny.

The most effective way to disrupt organizations that promote child abuse of this nature is though education and awareness. I encourage all those who want to help to contact their state or provincial politicians, medical associations and the media to make their displeasure known.


  Suffering and Religion

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