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Child Sacrifices

by Martine O'Callaghan

June 27, 2013

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Donate This story from 2011 recently appeared on the fabulous Doubtful News. As a result, it is being discussed all over again at least in some of the online circles I move in so, having written about it at the time, I have decided to revisit it.

Haemangiomas are benign vascular tumors that can appear anywhere on the body. Blood vessels collect into a reddish lump often called strawberry marks. The extent of these growths varies widely and they are thought to be caused when tissue from the placenta embeds into the skin. Why this should happen, however, is unknown. Many individuals with these growths report that the worst effects are the gawping and rude comments of passers by. Sometimes though, the size and location of the tumor can have secondary, serious physical consequences. This was the case for little Alayna Wyland.


Early in 2010, baby Alayna was born to Rebecca and Timothy Wyland, devout members of the Oregon based Followers of Christ Church. The church shuns conventional medicine and any congregant who turns to it. Prayer, the laying on of hands and anointing with oil can, they say, through the grace of God, heal any malady. Unfortunately, for Alayna Wyland, whose haemangioma over her left eye would destroy her sight if left untreated, intercessory prayer and ritual were insufficient.

Her parents would not and did not consider taking the baby to a doctor. In line with the church’s teachings and their belief and adherence to it, they employed faith healing rituals and prayer to heal their daughter. In sentencing the pair to 90 days imprisonment for first-degree criminal mistreatment of a child, on Friday, 24th July, 2011, Judge Jeffrey S. Jones of the Clackamas County Circuit admonished,
“Your prayers should complement, not compete with, proper medical care.”
Despite the fact that Alayna has lost some of the sight in her left eye, she could be considered lucky. Former Oregon medical examiner Larry Lewman puts the infant mortality rate within the Followers of Christ Church at 26 times the USA average. In the investigation he assisted published in the Oregonian newspaper, Lewman points out that, of the 78 children buried in the church’s cemetery in Carus, 38 died before their first birthday and a further 21 from easily treatable diseases and infections. Similar trends have been seen in congregations in California and Idaho. The reason more parents haven’t been brought before the courts is simple. There was a statute in Oregon and several other states that occludes parents who use religion promoting faith healing from being prosecuted for manslaughter. Despite a bill for a repeal of the law being passed in Oregon in 2000, parents of children who die as a result of failure to seek proper medical attention were still walking free from court.


In 2008, 15 month old Ava Worthington, a child of Followers of Christ congregants, died of bacterial bronchial pneumonia and sepsis. In all likelihood, antibiotics would have saved her life. In June of that year, both parents, Raylene and Carl were found not guilty of manslaughter and only Carl convicted of the misdemeanor of criminal neglect for which he was sentenced to two months imprisonment. Pregnant and bereaved Raylene, who had a five year old at home to care for, no doubt, had the juror’s sympathy. The jury reached their decision based upon their belief that, as one juror said,“They had no intent of hurting their child.”The trial judge, Steven L. Mauer was unambiguous in his opinion that denying this child " any child " medical help when in such dire need is,“Wrong, wrong, wrong,”accurately calling the toddler’s death,“An unnecessary tragedy.”


Lessons learned by the prosecutors of the Ava Worthington trial were corrected when Ava’s maternal Grandparents, Marci and Jeffrey Beagley were brought before the same court in January 2010. Instead of manslaughter, the charge against them was that of criminally negligent homicide. Their 16 year old son, Neil died from a (treatable) blockage of the urinary tract. The couple were each handed down a jail sentence of 16 months.

The Followers of Christ Church are often referred to by other, more mainstream, Christian groups as legalists: those who abide by the letter of the law over its spirit. It would be correct to say the Followers consider themselves literalists. They believe every word of the Bible was dictated or inspired by God and is the literal truth. This presents certain flaws in their reliance upon faith healing and their scorn for conventional medicine. Although physicians and worldly medics are often cast as failures in Biblical stories of Jesus’s healings, never does he admonish the sick or afflicted for consulting them. Indeed, the fact that all their wisdom and remedies could do no good amplifies the miraculous nature of Jesus’s intervention and demonstrates the hopelessness of the patient’s predicament.

I can cite plenty of instances in the New Testament of Jesus laying his hands upon the sick to cure them (e.g. Matthew 8:14-17, Luke 4:40) and encouraging his Apostles to do likewise. Acts 28:8-9 describes how Paul cured a man of dysentery: “Paul went in to him and prayed, and he laid his hands on him and healed him.” These were not the only techniques they employed. Jesus healed ten lepers just by shouting over to them according to Luke 17:12-14 and spat in a blind man’s eyes to restore his sight (Mark 8:23-25). In the main, the Bible tells us that Jesus and the apostles healed many people who had tried everything else first!

Neither does Jesus scold or defame doctors or the learned. The story of the twelve year old Jesus deep in respectful conversation with the doctors and rabbis at the Temple is celebrated in Christian mythology (Luke 2:42-51). Umberto Eco puts the views of Christian doctors over the centuries into the mouth of the monk Nicholas, hero of Eco’s most famous novel The Name of the Rose, when he contends, “God’s knowledge is made manifest through the knowledge of man… and one of its ends is to prolong man’s very life.”

More secular voices would assert that no human being should suffer as the result of another’s faith. As Christopher Hitchens correctly states, it is ludicrous to call a child, much less an infant, a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child.” All that can be said with any truth is that a given child may be the “child of Christian/Muslim/Jewish parents.”

The separation of church and state is enshrined in the United States Constitution. It contains, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This has generally been interpreted as granting freedom of religion, which, clearly it does. What is often overlooked by zealots and religious fundamentalists of all denominations is that these words, and the Constitution itself, also grant freedom from religion. When adults cannot or will not accept parental responsibility for the physical and medical health of their offspring as seriously as their so-called “spiritual” development and sacrifice their children’s sight, health and life to the will of a capricious and unknowable God, then the state has a duty to step in. Respect for religious doctrines and practice is all well and good, but when people who have no choice in the matter suffer and die are we not, then, tolerating the intolerable?

by Martine O'Callaghan

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