Oregon City, USA – The judge who sentenced an Oregon couple to prison Monday for the death of their son says members of their church must quit relying on faith healing when their children's lives are at stake.
"The fact is, too many children have died unnecessarily — a graveyard full," Judge Steven Maurer said. "This has to stop."
Maurer spoke in a quiet, unemotional voice as he led up to his conclusion: Jeffrey and Marci Beagley each should serve 16 months in prison. Members of the Followers of Christ church who packed the courtroom sobbed.
The Beagleys were earlier convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the June 2008 death of their 16-year-old son, Neil, of complications from a congenital urinary tract blockage. The condition normally is easily treated.
Members of their church avoid most medical care and instead rely on rituals such as anointing sick people with oil and laying hands on them.
In ordering prison terms, Maurer reflected changes made in Oregon law a decade ago stipulating that freedom of religious practices is not an excuse to shun medical treatment for a dangerously ill child. The changes were a result of the deaths of children in Followers of Christ families.
The church's small cemetery near the end of the Oregon Trail includes row after row of headstones marking the graves of children.
Maurer said the community is tolerant of the church, and he emphasized the sentences were not an indictment of it.
"We must keep in mind that this crime was one in which a child died," Maurer said. "This was a situation where the community was counting on his parents to understand the boundaries of their faith."
The Beagleys' attorneys said they would appeal.
"This case is not a referendum on religion," defense attorney Wayne Mackeson said. "To me, it's a battle in a larger war — seeing that justice is done."
Neil Beagley was described as a bright, confident boy who loved his church and fixing cars. He became ill as the blockage trapped toxic waste in his body.
His parents testified they thought he had a cold or the flu. Medical experts say the boy's kidneys were destroyed and his organs shut down.
Just months earlier, the Beagleys' granddaughter, 15-month-old Ava Worthington, died from pneumonia and a blood infection that also could have been treated. Her parents, Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington, were acquitted of manslaughter. Carl Brent Worthington served two months in jail for criminal mistreatment.
They were in the courtroom Monday. Before the sentencing, Marci Beagley dabbed at her eyes as she huddled with Raylene Worthington and several other women.
Defense attorneys sought probation for the Beagleys. Mackeson called on Courtney S. Campbell, a professor of philosophy who specializes in bioethics at Oregon State University, who recommended probation, education and counseling rather than prison.
"There needs to be respect for religious freedom, accompanied by personal accountability and responsibility," Campbell said.
Maurer said the Beagleys and the congregation knew about medical care but refused it.
"These two cases illustrate a crime that was a product of an unwillingness to respect the boundaries on freedom of religious expression," Maurer said. "They've continued to use spiritual treatment practices in exclusion of medical treatment, even when their children were in extreme harm's way."
The defense attorneys asked that the couple remain free pending appeals. Maurer refused.