2 Nov 2010

Church members may be parsing words in faith healing death

Examiner.com July 12, 2009

Charles McAlpin | Portland Skepticism Examiner

Statements by Carl “Brent” Worthington and his family, namely that they did not “believe” 15-month-old Ava Worthington was about to die, may not mean what they seem to mean. Defense attorneys may be using semantics to mislead the court about what church members understood regarding the baby’s condition on the night her faith healing death.

The attorneys are trying to convince the court that the family did not realize the gravity of the child’s illness. This is an important tactic, because a conviction may turn on whether the judge believes the family acted reasonably given what they understood about the baby’s sickness.

Most Americans would interpret such statements as “I did not believe she was about to die” to mean the family had come to the conclusion that the baby’s illness was not life-threatening. “Believing,” however, sometimes means the choice to believe, and it is not necessarily a response to a reasoned examination of the facts.

The Biblical book of Mark gives an example. In Mark 9: 16-27, the author tells of the story of a man who approached Jesus for the healing of his son. The man asked for Jesus’ to heal the boy “if you can.” Jesus implies that the man’s choice to believe is critical if the boy is to be healed, to which the man replies “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief!”

The past history of the Followers of Christ Church and seeming conflicts in family statements suggest the family may use the “chose to believe” interpretation when asked the question “did you believe she was about to die.”

News reports last week quoted Carl “Brent” Worthington, Ava’s father as “shocked” when his daughter died. "I never thought she was dying," he said. Other members of the family have offered what may be carefully worded statements that no one expected her to die.

On the night of her death, however, Brent Worthington acknowledged that he had realized his daughter might not survive the sickness. An investigator asked him during an interview that night, “At any point during the Saturday going into Sunday, when her condition was worst, was there a point at which you thought maybe she might not survive?”

“Yes,” he answered.

Furthermore, he acknowledged that night that the church members who came to the house to pray and lay hands on Ava "all knew that she was not doing too good." Worthington’s sister, Danielle Fullington, has acknowledged that the possibility of the baby’s death had occurred to her that weekend.

The family also knew that Ava was having trouble breathing and was “choking on phlegm.” The weekend she died, the family kept her “stirred up” to “keep her breathing.” Is it reasonable to believe that a child has to be “kept breathing,” but that her life is not in danger? Or is it more likely that the family had ample evidence that she was about to die, consciously chose to ignore that evidence, and is now parsing words?

The church appears to have plenty of experience with children who have died from treatable diseases. A research project by the Oregonian indicated that of the 78 children buried in the Followers of Christ cemetery between 1955 and 1998, 21 had died of treatable diseases. Fifteen more were stillborn. Two more died before their first birthdays. Nor did Ava's death cause any change in church behavior with regard to contacting doctors. Ava Worthington’s own 16-year-old uncle died of a treatable and incredibly painful urinary tract blockage just months after Ava’s death.

And yet, last week, defense attorney Mark Cogan asked Brent Worthington what might have been a very carefully worded question. “I’m going to ask you a rather blunt question. Mr. Worthington, did you ever believe that your daughter was going to die?”

“No, I did not,” answered Worthington.

Was this a blunt question? Or was the wording carefully chosen to take into consideration that, for those who rely on faith healing, “belief” is a choice, and “unbelief” is not allowed?

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