When Ava Worthington was born, she was an apparently healthy, good-sized baby girl, weighing 10 pounds - putting her in the top 95% of weight for newborns. When she died 15 months later, she weighed only 16 pounds - in the bottom 5% for children her age.
If Ava Worthington had not had the misfortune to be the child of two members of a bizarre religious cult called the "Followers of Christ," she very likely would be alive today. Instead, she died of a series of treatable illnesses over the course of a year while her parents refused to get medical care for her, instead relying on prayer, laying on of hands, dabbing her with olive oil, giving her sips of wine and similar mumbo-jumbo.
Dr. Dan Leonhardt, a pediatrician who testified for the prosecution, said Ava Worthington developed a cyst on her neck at the age of three months that interfered with her breathing and set her up for the other health problems, including pneumonia, that eventually killed her. Her parents got her no treatment for the cyst or any of her other medical problems.
Dr. Leonhardt also testified that Ava could have been saved at almost any point during her ordeal, even after she stopped breathing on March 2, 2008. Her parents didn't call 911. They didn't administer CPR. Instead they kept praying and dribbling the olive oil.
Ava Worthington's parents, Raylene and Carl Worthington, were the first to be prosecuted under an Oregon law that covers such cases - a law that the legislature was inspired to pass after it came to light that an unusual number of children of the Followers of Christ appeared to be dying.
According to a report in Time magazine in 1998, those deaths might be only a small fraction of the national toll. A study in the professional journal Pediatrics, Time reported, "documented 140 child deaths 'from religion-motivated medical neglect' between 1975 and 1995, attributed to 23 religious denominations in 34 states." The co-author of the study, Texas pediatrician Seth Asser, said he believed hundreds of other such fatalities go unreported. "This is Jonestown in slow motion," he said.
What happened to Ava Worthington was a crime. What happened in the courtroom yesterday was also a crime. Instead of getting convicted of manslaughter, Carl Worthington was found guilty of criminal mistreatment - a misdemeanor punishable by only a year in jail. His wife was acquitted.
Judging by some of the quotes reported in The Oregonian, the jurors in the case appear to have been almost as idiotic as the defendants. Even after Ava stopped breathing on a Sunday, jury president Ashlee Santos seemed to think there was no particular urgency in getting medical care: "It might be that a reasonable person might wait until Monday to take their kid to the doctor."
How atrocities like the death of Ava Worthington can not only happen but go virtually unpunished in a supposedly civilized country is mind-blowing. If you had a sick dog or horse and you refused to give it any medical care you'd probably be hauled up on animal cruelty or neglect charges. Do the same thing to a child in the name of religion, though, and the law lets you skate.
Defenders of the Worthingtons and their fellow cultists like to paint this case as an issue of religious freedom. But this isn't about religious freedom. It's about child abuse, period. Children are not property, and religious beliefs don't give parents the right to subject them to pain and death.
It's curious how our peculiar American style of religious bigotry plays into this case too. If there was a bunch of nut cases calling themselves the "Followers of the Great God Juba-Juba" and they attempted to heal their sick children by having shamans rattle chicken bones over them, you can bet your ass some of them would end up in the state pen. But because the wackos in Oregon City do their thing in the name of "Christ," we cut them more slack.
Meanwhile, the Clackamas County DA isn't through with the Followers of Christ yet. Raylene Worthington's parents, Jeff and Marci Beagley, face a charge of criminally negligent homicide for letting 16-year-old Neil Beagley die last June of an untreated urinary tract blockage.
The other bright note is that, according to news reports, the Followers of Christ are no longer accepting any new members, which means that in time this disgusting cult probably will die out. Unfortunately it's impossible to predict how many children will suffer and die needlessly before it does.