Taking Faith Healing to (sic) Far?

Wednesday, January 6, 1999
(This is an unedited, uncorrected transcript.)

DIANE SAWYER, ABCNEWS Good evening, and welcome to 20/20. We start tonight with a truly chilling story about what some people will do in the belief that it will save their souls, a price that sometimes is life itself.

SAM DONALDSON, ABCNEWS Diane, what we're talking about is faith healing. Tens of thousands of people in this country, most notably Christian Scientists, rely primarily on God, not doctors, to cure their illnesses. In serious situations, many of these believers will seek outside help. But chief correspondent Chris Wallace has found one church group that critics say takes faith healing too far. Chris?

CHRIS WALLACE, ABCNEWS Sam, they call themselves Followers of Christ, more than a thousand people who attend a small church outside Portland, Oregon. What's outraged their neighbors is that an alarming number of children in the Followers have died while their parents prayed instead of getting a doctor. And so far, authorities say there's nothing they can do to stop it. (VO) It's Sunday morning in Oregon City. And services are about to begin at the Followers of Christ Church. But if the scene looks familiar, outsiders worry that the lives of the group's most helpless members could be in danger.

TERRY GUSTAFSON, DISTRICT ATTORNEY We have neighbors who have called in and told us about children screaming and crying in pain and parents giving them nothing but prayer.

JEFF GREEN, POLICE DETECTIVE I can't believe that somebody would let their own child die.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) What they're talking about is the Followers' belief in faith healing and their refusal, in many cases, to get medical help for their children, no matter how serious the situation. (on camera) Do the Followers love their children?

RUSS BRIGGS, FORMER FOLLOWERS MEMBER Definitely. They're some of the best parents you could ever find anywhere.

CHRIS WALLACE Why then are they allowing them to die these terrible deaths?

RUSS BRIGGS God's will.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) It's a faith the Followers have no interest in sharing with outsiders. (on camera) Can you tell us why your group is allowing these children to die without getting them medical care?

PHYLLIS SMITH, CHURCH MEMBER We're trying to live our religion.

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) The Followers have their own cemetery on the outskirts of town, and dozens of children are buried here in tiny graves. But what's most chilling about coming here is that medical experts say many of these children didn't have to die, that their lives were sacrificed for their parents' religious beliefs.

DR LARRY LEWMAN (PH), OREGON STATE MEDICAL EXAMINER It's senseless. It is totally, completely senseless.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Dr Larry Lewman is the state medical examiner. He deals with death every day. But after seeing what has happened to children of the Followers, he is looking for some way to protect them.

DR LARRY LEWMAN We see all of the cases of child abuse in the state. We see kids beaten and shaken and all the horrible stories. In many--- in many instances, these kids suffered worse than the kids that are physically beaten.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) The stories behind the headstones are grim. Over the past decade, 18 children have died--- a 4-year-old who suffered from an infection for 46 days, babies and mothers dying together in childbirth. And recently, in just seven months, three children lost their lives. (on camera) Did these three children have to die?

DR LARRY LEWMAN Not a one of them.

CHRIS WALLACE All these kids could have been saved if ... ?

DR LARRY LEWMAN Proper medical intervention in time.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Six-year-old Holland Cunningham was apparently never offered that choice. One night in July of '97, he woke his parents up, suffering from what turned out to be a hernia.

DR LARRY LEWMAN And the abdominal pain had to be just excruciating. His intestine--- two-thirds of his small intestine was literally dying during this period of time.

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) And what did Holland's parents do for him?


CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Holland Cunningham filled one more child's grave in the Followers' cemetery. We wanted to ask his father, Carter Cunningham, why he didn't get medical help for his child. But neither he nor any other parents in the church who have lost children would talk with us. Still, some former members are speaking out, people like Russ Briggs and Myra Cunningham. It is through their eyes that we get a rare glimpse inside this mysterious group.

MYRA CUNNINGHAM, FORMER FOLLOWERS MEMBER I felt that we were the chosen people. I was, you know, raised to believe that from birth.

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) You would go to heaven?


CHRIS WALLACE And what about everybody else?

RUSS BRIGGS They all go to hell because they don't have the right spirit.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) It all started with one man, Walter White, a "fire and brimstone" preacher who brought the church to Oregon in the '30s. The Followers believe that God appeared to him in a dream and chose him to lead their group.

RUSS BRIGGS Very dictatorial, all powerful. He was considered to be a lot closer to God. And he interpreted God's word for his church and his congregation.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) White has been dead for almost 30 years, but his congregation of more than 1,000 still follows the path he laid out for them. They send their children to public schools, and many of the Followers work in town. But they are told not to socialize with outsiders. And as Russ Briggs found out, anyone who leaves the church is shunned even by his own brothers and sister.

RUSS BRIGGS I haven't spoken with them or seen them since June of 1981.

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) Haven't talked to them for 17 years?


CHRIS WALLACE They won't have anything to do with you?


CHRIS WALLACE (VO) But what really separates the Followers from most people is what Walter White taught them about treating the ill. He preached that they should put their faith in God, not medicine, that prayer is all there is to cure any illness.

MYRA CUNNINGHAM They believe that, you know, God will heal. And if he does not heal you, that it's his will for you to die.

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) And going to a doctor is what?

MYRA CUNNINGHAM You're putting your faith in a man's hand rather than God.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) When a child breaks a bone, members of the church take care of it, not doctors.

RUSS BRIGGS You take a child of a pretty young age with a broken arm and with no painkiller at all, pull the bone straight. Put a splint on it.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) It's the same with pregnant women. They are expected to give birth at home, helped by a midwife. No medical care, no matter what the emergency. Myra Cunningham says delivering her daughter Melissa this way put her life in danger.

MYRA CUNNINGHAM After the baby was delivered, I started bleeding badly. And I asked my mom's best friend to get me up because I could feel that I was going to pass out. And my thought at that time was, "If I pass out, they're not going to do anything about it."

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) What do you mean, they wouldn't do anything about it? What did you think would happen?

MYRA CUNNINGHAM They'd let you die.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) In spite of her own frightening experience, Myra raised Melissa and another daughter, Brooke, in the church. There were no doctor's visits, even when Brooke, at age 1, had a fever so high she went into convulsions. (on camera) If your child had gotten really sick and died, you would have let it happen?

MYRA CUNNINGHAM At that time, probably would have.

CHRIS WALLACE And how do you explain that?

MYRA CUNNINGHAM I don't know. It's a form of - it's brainwash. You're brainwashed from the time you're born. And it's hard to think that at one point I probably would have let that happen.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Myra eventually decided it was wrong to put her children's lives in danger. She left the Followers. And the two girls have grown up to be healthy young women.

MYRA CUNNINGHAM Give me a hug.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) But Myra is one of the lucky ones. If Russ Briggs wants to see his two sons, he has to come here to the cemetery where two children's graves mark his time as a Follower of Christ. Russ never imagined that faith could come with such a terrible price. When he married his wife, Lorraine, at the Followers church, both were true believers. And by age 20, Russ was a new father.

RUSS BRIGGS Excitement, wonder, mystery - it was my first child.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Darren (ph) was born a month premature. And within 48 hours, he was in trouble. The followers, of course, had no incubator.

RUSS BRIGGS As soon as it was really realized that the baby was in jeopardy, there was a lot of prayer.

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) And did you ever think, "Maybe we should get some help for Darren"?

RUSS BRIGGS I didn't know any help. I had no idea. I didn't know what an incubator was. If you'd had said an IV, I wouldn't have known what you were talking about.

CHRIS WALLACE How is that possible?

RUSS BRIGGS Never been exposed to it. I'd never been to a doctor. My parents had never been to a doctor.

CHRIS WALLACE And what happened?

RUSS BRIGGS The baby died after four and a half days.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Barely a year after Darren died, Russ had another son, Davey. And what should have been another blessed event became another tragedy.

RUSS BRIGGS Our second son lived somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 hours. I asked God to take my life instead of the baby's because I didn't want to live.

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) Even after what had happened to Darren, you still wouldn't go for help?

RUSS BRIGGS We did not have the option to decide to go to a doctor.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Years later, Russ finally chose to leave the church, and he and his wife now have three healthy daughters. But he told us he thinks about his boys every day, that if it hadn't been for his faith in the Followers he might have been able to save his sons.

RUSS BRIGGS Such a needless waste. I don't know that you could find any place else in the whole world where there's as much hurt, personal anguish, pain and misery as you can find right here.

DIANE SAWYER When we come back, the case that finally raised a public outcry against faith healing. Can freedom of religion go too far?

ANNOUNCER A little boy who might have been saved. He suffered terribly while his parents prayed.

DR LARRY LEWMAN The last 12 hours or so were - were a real horror story.

ANNOUNCER Should the law be protecting their religion or their children? When 20/20 returns.

(Commercial Break)

SAM DONALDSON Freedom of religion is a coveted right in this country. But can it go too far? You be the judge, as Chris Wallace continues his investigation of the Followers of Christ, diehard faith healers who refuse medical care for themselves and their children, too often with devastating consequences.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) It has been going on for decades, the Followers burying children in their cemetery. But last February, there was finally a public outcry. It started when a fifth-grader named Bo Phillips got sick.

DR LARRY LEWMAN The last 12 hours or so were--- were a real horror story.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Bo was suffering from what the medical examiner calls "routinely treatable diabetes." As his condition got worse, his parents relied on their faith.

DR LARRY LEWMAN Church members were called in. They anointed him with oil. They prayed.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) But prayer didn't help. Bo's temperature rose to 104 degrees.

DR LARRY LEWMAN His breathing decreased. He became unconscious for a period of time, laid there, and he died.

JEFF GREEN I'll remember that scene for the rest of my life.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Detective Jeff Green was called to the Phillips home after Bo's family reported his death to authorities. He found some 200 church members there, but what he remembers most was the little boy.

JEFF GREEN I'll never forget Bo Phillips's eyes. They were just haunting. There was just something about his face that night that really affected me.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Bo Phillips was different from the other children. For the first time, authorities felt they had clear evidence that parents in the Followers knew their child's life might be at stake. Detective Green asked Bo's father why he called in all those church members to pray for his son when it would have taken just one doctor to save his life.

JEFF GREEN I did ask him very pointedly, you know, "Why did you let your son die?" You had all these options available to you. His bottom line was, "Well, it was my choice."

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) It was his choice.

JEFF GREEN His choice.

CHRIS WALLACE What did you think when you heard him say that? (Sighs)

JEFF GREEN I couldn't believe it. I mean to me, this man, this family let their son die because they made it their choice not to take him to medical treatment.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Eleven--- year--- old Bo Phillips was buried in this grave in the Followers' cemetery. But his story doesn't end there. The question was whether his parents should be charged for their role in Bo's death. (on camera) Did you bring any charges against Bo Phillips' parents?


CHRIS WALLACE (VO) Terry Gustafson, the local district attorney, said she couldn't prosecute the case. And you will be surprised to find out why. It turns out that in 40 states, faith--- healing parents are exempt from many child abuse and neglect laws. And six states, including Oregon, go further--- giving religious exemptions, even for homicide.

TERRY GUSTAFSON People who believe in faith healing as the exclusive means for treating their children are beyond the reach of the law in the state of Oregon at this moment in time.

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) They can let their children suffer and die while they pray over them, because of their religious beliefs, and there's nothing you can do about it.

TERRY GUSTAFSON That's the way I read the law.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) The Bo Phillips' case became big news in Oregon.

OREGON TV REPORTER The church members may have been following their faith too far.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) State lawmakers, under fire, insisted that faith--- healing parents can be prosecuted under a lesser charge. But because of technicalities in the way the law is written, Terry Gustafson disagreed.

TERRY GUSTAFSON The law simply says that they have a "get out of jail free" card. And I have to respect it. That is the law. I have no choice.

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) What would happen to other parents if they had done this to their children?

JEFF GREEN If you and I did this, more likely than not, we'd still be sitting in the Clackamas County jail, pending trial.

CHRIS WALLACE But these parents are protected?

JEFF GREEN Because of the way the law is, we cannot prosecute them.

CHRIS WALLACE You don't like that do you?

JEFF GREEN No, I don't. They can neglect their kids in the name of prayer by healing, in this case, and I believe it's wrong.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) We wanted to talk to Bo Phillips's parents. But as we said earlier, no family still in the church would discuss losing their children. Respecting that decision, we sought out church leaders instead. Phyllis Smith is married to one of the group's officers. (on camera) Can you tell us why your group is allowing these children to die without getting them medical care?

PHYLLIS SMITH We're trying to live our religion.

CHRIS WALLACE But what about ...

PHYLLIS SMITH And it's as simple as that.

CHRIS WALLACE But what about these children?

PHYLLIS SMITH Do any of your children ever die?

CHRIS WALLACE Yes, but most parents would do anything they could.


CHRIS WALLACE They take them to hospitals. They get them medical care.

PHYLLIS SMITH We don't believe--- we believe in God.

CHRIS WALLACE This is a pressing issue. (VO) Dale Morris (ph) is a life--- long member of the church and a former president. He emphasized he does not speak for the Followers, but only for himself.

DALE MORRIS, CHURCH MEMBER I have freedom of religion. I do have that.

CHRIS WALLACE (on camera) And do you think it gives you the right as a parent to let your children die?

DALE MORRIS Do you think it doesn't?

CHRIS WALLACE And what if God isn't prepared to save your child?

DALE MORRIS What if? You know, Christ died on the cross, didn't he? He was God in the flesh--- for my sins, your sins, everybody's sins.

CHRIS WALLACE I understand that. But these children aren't Christ. These are--- these are children that could have, with an insulin shot or antibiotics, they could have been saved.

DALE MORRIS Maybe, I'm not arguing that point. I'm not arguing that point.

CHRIS WALLACE So why not save them?

DALE MORRIS Ask the parents of each child. Each child's parents have that decision to make.

DR LARRY LEWMAN If you're an adult and you want to die this way and become a martyr, that's your business. But you can't apply that philosophy to a child.

CHRIS WALLACE What about freedom of religion? I mean, it's one of our most cherished liberties?

DR LARRY LEWMAN But that does not extend to sitting there and watching a child die.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) There is now a big campaign in Oregon to change the law so that faith healing is no longer protected in cases of child abuse and even worse. One of the people leading the effort is Russ Briggs, who doesn't want to see other families pay the same price for their religion that his did.

RUSS BRIGGS It should be chargeable and it should be punished until they realize they can't do that. And that's only to save the children--- not to punish the parents, but to save the children.

CHRIS WALLACE (VO) But as the controversy goes on, so do the church services. Each weekend, the parking lot outside fills with hundreds of children. (on camera) Are you worried that some more of those children in the Followers of Christ church may die?

JEFF GREEN I'm not just worried. I know it's going to happen. I know that every day that a child whose family is a member of the church and is gravely ill could die.

CHRIS WALLACE The death of Bo Phillips and the attention it has brought to faith healing is now prompting action in the Oregon legislature. A bill will be introduced next week to change the law so that parents who refuse to get medical help for their children can be prosecuted. Sam?

SAM DONALDSON Thanks, Chris.


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