OREGON CITY, Ore. - Following testimony Tuesday in the latest case involving the death of a child whose parents are members of a controversial Oregon City church, a decades-old rift in the tight-knit religious group over using modern medicine has come to the forefront.
In the current case regarding the death of David Hickman, an infant, testimony last week revealed that a doctor prescribed birth control pills and once gave a medical exam to a church elder, Karen White, who also happens to be the deceased child’s grandmother.
Karen White is also married to Walter White Jr., grandson of church founder Walter White.
Current and former church members told KATU News a major rift in the church is now brewing over the revelation and the issue of medical care.
In testimony in the current case involving the parents of David Hickman, who died 9 hours after being born two months prematurely, Dale and Shannon Hickman testified that no one present at the home birth, including three midwives and other church members, considered getting medical help as David struggled to survive.
- Background stories on the Hickman case
- Read more KATU News stories about the Followers of Christ Church
Medical experts testifying in the case said David’s death was caused by an infection and was preventable. The Hickmans testified that they and the others present prayed over the child as it succumbed to the infection.
Video shot of David shortly after his birth and shown in court showed a small infant with pink skin wrapped in a blanket. In testimony, Shannon Hickman said David appeared to be a “normal newborn” baby after the birth but tearfully said she did not get to hold him until after he had passed away hours later.
David’s case is the latest in a series of four court cases involving the deaths of church members' children from illnesses that could have been remedied with medical care. One child, 16-year-old Neil Beagley, died from complications from a urinary tract infection in 2008.
Doctors testifying in that case said medical intervention could have saved him even on the day he died.
In March 2008, 15-month-old Ava Worthington died of pneumonia and a blood infection that doctors said could have been treated. Her parents, Raylene and Brent, were acquitted of manslaughter charges. Brent Worthington was convicted of criminal mistreatment and served two months in jail.
Another Worthington child was taken from the family by DHS workers after the parents refused to seek medical care for a growth on her head that was threatening her health.
Verdicts in previous cases have included convictions and jail sentences for the parents of deceased or gravely ill children who did not receive medical care.
Dale Hickman said he did not call 9-1-1 to get help for the child because he was anointing him with oil, a religious practice. Church doctrine gives the male head of a household the ultimate authority on all family decisions.
Shannon Hickman, David’s mother, said that what happened to David was “God’s will” in her testimony.
Karen White said her Bible “tells me to put my faith and trust in Him,” referring to God. “I don’t put limitations on God,” she said in response to another question.
The Hickmans face second-degree manslaughter charges under new Oregon statutes that have removed protections for ”faith healing “of minors who are ill and died but could have been helped by modern medicine.
Several former church members tell KATU News that they left the church after seeing children die from illnesses that could have been remedied with medical care.
As church members left court on Tuesday, Karen White responded with “I have no comment” to questions from KATU News about why she would go to a doctor for an exam, use birth control pills but not seek medical attention for a baby in dire medical need.
A midwife in the church also said she had no comment in response to a question about using birth control contrary to biblical and church teachings.
Church members have consistently responded to all media questions with a refusal to comment, but lawyers are expected to use the point in cross examination Wednesday.
Cases of children dying at a young age in the church date back to the 1990s. A cemetery used by the church has a large number of grave sites that hold the remains of young children.
In 1999, after intense debate, the Oregon Legislature ended a "spiritual healing" defense, allowing parents to be prosecuted.
Following the high-profile cases involving the church, Gov. Kitzhaber, a doctor himself, signed a bill into law in 2011 that eliminates spiritual treatment as a defense against all homicide charges and makes parents subject to sentencing for a Measure 11 crime.