An Attleboro sect accused of allowing two young boys to die is just the latest faith-healing cult to be taken to task for their questionable decisions to depend on God to heal their sick, rather than use medicine. "It's an interesting area being delved into in courts across the United States," said noted cult expert Rick Ross.
"The courts are put in a precarious position. Does a child have a right to health and life?"
The Attleboro group, led by 27-year-old Jacques Robidoux, is accused of starving to death Robidoux's 10-month-old son, Samuel. The boy, who had been eating table food, wouldn't take breast milk - as the group's journals say God dictated - and slowly starved to death over a six-week period, prosecutors say.
Another of the sect's children, Jeremiah Corneau, allegedly suffocated and died a preventable death because his lungs weren't properly aspirated during a home birth.
But the Christian fundamentalist sect, like many similar groups around the country, doesn't believe in medicine or science, instead choosing to put their faith in a higher power.
For decades, controversy has surrounded Christian Scientists, a mainstream recognized religion that shuns health care. Several Christian Scientists have come under scrutiny and been prosecuted - despite their First Amendment arguments - for the deaths of their children from harmless ailments allowed to fester.
According to studies, there have been an estimated 172 faith-related child deaths in the United States between 1975 and 1995, 140 of which resulted from illnesses with a 90 percent or better cure rate. The deaths are attributed to 23 different religious denominations in 34 states.
Ross says authorities prosecuting and taking children away from faith healing groups, such as the Attleboro cult, is becoming increasingly common. "Authorities are asking the question, `Don't these kids have rights?' " he said. "And some of these groups are actually relieved when the courts step in because the burden is taken off of them. They don't have to compromise their beliefs."
Perhaps the most famous case involves the Indiana-based Faith Assembly, a now-defunct cult blamed for more than 100 child deaths in eight states. Some of the children died of pneumonia while others died from small, cancerous tumors allowed to swell to the size of basketballs. Several mothers also died during home births.
Michigan authorities won a manslaughter conviction against a father in the Faith Assembly whose daughter died of pneumonia while a grand jury indicted the group's leader, Hobart Freeman, for conspiracy for encouraging parents to deny their children medical care.
Freeman died before the case went to trial and the radical group has since dissolved.
Another group, the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City, Ore., has seen more than 70 children die since 1955, at least 21 of whom doctors say could have been cured with basic health care.
Prosecutors have won convictions against two couples in the group for the diabetes-related deaths of their children.