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Thursday, June 19, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Teen's death renews scrutiny of faith-healing group

Oregon law may protect Followers of Christ members

The painful and apparently preventable faith-healing death of a 16-year-old Oregon City boy this week brings the secretive Followers of Christ Church back under legal scrutiny, just four months after the boy's infant niece died in similar circumstances.

But unlike the girl's death, which resulted in criminal mistreatment and manslaughter charges against her mother and father, Oregon law may protect the parents of Neil Jeffrey Beagley, who under state statute was old enough to make his own medical decisions.

Beagley died Tuesday at his grandmother's home, a week after first complaining of stomach pain and shortness of breath. As Beagley's family and several dozen church members prayed for what church members call spiritual healing, the teenager deteriorated and died, according to police and medical investigators.

Dr. Cliff Nelson, Oregon deputy state medical examiner, said Wednesday that an autopsy determined Beagley died of complications from a constriction where his bladder empties into his urethra. Beagley became unable to urinate, an intensely painful condition that caused his kidneys to stop extracting urea from his bloodstream and triggered heart failure.

Nelson said the blockage, which may have been congenital, easily could have been treated. "Basically, he couldn't void," Nelson said. "But it definitely was treatable. Something as simple as catheterization (the insertion of a tube into his bladder) could have saved his life."

Nelson also said the autopsy indicated that Beagley had suffered repeated episodes of blockage and pain, probably throughout his life, with no apparent medical intervention.

"His kidneys were shot," Nelson said. "Even if his life had been saved by catheterization, he would have been a candidate for dialysis or a kidney transplant." He said a different kind of catheter, which he termed a simple "in-office procedure," could have solved the blockage problem.

"Laying on hands"

Instead, Beagley apparently suffered for at least a week. When his condition worsened Sunday, he was taken to the Gladstone home of his grandmother, Norma Beagley. Neighbors and police said more than 60 members of the Followers of Christ Church gathered there to attempt faith-healing. Church followers believe in treating illness by anointing the body in oil, "laying on hands" and praying for a cure.

Sgt. Lynne Benton, Gladstone police spokeswoman, said a church leader called the Clackamas County medical examiner's office about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and reported that Neil Beagley had died about an hour before. Benton said investigators from Clackamas County's Major Crimes Unit then detained church and family members for interviews, which lasted until about midnight.

"We processed the scene for evidence, but there was little for us to do," Benton said. "There were no signs of trauma or suicide."

Benton said all the interviews indicated Beagley refused medical treatment.

"Unless we can disprove that," Benton said, "charges probably won't be filed in this case."

Niece also not treated

Church members declined to comment or answer any questions Wednesday.

In March, the church made national headlines when Beagley's 15-month-old niece, Ava Worthington, died at home from bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection -- conditions that medical experts deemed treatable with antibiotics.

The infant's parents, Carl and Raylene Worthington, have since pleaded not guilty in Clackamas County Circuit Court to manslaughter and criminal mistreatment. Their attorneys have indicated they will rely on a religious freedom defense and have launched a Web site, www.worthingtondefense.info, to rally nationwide support.

It's not clear whether authorities will bring charges against Neil Beagley's parents, Jeffrey Dean Beagley and Marci Rae Beagley of Oregon City, his grandmother or other church members.

"The district attorney's office is waiting for the investigation to be complete," said Gregory D. Horner, Clackamas County chief deputy district attorney. "We are researching applicable laws to make a determination."

Complex legal issue

Professor Leslie Harris, a University of Oregon law school faculty member who specializes in children and the law, said the legal issues are complicated.

Harris said Oregon law generally confers the right of consent for medical care to 15-year-olds. "But the right to consent to medical treatment may not be the same as the right to refuse medical treatment," Harris said. "Those may be very different questions."

Also unclear, Harris said, was whether the state would have to prove who decided to decline conventional medical care or whether the law would assume the choice was the boy's.

There are also questions about whether Beagley was in a position to exercise his own judgment, given his medical condition and the social pressures of his church, which has a history of shunning those who violate religious traditions.

Although Beagley was homeschooled and appeared to have little contact outside his family and church, neighbors provided glimpses into his life.

Like a lot of teenage boys, Beagley sometimes mowed the lawn in front of his cream-colored house. He was polite and had a driver's license.

Former neighbors in Oregon City said the Beagley parents and four kids were nice but generally kept to themselves. They left the neighborhood several months ago to build a new house near Beavercreek.

Lynnette Schouten, who lived next door to the family for 19 years, said she sympathized with their loss -- to a point. A mother herself, she said she could not imagine watching any of her children die in agonizing pain.

"To me, they're going through their own hell," she said. "At the same time, at what point do these kids get protected?"

Neighbors could tell someone was sick at the Beagleys' when a convoy of cars showed up, staying around the clock. They knew someone had died when the medical examiner drove up.

"I just do not believe in what they believe in," Schouten said. "I cannot understand how somebody can let their child suffer."

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