5 Nov 2010

Teen died agonizing death from ruptured appendix while parents, relatives and church elders did nothing but pray for 3 days

NOTE BY PERRY BULWER - August 27, 2009

Keeping this archive updated can be down right depressing at times. There is no end to the cruel abuses perpetrated on children by religious believers. Only a small percentage of that abuse ever makes it into a news or magazine article, however, and this blog only archives some of those articles. Nevertheless, in less than a year and a half, I have already accumulated over 1300 articles. Some of them hit closer to home for me than others, such as the article below, which triggered some traumatic memories for me.

You see, I was 17 years old, the same age as the teen in this article, when I came down with appendicitis. Just over a year earlier, in 1972, I had joined the Children of God cult, now known as The Family International. After several intense months of indoctrination, I was sent to the 'mission field' of Japan. The cult was just getting rooted there, with only a few scattered communes, so new-comers like me were immediately sent on the road, two by two, to sell literature. While staying in a youth hostel, I began to get severe abdominal pains during the night. As morning dawned I was in obvious agony, so my partner informed the hostel manager who immediately suggested I go the hospital, which was right across the street. I refused to go, however, because I had effectively been indoctrinated by the cult to believe that any sickness or medical problem was a sign of disobedience to God. I was also taught that going to doctors showed a lack of faith -- if I was sick it was a test of my faith in God -- and that sickness was often a sign of yielding to the devil. I had also seen others in the cult punished, reprimanded or criticized for being sick. In short, the cult believed, and still does, that physical ailments have spiritual origins---either God is testing you or the devil is attacking you.

Doubled over in agony, barely able to walk, I continued to resist going to the hospital for several hours out of fear of displeasing God and my cult leaders. The pain became so unbearable, however, that I eventually gave in and went to the emergency ward. It took a few hours for the test results, during which time I thought I might die, the pain was so bad. Finally, the doctor told me I either had a severe infection or appendicitis and gave me the option of two courses of action. By that time, I was almost delireous with pain, I could hardly think straight, so I told him I just wanted the pain to stop and he should decide for me. He decided to open me up, and after the emergency surgery he told me I had had acute appendicitis and that my appendix could have burst at any time.

I spent several days recuperating, during which time my partner contacted the cult leaders hundreds of miles away in Tokyo. After I was released, I went to the nearest cult commune to recuperate, and the cult leaders came down to speak to me, or I should say, to punish me. That's exactly what they did. They told me that I had endangered the work of God in Japan, and as punishment I would be sent back to America. To cult members, that was like a death sentence, since this apocalyptic cult believe the deranged teachings of David Berg, who claimed America would soon be destroyed by God for their wickedness.

I nearly suffered the same fate as the teen in the article below, because of religious indoctrination. When I refused medical care, I was not doing so from an informed, rational, uncoerced position, but out of fear instilled in me through indoctrination into Christian fundamentalism. So keep that in mind as you ponder whether the teen in this article was freely exercising his religious rights, or was under undue influence and pressure not to seek medical treatment.


The Wenatchee World - Washington August 26, 2009

Questions still linger over Carlton boy's death

By K.C. Mehaffey | World staff writer

CARLTON — Zachery Swezey lay in his parents' bed, his breathing labored.

When he fell ill March 15, the 17-year-old Carlton boy's parents, Greg and JaLea Swezey, thought he had food poisoning. But over the next three days, they realized it was something else, perhaps the flu. He'd had a fever, and was vomiting with severe diarrhea.

During those three days, aunts, uncles and grandparents came to his bedside to pray. On March 17, his father did not call a doctor or an ambulance. Instead, he called elders from their church. They came to the house and anointed Zakk with olive oil, and prayed for him as Zakk's family waited outside in the hall. Members of the Church of the First Born, the Swezeys believe in faith healing.

At midday on March 18, Zakk told his mother he loved her, and asked for his father to come to his bedside.

Shortly before 1 p.m, his breathing slowed. His hands got cold and turned a bluish color. With both of his parents at his bedside, Zakk Swezey died.

An autopsy later revealed the Pateros High School student died of a ruptured appendix.

Greg and JaLea Swezey did not return a phone message on Tuesday, and about a week after his death declined to talk to a reporter about what happened. Details about the circumstances surrounding Zakk's death come from reports by Okanogan County Sheriff's investigators Josh Brown and Gene Davis. The documents were among others released Aug. 21 in a public records request by The Wenatchee World.

The Swezeys felt release of the information would violate their right to privacy, and sought to prevent disclosure with a lawsuit in Okanogan County Superior Court.

Last week, Judge Jack Burchard ruled in favor of releasing the records.

He wrote, "The investigation raises legitimate and important concerns about public health. The prosecutor has yet to announce whether criminal charges will be filed. This tragic death may involve important questions of parental freedom and responsibility as well as religious freedom."

Those issues have been explored in criminal cases across the nation, when children have died after parents attempted faith healing, and prosecutors decided to file charges.

In Swezey's case, Okanogan County Prosecutor Karl Sloan said the sheriff is still investigating this case, and his office has not yet received its report. "Once it's wrapped up and completed, we'll look at it and determine if charges are warranted," he said.

The day his son died, Greg Swezey told sheriff's investigators he knew Zakk would die 10 or 15 minutes before the teenager passed away. His condition had gotten much worse about an hour and a half before Zakk died, he told the investigators, and he realized Zakk was exhibiting some of the symptoms of death he'd seen when older church members died.

He did not consider calling an ambulance, he told them. But both he and his wife told investigators that they gave Zakk that option, although it was not clear from records when the choice was offered.

He also told deputies that his children knew generally that they had the choice to see a doctor. Zakk had seen one the previous year for a sports physical.

"We don't force our kids, our kids have a choice. At no time did Zachery ask to go to the doctor," Brown wrote in notes from his interview with Greg Swezey. He also told investigators that his oldest son once broke his leg, and they gave him a choice of going to the doctor, but his son chose not to. Swezey put a cast on his leg, and later they saw a physical therapist who confirmed his son had broken his leg.

Most states, including Washington, have child abuse laws that allow some religious exemptions for parents who do not seek medical treatment when their children are sick.

Washington's law specifies that a person treated through faith healing "by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner in lieu of medical care is not considered deprived of medically necessary health care or abandoned." Other religions are not mentioned.

Rita Swan, president of CHILD Inc., a nonprofit group formed to protect children from abusive religious and cultural practices, called Washington's law "awful" and said it would not stand up if challenged because it discriminates in favor of one religion, and not others.

CHILD stands for Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty.

Swan, in Sioux City, Iowa, was aware of Swezey's death when contacted Tuesday, and said four other children in three states other than Washington have died so far this year in what she calls faith-deaths.

"There are many small Pentecostal groups that want Jesus to be their doctor, and that consider illness a tempt of faith. But they just don't have the legal muscle to do what the Christian Scientists do," she said, explaining why Washington's law protects only one religion.

Her Web site includes a list of 17 churches that "have let children die since 1980 because of their religious beliefs against medical care," and the Church of the First Born is among them.

The church apparently follows the Book of Mormon and was founded by prophets Joseph Morris and George Williams, but the church's Web site was not specific, and reliable sources could not be found.

Swan said what struck her most about Swezey's death is the agony he must have endured. "The pain that comes with a ruptured appendix is just excruciating. It's something the boy should not have had to suffer," she said.

She said the fact that Zakk was 17 years old should not make any difference to the prosecutor, because legally children cannot seek medical care until they are 18. "We believe children should be protected until the age of 18, and protected from their own beliefs, if necessary," she said.

The United States doesn't allow anyone younger to drink, or sign a contract, or face execution, she noted.

But Steven Green, a law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., said he thinks Zakk's age will be a major factor in the prosecutor's decision. So will the fact that his parents told investigators they gave him the choice of seeking medical attention, he added.

Green is also director of the Center for Religion, Law & Democracy, and has extensive courtroom experience in cases involving freedom of religion.

He said even though Zakk was legally a minor, and under his parents' care, "Once you get into those older teen years, there is more of an assumption that children can make their own decision," he said.

And prosecuting someone for raising their children with a religion that believes in faith healing raises serious religious liberty concerns, he said.

"It may end up being a factual determination of whether this child was under undue influence, pressure not to seek medical treatment, or whether he was old enough to make this decision," he said.

Another detail that could be important is whether Zakk became unresponsive as a result of his illness before he died, and would have been unable to ask for a doctor, which would send that responsibility back to the parents, Green said.

And, he said, the recent acquittal of a Oregon City, Ore., couple charged with negligent homicide for attempting to heal through prayer their 15-month-old daughter, could weigh heavily in the prosecutor's considerations.

Ava Worthington died of pneumonia in March 2008, and her parents belong to Followers of Christ Church.

Her father, Carl Worthington, was convicted by the jury last month of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment and was sentenced to two months in jail, but found innocent of the more serious charge.

Green noted that the case was expensive to prosecute, and despite what appeared to be a strong case, jurors were sympathetic to the couple, who otherwise took good care of their child.

"It probably will make a lot of prosecutors at least think about whether these cases are worth pursuing," he said.

That's particularly true if the purpose of prosecuting someone is to prevent others from doing the same thing, the law professor said.

"People who believe are not likely to be deterred by a criminal prosecution," he said, adding, "Some people who believe in spiritual treatment, the reliance on prayer and other spiritual aspects in light of an illness is an indication of their faith, so the consequences of engaging medical care is a major violation of their religious tenants," he said.

This article was found at:



Another child victim of Church of the First Born, mother charged with neglect after 9 year old son dies from untreated diabetes


  1. Jury seated in faith healing case

    By K.C. Mehaffey,Wenatchee World staff writer May 9, 2012

    OKANOGAN — Some potential jurors said that Greg and JaLea Swezey have suffered enough, and that they should have never been charged with second-degree murder for the death of their 17-year-old son, Zachery.

    Others said that they couldn’t be impartial knowing that a child may have died because of someone’s religious beliefs.

    Those who expressed such strong opinions were excused from jury duty in Okanogan County Superior Court Tuesday before lawyers picked a jury to determine whether the Carlton couple’s failure to call an ambulance as their son lay dying of a ruptured appendix three years ago constituted criminal neglect.

    As members of the Church of the First Born — which believes in faith healing — the Swezeys did call church elders to pray for him, and anoint him with olive oil in the days leading up to his death.

    “This poor family has suffered enough,” one potentialjuror said during jury selection, adding, “I’d be happy to go on the jury, but the state probably would not want me.”

    Others said the religious aspects of the case or their training as physician assistants, EMTs or others in the medical profession made them biased in a way they didn’t feel they would overcome.

    “Religion don’t mend a broken bone. Doctors do,” one juror said before he was excused.

    “I would give my life to keep a child alive,” said another juror, released from duty.In all, 84 jurors showed up for duty out of 194 called, Judge Chris Culp said. Thirty-six of them were released for cause, including hardships such as medical appointments with specialists, pressing job requirements and family obligations.

    In addition to weeding out potentially biased jurors, Tuesday’s questioning may have offered a first glimpse into how defense attorneys Douglas “Gil” Webber and Chelsea Korte plan to defend the Swezeys.

    But by their questions to jurors and statements in pretrail motions, defense attorneys may steer this trial away from the faith healing controversy, and toward whether as parents, the Swezeys thought they were doing what they could to help their son.

    “This is an allegation by the state that our clients failed to provide medical care for religious reasons, and the child died as a result,” Korte told the potential jurors. “We’re in trial because we believe that’s not what happened here,” he later told them.

    Also during juror questioning, he asked how many of them had ever had the flu, how many had seen a doctor for the flu, and how many of them had called an ambulance for it.

    During pretrial motions, Korte also indicated he would be calling a member of the Church of the First Born to “dispel a misconception” about their beliefs. And, he explained plans for testimony from two young men of the Swezey family, saying, “That testimony consists of the two kids explaining that they have, in fact, had medical treatment.”

    In addition, Greg Swezey is on the defense’s witness list. “He may or may not testify,” Korte told the court.

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    Webber said that the medical testimony was going to be crucial in this trial. He wanted to know whether some jurors would have a difficult time believing the testimony of an Ellensburg doctor scheduled to testify for the defense if his testimony conflicts with that of Dr. Bradley Craig, an Omak doctor who is testifying for the prosecution, and is known by many potential witnesses.

    The attorneys also asked detailed questions of possible jurors who had lost a child, or who had experiences with appendicitis.

    In his questioning, Prosecutor Karl Sloan asked jurors if they might have a bias that would prevent them from being impartial.

    “People have feelings either way. What your general feelings are is not the issue. We all come in with certain biases,” he said, and then asked, “But are those so strong, you couldn’t put those aside?”

    One woman was excused after saying the “religious issue” bothered her. A man told the prosecutor, “I am an appendectomy survivor, and because of my profession — a veterinarian — I don’t think I could weigh this case fairly.”

    But many others remained were somewhere in the middle. As one potential juror put it, “If you’re trying to see what’s right and what’s wrong, it doesn’t seem to be black and white. It seems to be pretty gray.”

    Opening arguments and testimony are scheduled to begin today in front of the newly seated jury of seven women, five men and two alternates.


  3. Faith-healing couple takes plea in son's death

    Associated Press June 7, 2012

    OKANOGAN, Wash. (AP) - A north-central Washington couple on Thursday agreed to accept a plea deal that spares them jail time but holds them responsible for their teenage son's death after they failed to call a doctor.

    A jury acquitted JaLea and Greg Swezey of Carlton of second-degree murder charges for failing to call a doctor or ambulance before their son Zachery died of a ruptured appendix in 2009. However, they still faced manslaughter charges.

    JaLea Swezey pleaded guilty to third-degree criminal mistreatment and received a suspended sentence. Greg Swezey was charged with second-degree criminal mistreatment and his case was continued for two years.

    That charge will be reduced to third-degree criminal mistreatment if he commits no felonies in the next two years, and he also would receive a suspended sentence, The Wenatchee World reported.

    The Swezeys are members of the Church of the First Born, which believes in faith healing.

    Okanogan County Prosecutor Karl Sloan argued during their May trial that all indications showed the Swezeys knew their son's situation was grave. But Greg Swezey testified that he did not know until minutes before Zachery died on March 18, 2009, that his son was dying.

    In developing a plea deal, Sloan said he wanted to ensure protection for the couple's 4-year-old daughter. Under the deal, they agreed to contact Child Protective Services if a child under their care is ill or injured.

    Judge Chris Culp said he felt the case was about responsibility and the role of a parent.

    After sentencing JaLea Swezey, Culp said, "I think today, in no small measure, that Mrs. Swezey, you are taking responsibility for your actions or inactions in a way that hopefully will bring some closure to this really unfortunate chapter."


  4. Faith Healing Exemption Gets Scrutiny In Washington Legislature

    by Austin Jenkins, Northwest News Network | Feb. 7, 2014

    Christian Scientists who treat their sick children with faith healing, instead of medical care, have special protection under Washington law. But that could soon change.

    Lawmakers are considering whether to repeal the Christian Science exemption. This follows the death of a teenager in North Central Washington.

    The teenager died at home of a burst appendix in 2009. He parents were followers of a church that believes in faith healing. They were put on trial. But because they weren’t Christian Scientists they couldn’t use that as their defense. The trial ended in a hung jury.

    “In that case the court was able to really avoid whether it had to instruct the jury specifically because it wasn’t actually a Christian Science church that was involved,” explains Tom McBride, the executive secretary of Washington’s Association of Prosecutors.

    But McBride says that case points out the inequity of referencing a single religion in the law. He now supports a measure that would remove the Christian Science exemption in Washington statute.

    In 2011, Oregon lawmakers made it so parents can no longer claim spiritual treatment as a defense in child neglect cases. A similar measure was introduced in Idaho this year. Both are in response to the deaths of several children associated with a particular church.