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By Rick Bella
c. 2008 Religion News Service
PORTLAND, Ore. — The painful and apparently preventable faith-healing death of a 16-year-old boy on Tuesday (June 17) 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 parents, state law may protect the boy’s parents since under state statute he was old enough to make his own medical decisions.
Neil Jeffrey Beagley died 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 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.”
When his condition worsened Sunday, the boy was taken to the home of his grandmother, Norma Beagley, in Gladstone, Ore. Neighbors and police said more than 60 members of the Followers of Christ Church gathered there to attempt faith-healing, which includes 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 the teen had died about an hour before.
Benton said investigators then detained church and family members for hours of interviews.
“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.”
Church members have declined to comment or answer any questions.
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. Medical experts deemed both conditions treatable with antibiotics.
The infant’s parents, Carl and Raylene Worthington, have since pleaded not guilty 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, the chief deputy district attorney for Clackamas County. “We are researching applicable laws to make a determination.”
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 state 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.
(Rick Bella writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. Su-jin Yim contributed to this report.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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