BOSTON — A CALIFORNIA court has dismissed child endangerment and involuntary manslaughter charges, acquitting a Christian Science couple in connection with the death of their child in 1984. Eliot and Lise Glaser had turned to prayer, and sought the help of a Christian Science practitioner for treatment through prayer, after their 17-month-old son, Seth, became suddenly ill. He died within 27 hours of the onset of the illness.
Superior Court Judge Robert Thomas, ruling on lawyers' arguments, without a jury present, said the case did not reach a threshold where he had to decide whether Christian Science treatment was acceptable. Both prosecution and defense had held that religious beliefs and practices were not at issue.
Judge Thomas said that no parent would have been found guilty under the circumstances of this case. He said on Friday that the Glasers would have had to have been found indifferent to human life to have been convicted of a criminal offense.
Christian Scientists in Arizona, Florida, and in another California case have been convicted of felony child endangerment in connection with the deaths of small children. Two of these cases are being appealed. The Arizona case was settled through a plea-bargaining agreement. In all three cases, manslaughter charges were dropped either by the judge or the jury.
In each of the cases, the parents maintained that by relying on prayer for healing they were acting in accord with state laws that permit the use of prayer in lieu of medical treatment. California's state supreme court ruled in 1988, however, that even with statutory provisions that provide for prayer in such cases, criminal prosecution under child abuse and neglect statutes may occur if a child dies or is threatened with serious illness.
A Massachusetts case is scheduled for trial April 17. In it, a Christian Science couple, Ginger and David Twitchell, are charged with manslaughter in the death of their child Robyn. The couple resorted to prayer instead of medical treatment. They have maintained that they used the treatment they had confidence in - one they believed was proper according to state law.
Prosecutors in this case say accommodations for spiritual healing in the law are outweighed by the resulting death of the child. In their defense, the Twitchells argue that prayer has long been effective in healing, having maintained both their own health, and the health of their other children. Their reliance was based not only on faith, they say, but on its success in their lives.
Earlier in what was an almost five-year proceeding, the Glasers raised the issue of ``selective prosecution,'' suggesting that they would not been faced with criminal charges if they were not Christian Scientists. This issue was not publicly resolved.
Commenting on the Glaser verdict, The Christian Science Board of Directors in Boston said in a statement that they were ``distressed that these cases come up at all, but we are pleased that the judge found the defendants not guilty.''
A church spokesman added: ``No caring, responsible parent who has suffered the loss of a child to an illness should have to undergo the further burden of a criminal prosecution.''
Late last year, the US Supreme Court refused to review the finding of a Michigan appellate court that dismissed negligence charges against The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston in connection with a child's death in 1977. The parents, Douglas and Rita Swan, former Christian Scientists, sought to find the church culpable in this matter.
The issue of criminal liability of those engaged in spiritual healing, or involved in religious counseling, has been raised in a number of cases. In a key matter in this area, a California court dismissed charges against ministers of a Christian fundamentalist church who counseled a young man who later committed suicide.
In the Glaser matter, medical authorities said after their son Seth's death, that he died of bacterial meningitis. Deputy District Attorney David Wells had charged the parents with gross negligence, with ``acts so reckless, so gross, that they constitute a disregard for human life.'' Wells also said recovery from the disease is more than 90 percent when antibiotics are used.
Judge Thomas found the Glasers innocent of disregard for the life of their child. Recovery statistics cited in the case have also been challenged by some medical doctors who say particular strains of meningitis are hard to detect, much less treat.