The Massachusetts Senate Approves Child-Abuse Bill

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THE child-abuse bill passed by the Massachusetts Senate would repeal the current statutory protection for parents who rely on spiritual healing for their children.

The Senate action Wednesday comes after state House approval the day before. Earlier, a joint committee had reconciled versions of the law passed by the chambers. It is expected to reach Gov. William Weld (R) next week.

In a statement after the House vote, Warren Silvernail, a Christian Science Church spokesman in Boston, said Christian Science parents' ``reliance on spiritual treatment is based upon more than a century of effective healing.'' Church members wonder why the legislature is ``trying to outlaw a healing practice for children that has such a good healing record.''

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Unlike most states, Massachusetts does not have a law specifically targeted against nonsexual child abuse. The new bill would punish assaults on children with prison terms of up to 15 years.

The bill also criminalizes ``passive abuse.'' It establishes prison terms of up to five years for a parent or caretaker who ``wantonly and recklessly permits bodily injury'' to a child, including ``any physical condition which imperils a child's health or welfare.''

Sen. Shannon O'Brien, the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said that the statutory section on spiritual healing needed to be repealed because it gave parents ``the wrong message'' that they are absolved of responsibility for abuse if they use faith healing.

But Christian Science Church officials and some lawmakers contend that the bill infringes on Christian Scientists' religious freedom because it inhibits reliance on prayer for healing children rather than turning to conventional medicine.

The bill repeals a section in a separate child-neglect law saying a child ``shall not be deemed ... to lack proper physical care'' when receiving ``treatment by spiritual means alone.'' David and Ginger Twitchell, a Christian Science couple charged with manslaughter in 1990 after their son died of a birth defect, said they relied on the provision in deciding to treat the boy with prayer.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed the conviction last summer, in part because the jury was not told of the provision. But the high court said in the future the provision would not be a defense to a manslaughter charge.

In the wake of the court's decision, it has been unclear what remaining legal protection the provision affords to spiritual treatment of children in cases of serious illness or injury, but the repeal of the provision makes that discussion academic.

Although a spokeswoman for Mr. Weld says he is likely to sign the new bill, Christian Science Church officials have encouraged church members in Massachusetts to write the governor explaining their concerns and asking him to veto the legislation.

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