SENDING a child-abuse bill back to the Massachusetts legislature for amendment, Gov. William Weld said Friday that state law should protect spiritual treatment of children in some circumstances.
The bill strengthens criminal penalties against parents and other people responsible for the care of children who batter children or who ``wantonly and recklessly permit'' harm to children.
Massachusetts currently is one of the few states that do not have a specific statute to prosecute nonsexual child abuse.
The proposed legislation, however, also repeals a section in a different child-neglect statute that says ``a child shall not be deemed to ... lack proper physical care for the sole reason that he is being provided remedial treatment by spiritual means alone....''
In his message to the legislature, Governor Weld asked lawmakers to eliminate the repeal provision, which, he said, is unrelated to the purpose of the child-abuse law.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last summer that the accommodation for spiritual treatment of children in the neglect law - a civil statute - is not a defense to a prosecution for manslaughter or, by implication, other criminal prosecutions for harm to children.
In light of that decision, Weld wrote, ``repeal [of the spiritual-treatment section] is unnecessary. However, this provision may afford protection in civil proceedings, and I believe it is fair for the law to continue to afford such protection.''
But, the governor said in a press release, ``I strongly agree with the intent of this legislation which will make child abuse a distinct and serious crime deserving severe punishment...''
I am eager to sign into law a bill which will punish these acts of violence,'' he added.
A spokesman for the Christian Science Church, which opposed the legislature's repeal of the spiritual-treatment section, praised the governor for his action. Healing through prayer is a central principle and practice of Christian Scientists.
``If lawmakers wish to examine spiritual treatment of children, it should be in an appropriate legislative context,'' said Warren Silvernail, the church's contact with the Massachusetts legislature.
``To repeal the spiritual-treatment section in a criminal law, in my view, says that relying on prayer to heal children is criminal conduct,'' he added.
Sen. Shannon O'Brien (D) of Easthampton, a sponsor of the child-abuse bill, criticized the governor, however. Weld ``is not providing a clear enough guide for persons who use spiritual means for healing,'' Senator O'Brien told the Associated Press.
O'Brien said that preserving the religious-treatment provision may send Christian Science parents ``the wrong message'' about the circumstances in which it provides a legal defense against prosecution in the event a child dies or comes to serious harm.