WHILE many lawmakers and prosecutors in Massachusetts hail a bill to punish child abuse and neglect passed by the state Senate this week, Christian Scientists and other groups worry that it jeopardizes innocent parents.
The bill toughens criminal penalties for people who inflict nonsexual physical injury on children, and also for people who, in certain circumstances, ``permit bodily injury to a child.''
But officials of the Christian Science Church here contend that the latter provision leaves ``vulnerable'' Christian Science parents and others who rely on spiritual treatment for children. ``We shouldn't be swept in on child abuse, just because we are praying for our children,'' says Victor Westberg, the church spokesman.
The church tried unsuccessfully in both houses of the Massachusetts legislature to add an amendment protecting parents who rely in good faith on an established system of spiritual healing. The Senate bill repeals part of a 1971 child-neglect law that afforded some protection for spiritual healing.
Battered-women's groups also worry that the new legislation could be used to prosecute ``passive parents'' who fail to shield children from an abusive spouse or partner.
The bill's sponsor, however, says she doubts that prosecutors would abuse the law. ``Only in outrageous cases of wanton and reckless conduct would this statute be used to prosecute parents who permit harm to come to their children,'' says Sen. Shannon O'Brien (D) of Easthampton.
``I would look at a case very hard before I used the statute to prosecute Christian Science parents,'' says Martha Coakley, chief of the child-abuse prosecution unit in the Middlesex County district attorney's office, who praises the bill as a useful tool to go after child batterers.
Senator O'Brien says the bill's ``wanton and reckless'' standard establishes a high threshold for prosecutors in the passive-parent situation. ``Parents have to be more than negligent or even grossly negligent,'' the senator says.
In the rare case of parents whose child has died under Christian Science care, the question is whether a jury would view the failure to seek medical care as wanton and reckless conduct, or would examine all the circumstances of a case to determine if the parents acted reasonably in applying spiritual treatment.
Different versions of the abuse-and-neglect bill have been passed by both houses. Mr. Westberg says Christian Science Church officials will continue to try to amend the bill as the chambers reconcile their differences.
According to a lawyer at the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse near Washington, Massachusetts is one of only a few states that have not enacted child-abuse statutes.