When Divine Intervention Breaks the Law

When doctors told Jacqueline Crank to get her daughter to a hospital for the tumor that was growing on her shoulder, the Tennessee woman turned to God instead.

Now the woman could face murder charges on top of the aggravated child abuse and neglect charges that she and the girl's "spiritual father," Ariel Ben Sherman, already face.

The 15-year-old girl, Jessica Crank, died on Sept. 15 from a rare form of bone cancer. One last attempt at using faith to help the girl was attempted at her funeral on Sept. 18, when Sherman asked a group of members of his New Life Ministries to pray over the girl's open casket for her resurrection.

The girl did not rise from the dead, but Sherman — who was charged with five counts of child abuse in Oregon in 1984 and convicted of criminal mistreatment — said that should not be any reason for those in his church to lose faith.

"Jesus is a healer," Sherman said at the funeral service. "Jessica believed that, too."

There is no legislation against people making their own decision not to go to a doctor, but when a parent decides not to seek medical care for a sick child, it can be considered child abuse or worse, if the child dies.

Tennessee is one of 38 states that allow parents to turn to prayer or faith healing to treat their children's illnesses and not seek medical care, but in most of those states the law specifies that if a child's condition is life threatening, a physician must be consulted.

Basketball-Sized Tumor

Crank was arrested in June, a month after she took Jessica to a Lenoir City, Tenn., clinic and, according to police, did not take the girl to an appointment with an emergency room doctor at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.

"[Clinic workers] took her X-rays and looked for two hours trying to find an orthopedic surgeon and she left there under the assumption [of the clinic] she was going to UT hospital and never arrived there," Lenoir City police Officer Lynette Ladd said. "They called the area hospitals and doctor's offices and she hadn't been anywhere, so they turned it over to us."

Jessica already had a basketball-sized tumor on her shoulder when her mother brought her to the clinic. After her mother was arrested and the girl was put in the hospital, she was diagnosed with bone cancer.

Before the girl died, attorneys for Jacqueline Crank and Sherman tried to convince the court to take a deposition from her, because they said the girl supported the decision not to take her to a doctor, but the judge denied the request.

"It's the court's opinion it would be a great injustice to subject this dying child to the procedure of a deposition," Loudon County Sessions Judge William Russell said in his ruling.

"I cannot defend this mother without taking this deposition," Gregory Isaacs, the attorney for Jacqueline Crank, said at the hearing.

Loudon County Assistant District Attorney Gary Fox argued that it made no difference whether the 15-year-old wanted to rely on prayer.

"That's not a decision that the child makes. That's a decision that the parents make," he said.

Power of the Holy Spirit

While a parent's decision not to do everything possible — even if it conflicts with religious beliefs — to help an obviously desperately sick child might seem bizarre to many people, relying solely on faith to cure disease has held a place in American religious life for more than a century, at least since the emergence of the Christian Science church in the 1880s.

Until the 1960s, most of the legal cases dealing with parents withholding medical care for their children involved Christian Science followers, but in the 1960s there were increasing numbers of members of other denominations who were charged with crimes for turning to prayer rather than medicine for their kids.

The practice of seeking divine assistance in times of illness is not uncommon among Methodists, Episcopalians and Pentecostals, though it is rare for members of those denominations to turn to prayer to the exclusion of medical care, according to religious scholars.

Most often, those who will turn their backs on medical science are followers of the so-called charismatics, preachers who emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit and point to certain scriptures, notably from Acts and Paul's Letter to the Corinthians, said J. Gordon Melton, the director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion.

The strides made by medical science over the last century may have taken away some of the impetus to turn away from doctors and seek another answer for illness, Melton suggested.

Massachusetts Sect on Trial

The issue was again brought to national attention in the late 1980s and the 1990s with a series of cases, including that of David and Ginger Twitchell, two Christian Scientists who were convicted of manslaughter in the death of their son, for whom they did not get medical care.

Their conviction was overturned three years later on technical grounds.

More recently, three members of a sect in Attleboro, Mass., known as The Body were accused of murder in the April 1999 starvation death of a 10-month-old boy. The boy was taken off solid food and forced to take nourishment only from his mother's breast, even though the woman was not producing nearly enough milk to feed him.

The decision was made to take the boy off solid food after the youngster's aunt said she had a divine revelation ordering the change. The boy's father, Jacques Robidoux, was convicted of first-degree murder, while the mother, Karen Robidoux, and the woman who said she had the vision, Michelle Mingo, are both awaiting trial.

Jacqueline Crank and Sherman are due back in court for their next hearing on Oct. 11.

ABCNEWS affiliate WATE in Knoxville contributed to this report.