WARSAW, Ind. -- At least 52 people have died for lack of medical care because they or their parents belonged to a fundamentalist church that insists only faith in God will heal them, but a coroner said Monday the church is beyond the reach of state law.
The 52 victims were linked to the Faith Assembly, a 10-year-old church based in Wilmot, Ind., and headed by the Rev. Hobart Freeman. It has about 2,000 members.
The deaths, which occurred in seven states, were reported by the Fort Wayne News-Sentinal i a copyright story. The newspaper said most of the 52 people who died while refusing medical treatment were women and children -- including babies -- and only a fraction were old enough to understand the teachings of the church.
But Kosciusko County Coroner Gary Eastlund said state and local officials have been thwarted in efforts to deal with the sect because of state laws allowing parents to withhold treatment from their children if they act in accord with religious beliefs.
'We may not like it, but what can we do?' said Eastlund, whose jurisdiction ends at a county line just miles from the Faith Assembly's headquarters in Wilmot, Ind.
Eastlund said many of the estimated 2,000 members of the church, who worship in a rural building also known as the 'Glory Barn,' are highly educated people who abandoned 'decent occupations' to join Freeman's sect.
'They're people we kind of grew up with,' he said. 'They look and act kind of like they are in a trance some of the time. I think they're brainwashed.'
Local officials hope a new state law that goes into effect June 1 will allow police and welfare workers to step in to save children of Faith Assembly members who become ill.
'It will help them get involved before I have to, before it becomes a coroner's case,' Eastlund said of the law, which repeals a religious exemption in Indiana's child abuse law in cases when a child's life or health are in danger.
The News-Sentinel, which won a Pultizer Prize for reporting last month, Monday published the first of a five-part series on Faith Assembly, which has branches in the United States, Canada and other countries.
Deaths linked to the church's belief that people who have faith do not need doctors have occurred in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri and Tennessee, the paper said.
It said the 52 dead included 28 babies whose mothers shunned doctors during pregnancy; seven children with untreated illnesses and injuries ranging from chicken pox and pneumonia to cancer and burns; 10 adults who suffered untreated illnesses ranging from diabetes to kidney disease, and seven mothers with complications related to home births.
To verify the count, reporters examined death records and interviewed doctors, public officals and former members of the church.
Although it is a felony to withhold medical treatment from a minor in Indiana, no Faith Assembly member has been convicted of child abuse, child neglect or manslaughter in the state.
Indiana prosecutors said state law protects parents who give their children 'spiritual treatment,' including prayer.
A Michigan prosecutor, however, won an involuntary manslaughter conviction against a Faith Assembly father and said Indiana prosecutors can do the same.
Freeman, 63, the church leader, is a biblical scholar who tells his followers he doesn't expect to die and that those who turn from his teaching will go to hell.
'God has promised that 'the prayer of faith shall heal the sick,'' Freeman has written. 'He did not qualify this by adding 'sometimes,' nor did He say that 'the prayer of faith shall heal only some kinds of disease.''