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From Part IV: "God's Law": Christian Science Goes to Court

Chapter 3: The Child Cases

Perhaps the most bizarre and horrifying of the documented "child cases" was that of Elizabeth Ashley King. The only child of John King, a real estate executive in Phoenix, Arizona, and his wife, Catherine, both Christian Scientists, Ashley King was twelve years old when she contracted bone cancer. She was withdrawn from school in November 1987 because of "a problem with her leg." Officials at Cocopah Middle School, in Scottsdale, arranged for Ashley's teacher, Tammy Van Denberg, to see her at home.

According to court records, in February 1988, Van Denberg came to the Kings' home for a visit but was not allowed to see Ashley. She kept going, hoping to see the child. Catherine King repeatedly reassured her until, in April, she met Van Denberg at the door and said, "We finally have come to the point where you place God before your own life." School authorities called Child Protective Services.

She had alarmed the school officials with her absolutist rhetoric, but Catherine King was simply echoing what she had been taught by her church. She was, in fact, echoing the words of Mary Baker Eddy's faithful servant and longtime chairman of the Board of Directors, Adam Dickey, whose essay "God's Law of Adjustment," which first appeared in the Christian Science Journal in 1916, is the only theological writing, aside from Eddy's own, that has been widely and continuously distributed by the Church. "God's Law of Adjustment" may have provided the religious rationalization for the Kings' passivity in their behavior toward their daughter:

When we have reached the point where we are willing to do what seems to us the best and then leave the problem with God, knowing that He will adjust everything according to His unchanging law, we can then withdraw ourselves entirely from the proposition, drop all sense of responsibility, and feel secure in the knowledge that God corrects and governs all things righteously....If our good is evilly spoken of, this does not affect the situation in any degree, since God does not hold us accountable for the action of others. Our responsibility ceases when we have complied with the demands of good, and there we can afford to let any question rest. It makes no difference how much is at stake or what is involved.

On May 5, Detective Edwin Boehm, of the Paradise Valley Police Department, came to the house; he believes himself to have been the first person other than her parents to see Ashley in months. Boehm later recalled that it had taken some time before he "gained entry," because Catherine King at first refused to answer the door. He said of Ashley, "I knew first thing looking at her that she was dying." He couldn't see her leg, because "she had a pillow on it under the covers--she was hiding it." He would eventually tell a grand jury, "She was extremely white, ashen colored--to be specific, death color." The next day Child Protective Services received a court order granting the agency temporary custody of Ashley for the purpose of medical examination.

Judging by photographs taken a year or so before her death, Ashley King was a beautiful girl, with long, straight, dark-brown hair and high cheekbones. When she was taken to Phoenix Children's Hospital, she had a tumor on her right leg that was forty-one inches in circumference.

Her hemoglobin count, according to Paul Baranko, the physician who examined her, was "almost incompatible with life." Her heart was enlarged from the burden of pumping blood to the tumor, her pulse was twice normal, the cancer had spread to her lungs, and she was in immediate danger of dying from congestive heart failure. Immobilized by the tumor, she had been lying in the same position for months. Her buttocks and genitals were covered with bedsores.

Medical nurses who testified before the grand jury said that Ashley had told them, "I'm in so much pain" and "You don't know how I have suffered." Baranko, who estimated that Ashley would have had a 55 to 60 percent chance of recovery if she had had timely medical treatment, recommended that her leg be amputated to reduce her pain in the time she had remaining; the Kings declined. He later said, "This has to be the most disturbing, depressing case I have ever seen in my twenty-five years as a physician. I have never seen a patient presented with this kind of situation...[which] could have been totally avoided."

Ashley stayed in the hospital for only six days. Officials with Child Protective Services reached an agreement with her parents whereby Ashley would be transferred to Upward View, a non-licensed Christian Science nursing home. At Upward View, under the care of Christian Science nurses who provided her with no medical care, Ashley lay in bed in conditions that must have been similar to those she had endured at home. When she cried out, a nurse reminded her to remember the other "visitors." She died on June 5, 1988.

Two months later, her parents were indicted on charges of child abuse and negligent homicide (the negligent-homicide charges were dropped in a second grand-jury hearing), and Nathan Talbot, the manager of the Committees on Publication, came to their defense. In front of the grand jury that indicted the Kings, one juror put a central question to Talbot:

It has been described, the little girl--her thigh had grown so large, it was larger than my waist, and the stench from the decaying flesh was so bad, it permeated the entire floor of the hospital.

It must have been obvious to the parents, their prayers had not been successful up to that point. Was it reasonable of them, as Christian Scientists, to continue the treatment only in the Christian Science faith as contrasted, perhaps, in seeking medical help?

I put great emphasis on that word "reasonable."

Talbot's response was typical of the public response from the Church throughout this period; first, he defended the parents' actions by asserting, without offering any evidence, that Christian Scientists had been healed of other obviously terminal conditions: "Given the healings that have taken place, even [in] those difficult kinds of circumstances, I would have to honestly answer 'yes.'"

Then Talbot turned his attention to the "agony" that children undergo at the hands of physicians in hospitals:

I don't know if any of you saw a couple of years ago a program on "60 Minutes" they did. The program was not trying to put anyone down. They were showing what doctors have to deal with sometimes. They showed some scenes in that program I don't know how any of us could get through without a tear or two--some of the agony and torture children have had to endure under some medical procedures--the best doctors could bring to it.

After seeing the program, I cannot imagine anything worse.

Years later, the deputy county attorney who handled the prosection of the Kings, K. C. Scull, is still infuriated by the behavior of the parents and their Church. "It was a shocking case," he recalled. "The tumor--it was absolutely humongous, the size of a watermelon. You've just never seen anything like that on a human being. It was absolutely bizarre. I spent a fair amount of time with Nathan Talbot--I flew out to Boston and met with him for a full day, trying to figure out what to do with the case. And I came away from there stunned that Nathan Talbot believed that you can heal anything with this prayerlike procedure. He really takes it literally, and so did these people."

Scull is particularly scathing about Talbot's motives for wanting to appear before the grand jury that indicted the Kings: "If there's a bad guy here, it's the Church. I really resented a guy like Nathan Talbot coming in. When I saw him, I thought, he doesn't care about these people; he cares about the Christian Science Church. It's obviously in serious decline, and he knows it. And he can't turn it around. He and the Church are doing dangerous things. I got a sense that the Kings were willing to make martyrs of themselves, and I think the Church pushed these people. Nathan Talbot was out here more than once."

In 1989, a year after their indictment, John and Catherine King each pleaded no contest to one charge of reckless endangerment--a misdemeanor in this case. After their sentencing to three years' probation, the couple held a press conference at which Catherine King displayed a number of large cardboard cutouts of her daughter, which she had made out of enlarged photographs. She told reporters that her daughter had been terrified not by her disease or her pain but by the doctors who examined her: "The only analogy I can use to describe the terror, resistance, and sense of injustice Ashley felt is to compare it to what it must have been like for Anne Frank to be taken to the prison camp in Nazi Germany." King also said, "I know I was a good mother, and no judge or jury in the country can convince me otherwise."

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