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A Child’s Death Raises Questions About Faith

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although 11-month-old Julia Wiebe struggled for days with a raging fever before dying of meningitis last summer, authorities say the true cause of death was neglect by her mother and father.

Richard and Agnes Wiebe of Rancho Cucamonga face charges of involuntary manslaughter for failing to get the simple antibiotics that would have saved Julia’s life. They have pleaded not guilty.

The Wiebes--members of a small, tightknit church in Upland whose members claim branches around the world--say they did not realize how sick their daughter was. But they acknowledge religious convictions prevented them from seeking medical attention. Instead, they relied on prayer.

“The parents made a decision not to seek medical care, which could have treated the child and prevented the death,” pathologist Stephen Trenkle testified during a preliminary hearing that began last month and continues today. “They chose another form of healing. They made that choice--and from my position, they made the wrong choice.”

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The case bears striking parallels to another unfolding in Boston, where authorities put a woman suspected of religiously motivated medical neglect in custody to protect her unborn fetus.

In the Wiebe case, county child welfare officials took custody of another baby born to the couple after the death of Julia.

Several members of their church, the Church of God Restoration, have silently supported the couple. At one recent hearing, about a dozen women in ankle-length skirts and long-sleeved shirts under waist-length vests and jackets appeared in court.

And watching everything from his seat in the back of the courtroom was Daniel Layne, the white-bearded founder of the Restoration Church.

Critics of the church say that under Layne’s direction, members have moved away from their families, shunned friends, and avoided medical care for themselves and their children.

But Layne, 58, sharply denies these charges. Church members are free to act as they choose and are not punished, he said. Critics, he said, are either relatives who never took the time to understand the church or former members bearing grudges.

“Our members are not brainwashed, they are not zombies, they are not under any mind control,” Layne said in an interview this week. “This is a voluntary association of freethinking people.”

Although Layne declined to discuss the Wiebe case, he did say a strong belief in divine healing is one of the tenets of the church. He, in fact, would decline modern medical help if he were ill, Layne said.

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“But if someone here were sick and wanted to go to a hospital,” Layne said, “I would take them to the hospital myself, stay with them, pray with them, and then welcome them back with open arms into our service.”

Church Rejects Much of Modern Society

Layne, a self-described transient and recovering heroin addict from Los Angeles, said he found God 22 years ago. He belonged briefly to the Church of God, but quickly became frustrated with what he considered a lax interpretation of the Bible. So in 1981 he broke away and started his own conservative church, now located in Upland.

Members reject much that is integral to modern society: rock music, movies and television. The church subscribes to strict standards of dress and behavior that includes modest dress, much like the Amish, and favors use of prayer over medicine, he said.

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“I wanted to go back to the year of the reform, around 1880, and stick to what our pioneer brethren taught,” Layne said.

Eventually Layne’s church in Upland--which now has about 55 members, he says--sprouted satellite congregations in Louisiana, Ohio, Canada, Mexico and Germany, with a total membership that investigators estimate at more than 800 people.

Layne maintains that members are not forced to follow the church’s teachings, but follow out of their own free will. But some former church members and an expert who has been tracking the group say Layne’s grip on his followers has become increasingly intense in recent years.

One former Church of God Restoration minister said Layne attracted him and his wife about 10 years ago with his “seriousness about Christianity.” At the time, “We didn’t see the control he has now,” said David Kauenhowen, a Canadian resident. “He was a humble man back then. And we enjoyed the church, until he got so personally involved in people’s lives.”

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After a few years, however, Layne began dictating the way parishioners should dress, Kauenhowen said. Long pants and shirts for men, T-shirts always underneath. Women couldn’t show their legs or even their ankles. Jewelry of any kind, including wedding rings, was forbidden.

In time, Layne required parishioners to seek his approval to date, to marry or to move, Kauenhowen said. Children were subject to strict discipline and physical punishment from an early age and were to be home-schooled or sent to small schools run by the church. And if relatives became critical of the new guidelines, Layne advised shutting them out, he said.

And although prayer was always emphasized over medical treatment, in recent years Layne began shunning members who sought help from a doctor, calling it a sign of weakness in their faith, Kauenhowen and others said.

Rick Ross, a New Jersey-based consultant and paid expert witness who writes and lectures nationally on small sects, said that in the last six months he’s gotten more than a dozen calls from former church members or relatives alarmed by Layne’s teachings. Some are concerned that relatives are not getting proper medical care. Others say loved ones have cut them off because they questioned the group’s beliefs, he said.

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“They see a situation [in which] the person they care about has a lessening control over their lives,” Ross said. “And they are fearful of what that’s leading to.”

Another Case of Trouble With the Law

The Wiebe case is not the first time that Restoration followers have gotten into trouble with the law.

On July 4, Canadian authorities removed seven children from the home of a Church of God Restoration family in Aylmer, Ontario. Authorities were responding to complaints that the children had been beaten, in some cases with belts and sticks, and that at least one child suffered a severe burn and was denied medical care. The children were returned to their parents by the court with conditions for their treatment while a trial is pending.

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Kauenhowen, the former minister, said he told Layne he was alarmed by the direction of the church, a criticism that got him thrown out in February 2000, he said. Current members, he added, no longer speak to him.

Layne, who has never been married and has no children, said Kauenhowen is simply bitter over his falling out with the church. And relatives who complain are doing so because they refuse to understand their loved one’s faith. Some interpret the church as extreme because of its rejection of all that modern society has to offer. But that does not make it a cult, he said.

“There’s a pressure from society to conform to the norm,” Layne said. “And that’s difficult for us because we have a doctrine that teaches separation from what society teaches us--immorality, rock music, divorce, sexually explicit material, television. To us, all of that is horrible.”

He denies being the church’s only leader. Five other elder ministers join him in overseeing its teachings, he said.

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“I wouldn’t deny I have an influence on the church,” Layne said. “But I would deny that anyone has to accept [my influence]....We don’t run people’s lives.”

Courts Draw the Line at Hurting Children

Ross said there are thousands of small sects across the country not affiliated with Restoration that follow similar beliefs regarding medical treatment. And though the courts try to respect the fundamental right to religious freedom for adults, they draw the line when edicts of the church hurt children.

Prosecutors routinely charge parents with offenses ranging from child neglect to manslaughter for denying medical care.

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In one of the boldest moves yet by a court, a Massachusetts judge ordered Rebecca Corneau into protective custody to ensure the safety of her unborn fetus. Corneau belonged to a fundamentalist sect called The Body, which rejects all medicine, including prenatal care.

Last July, the Wiebes’ 11-month-old daughter began vomiting. Over the next few days, she became sicker, eventually developing a fever and suffering seizures that lasted more than two hours at a time, Richard Wiebe told investigators. Wiebe and his wife fervently prayed over the little girl. They covered her tiny body with wet rags. As she weakened, they fed their daughter chamomile tea through an eyedropper. The Wiebes said they didn’t know how sick their daughter was. They thought she just had the flu.

But by July 6, the little girl stopped breathing.

The Wiebes tried to perform CPR, but Julia never recovered. Wiebe called their pastor, Layne, who directed the couple to call paramedics, according to court testimony. Investigators believe the baby had been dead more than two hours by the time they arrived.

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Under questioning by San Bernardino County Sheriff’s investigators, Richard Wiebe, a draftsman for an Upland company, said he and his wife never considered taking Julia to the hospital.

“That was not something that I had an option for,” Wiebe told investigators during a taped interview played in court Thursday. “I’m settled with the Lord and I was going to trust him.”

Wiebe added he still believes he made the right decision. He was prepared to accept God’s will.

“Faith is not a guarantee that we will be healed,” Wiebe told investigators. “Faith is just believing that God’s way will be done.”

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Agnes Wiebe was pregnant at the time of Julia’s death and has since given birth to a boy. Sheriff’s officials seized the baby in January and placed him in protective custody. A trial in that case is also pending.

The Wiebes remain free on bail. The judge in Rancho Cucamonga Superior Court will decide whether to order them to stand trial.


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