Cult members face jail for refusing to surrender baby into care

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The Independent US

Two members of a secretive cult in Boston, Massachusetts, who have been fighting imprisonment for refusing to hand over their newborn child into state care told a judge yesterday that the child had died in the womb.

Rebecca and David Corneau, who belong to a small Christian sect calling itself "The Body", which rejects modern medicine and advocates faith healing, admitted for the first time in court yesterday that she had been pregnant.

Child welfare officials had said they feared for the baby's life because of the couple's beliefs. The couple's lawyer told the judge that the baby welfare workers thought was due in late December had been lost in November.

The bizarre stand-off between the couple and the state has gripped Boston for the past few weeks. The Christian Scientist Church, which also advocates healing through faith, has its headquarters in Boston. The couple's lawyer told a court at a contempt hearing yesterday: "Mrs Corneau realised she did not feel the baby moving. Shortly thereafter she expelled a dead and decomposed fetus. There is no live baby Corneau."

On Monday, the couple, who have already had four of their children taken from them and placed with relatives who are not members of the sect, lost an appeal that had been lodged with the State Supreme Court. They had argued that their right to avoid self-incrimination meant they did not have to reveal the child's whereabouts or surrender it. In 1999, Mrs Corneau lost a boy during a home birth. The infant's body was buried secretly in a remote forest in Maine alongside an infant cousin who had been allowed to starve to death by cult members, the authorities said. In 2000, Mrs Corneau gave birth to another child in a state prison.

By rejecting the pair's appeal, the Supreme Court appeared to set the scene for their imprisonment. "The logical extension of the argument would be that in every abuse and neglect case, parents could withhold production of children for identification purposes merely by invoking their rights against self-incrimination," Justice Roderick Ireland told the couple.

"I recognise that 'the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents', but the rights of parenthood are not beyond limitation," the judge added. "Indeed, parents may be free to become martyrs themselves, but it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children."

The Department of Social Services had not commented on the couple's latest claim about the miscarriage. A spokesperson had welcomed the Supreme Court ruling on Monday as a "victory for all children whose safety has been jeopardised by their own parents".

But she added that the state may not gain custody of the child, if one exists and the couple still refuses to co-operate. "It stymies us, which is extremely frustrating because of the sense of urgency about finding the baby," she said. "The point right now is 'Can we find this baby'?"