Mother, 'spiritual father' convicted in faith-healing case but questions remain

By Jamie Satterfield

LOUDON Ten years after a 15-year-old Loudon County girl died from a rare form of bone cancer, two questions that have dogged the case from the start remain unanswered.

When, under Tennessee law, can a parent rely on God not medicine to heal a sick child? And, what duty of care does a non-parent owe that sick child?

At a hearing Tuesday in Loudon County Circuit Court, Judge Eugene Eblen ostensibly offered answers by deeming Jacqueline Crank and Ariel Ben Sherman guilty of misdemeanor neglect for the September 2002 death of Jessica Crank. He sentenced them to probation. But he offered no legal analysis and both sides appeared to accept his decision as a mere prelude to the ultimate legal platform in this ongoing debate the state's appellate courts.

"We once again want to go to the Tennessee Supreme Court to address these constitutional questions," said Jacqueline Crank's attorney, Gregory P. Isaacs. "She feels and my law firm feels no other parent should have to be placed in this situation. A parent has an absolute constitutional right to rely on faith."

"I believe everybody understands this is a case with much bigger legal implications," said Sherman's attorney, Donald A. Bosch.

Even prosecutor Frank Harvey, who technically won Tuesday's hearing, conceded the legal issues raised in the case "need to be decided in the state of Tennessee in a very clear manner."

The case began when Sherman moved his Universal Life Church flock to a six-bedroom house in Loudon County. There, he lived with Crank, her two children, Jessica and Israel, and a half-dozen other parishioners. Sherman held himself out as the "spiritual father" of Crank's children and was reportedly Crank's lover.

When Jessica developed a tumor on her shoulder, Sherman advised Crank to rely on prayer. Although she took Jessica to a local clinic at one point, the mother ultimately decided to rely on faith. Authorities intervened but Jessica died anyway.

Crank and Sherman were charged with felony child neglect, but Bosch and Isaacs successfully argued medical proof showed treatment would not have saved Jessica's life. Harvey then pressed forward with the misdemeanor case, various aspects of which have been appealed with no definitive resolution.

State law allows a parent to choose faith over medicine provided that parent is heeding the doctrine of a "recognized church or denomination." But the law is silent on what constitutes a "recognized" religion. Isaacs argued Tuesday Crank's belief in the power of prayer is rooted in "genuine" faith.

Sherman's case turns on how far a duty of care for a child extends. Can a boyfriend be held liable? A baby sitter? A pastor? Bosch noted at Tuesday's hearing that only a parent or legal guardian is allowed under the law to authorize medical treatment for a child.