09/25/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Expressionless, silent and more than eight months pregnant, Rebecca Corneau ignored the throng of reporters who greeted her arrival on Sept. 7 at the redbrick courthouse in Attleboro, Mass. The 32-year-old mother of three was reporting to juvenile court judge Kenneth Nasif-not as a defendant or witness but as an expectant mother. Demure and soft-spoken, she refused to answer Nasif's questions, saying only that the court had no jurisdiction over her. Afterward, as she was escorted outside the courtroom, a friend called out, "Good morning, Becky." She waved back and blew a kiss.
Two weeks earlier, Nasif had ordered Corneau, a member of a tiny Christian sect that regards modern medicine as blasphemous, to submit to a prenatal exam. When she refused, Nasif took the extreme—perhaps unprecedented—step of ordering her confined until she submitted to a medical exam or the baby was born. "We're just trying to save a little kid here," says Bristol County D.A. Paul Walsh Jr., maintaining that two infants born to the group, including one of Corneau's, had already died because of their practices. "It's a case, not a grand cause."
Some would agree, arguing the life of the child overrides any other concern. For others, however, the move was a brazen violation of the mother's fundamental rights. "Are we going to start incarcerating pregnant women who drink and smoke and don't wear seat belts?" asks Andrea Mullin, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women. "I don't like [Corneau's] choices, but they are her choices." Even Judge Nasif himself admits the legal argument is problematic. "It's difficult from a technical legal point of view to go one way or another," he says. "But from a moral point of view, I have no problem deciding a case of this nature."
The case began last fall, when a former cult member, Dennis Mingo, 36, gave police entries from a cult diary that raised questions about the death of one of the group's babies. An investigation determined that in April 1999 10-month-old Samuel Robidoux, son of sect member Karen Robidoux, 24, and her husband, Jacques, 27, apparently died from starvation after they stopped giving him solid food. The child had been eating well, says Bob Pardon, 49, a local cult expert who studied diaries kept by group members. But after one adherent claimed to have had a revelation and insisted the child resume nursing, the mother complied. Sadly, the young woman, pregnant again, could not produce enough milk to sustain the child.
Just as troubling was the fate of Rebecca Corneau's own son Jeremiah, who died the day he was born in August 1999. The boy's father, David Corneau, 32, reportedly told police the child "never had a breath of life...the Lord never gave it to him." Yet prosecutors—relying on evidence from a cult member's writing—say the baby was born alive and probably died because his lungs were not properly aspirated, a routine hospital procedure. "A basic mucus suction could have preyented his death," says Jonn Rego, the lawyer appointed to represent Corneau's unborn child.
Shortly afterward the state took temporary custody of the sect's remaining 13 children, including Corneau's. One child told authorities the group had gone to a Maine state park with the bodies of the dead infants and tools for digging. But even using helicopters, search dogs and infrared equipment, police were unable to find any graves. And cult members offered no help. When a grand jury convened last April to investigate the deaths, group members refused to testify, and by June, eight had been jailed for contempt.
In light of all that had gone on before, Nasif ruled that Rebecca Corneau's unborn child should be covered by the state's child-protection laws and appointed a guardian to monitor the health of Corneau and her baby. But when the guardian arrived at Corneau's home, Corneau refused to be examined or to discuss her pregnancy. On Aug. 31 Nasif ordered her confined to the Neil J. Houston House, a Boston facility that serves as a birthing center for prison inmates. There she awaits delivery with some of Boston's top obstetricians standing by to assist.
Experts say the sect, which lived frugally and supported itself primarily by doing masonry and chimney-sweeping jobs, has its roots in a Pasadena group called the Worldwide Church of God. In the late 1970s, Roland Robidoux, now 60, left the Church of God to start his own church in the suburbs south of Boston. When it disbanded, he moved to nearby Attleboro and with childhood friend Roger Daneau, also 60, started a Bible-study group that grew into a loose order with 40 followers. Most of those left in the organization are related to one or both of those men.
Following the writings of Carol Balizet, 67, head of a Florida sect called Home in Zion Ministries, they rejected organized law and medicine. Adhering at first to Robidoux's interpretation of scripture, the group came in time to rely on the revelations of its more insistent members. "The delusions of the most unstable member could be seen as God's word," says cult expert Pardon.
It was Michelle Mingo, 35, who reported the revelation that God found Karen Robidoux to be vain and that, as spiritual penance, she should start breast-feeding her son again—though she was unable to lactate. According to diaries kept by sect members, they watched the child die, but did nothing to help. Says one entry: "He was obviously losing much weight and becoming much weaker."
With two children dead, the state is expected to take Corneau's baby when it is born. Dennis Mingo recalls better days, when Corneau was a top high school student, studied marketing in college, and met her husband at a local cafe restaurant. "We all played cards, went to the movies, it was very family oriented," he says. She even quit her job to be with her kids. "I remember her as a good mother," he says. "But her idea of what's best for her kids has been skewed. It wasn't always like this."
Tom Duffy and Jennifer Longley in Attleboro