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Religious convictions are a poor excuse for criminal negligence

July 21, 2002 1:04 am

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PRINCE WILLIAM Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert did the right thing, of course, when he filed charges against the father who on a hot day accidentally left his daughter to die in the family van.

To bring you up to date, Kevin Kelly of Manassas was put in charge of 12 of his 13 kids early last month while his wife and eldest child were on a trip to Ireland.

After returning from errands one day, everyone piled out of the van and moved on to new things--everyone except 21-month-old Frances, who was left strapped in her safety seat in the closed van.

Seven hours later neighbors noticed the child in the car and brought the situation to the family's attention. Frances was dead.

Twelve people, a dad and 11 kids, some of them teenagers, failed to notice that Frances was not around. Not to play. Not to eat. Not for a diaper change. Not for a nap. Just not around.

The ensuing investigation revealed that Kevin Kelly had lost track of his kids before: Until he was called on the phone, he hadn't realized he left a 4-year-old at a video store. More recently, Frances herself had been found wandering in the middle of the street, unattended.

The Kellys are good Catholics, their supporters say. Maybe. Good parents? I think most people would find that debatable.

Good parents these days don't have 13 kids. Maybe on a 19th-century farm it made sense, where kids could do the work more cheaply than farmhands. But even the most devoutly religious of us ought to understand that in today's world, family does not mean brood. It's not cute, or funny, or right. It's stupid and irresponsible.

Reports indicate that the responsibilities the family's size imposed on its members have been taking a heavy toll on their mental health.

There is a reason that Virginia has rules and sets forth licensing requirements governing the number of children allowed at a family-operated day-care facility, which is what the Kelly home might as well be. That's because there is a limit to the number of children one adult can be reasonably expected to keep track of.

No matter what the rules, though, any parent familiar with child-care settings would never leave a child at a place where one person is watching as many as 12 or 13 kids.

Some of the Kelly children were old enough to be baby sitters themselves, but they didn't miss Frances either, despite their level of maturity. In that light, most of the family members are guilty of gross negligence, including the children's absent mother, Mary, who saw fit to leave her forgetful husband in charge of the mob. Certainly she should be able to visit her ailing father in Ireland, but couldn't she have arranged for a relative, friend, or church member to be on hand?

Such negligence by Kevin Kelly in particular is no different than that of the father who inadvertently leaves a loaded handgun on a nightstand for his child to find and discharge on a sibling or himself.

How about the parents of a child who eventually dies because they failed out of religious conviction or simple neglect to seek obviously needed medical attention?

Such incidents are not only tragic, they are criminal. They merit charges and a jury's deliberations.

Kevin Kelly deserves a court-ordered vasectomy.

After Frances' death, some of the Kellys' fellow church members came to their defense, which I suppose is admirable given that Kevin Kelly's blunder was indefensible by any stretch of moral decency.

But it would seem that these church members view the sanctity of life in two ways: Choosing to terminate a fetus is a grievous sin, but leaving a toddler to die in a closed vehicle is an unfortunate oversight.

One of those co-members at All Saints Catholic Church is Del. Robert G. Marshall, the ardently pro-life Prince William County Republican. He thinks this situation could happen to anyone in a moment of distraction. Seven hours, however, is quite a long moment.

Such a blatant double standard is yet another dilemma facing a church already beset with scandal. Its inability to simply oust priests who sexually abuse children may reflect the desire to forgive, but it not only puts more children at risk, it also puts members to a test of faith that some won't stick around to take.

Without a doubt, religious freedom is one of the primary liberties that makes this nation great. For followers of Catholicism and other religions, the laws of the church can exceed all others.

But there are certain realities that the modern world requires us to acknowledge. One of them is that religious conviction is no defense for criminal negligence. Another is that meting out punishment in one case can help prevent a recurrence.

Is Frances Kelly in a better place? We want to believe she is. But I bet no one wishes more than the Kellys that she was still right here with her family.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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