There was a fascinating article in the Sun Herald yesterday by Eamonn Duff about the Danthonia Christian community near the small country town of Inverell. Some might describe the people who live there as Christian extremists, but if they are not hurting anyone, surely they have the right to have their beliefs and live in peace.
They wouldn't be in the news at all if it wasn't for an American doctor who belonged to the commune. He is to appear before a tribunal for allegedly committing a serious offence - denying his mother a hospital visit that could have saved her life, signing her death certificate, burying her on commune ground, and not informing police or the coroner of her death.
Danthonia is a small Christian community of around 170 people near the NSW country town of Inverell. They are part of the Bruderhof movement which was founded by Eberhard Arnold in Germany in 1920: Expelled by Hitler in 1937, exiled to Paraguay in 1941 because they were the only country that would take them, moving to the USA in the 1950s, to Britain in 1980s, to Inverell Australia in 1999 and returning to Germany in 2002.
They are theologically linked to Hutterite, Mennonite and Anabaptist denominations. Danthonia tries to follow the practices of the very early Christian Church in Jerusalem with a strong focus on Acts of the Apostles. Individuals hold no private property and all income is pooled for the common good. They are pacifists and members do not join the armed forces.
Dr Chris Maendel arrived at Danthonia from America in 2005 and became the commune's resident doctor. His American mother Irene was on holiday at the commune when disaster struck - she suffered a stroke in October 2011.
When she collapsed, instead of taking her immediately to hospital, her son decided that she should stay at the commune. She died six days later but he didn't tell anyone, and buried her within the commune grounds.
When her US-based family found out that Irene didn't receive medical attention at a hospital, they contacted NSW police. Coroner Michael Holmes said that treating an immediate family member and signing the death certificate was a breach of Medical Board policy.
When Dr Maendel was asked why his mother didn't receive a CT scan or specialist treatment, he allegedly replied that Danthonia was located "deep in the Australian outback" and the journey to a "small country hospital" would be hours "over rough terrain." He felt she would be better cared for by the brothers and sisters "surrounded by the love of Jesus."
When the family in America looked up Danthonia on the Internet, they discovered it was only a 30 minute drive to the Inverell Hospital on a sealed road. Then they received a handwritten letter from one of the Danthonia sisters, Dorrie Rhodes. She described Irene as awake, alert and full of life in the days before her death. She wanted to get up and have a shower and kept asking "What happened to me, am I sick?"
After seeking legal advice, Dr Maendel declined to be interviewed by police but an exhumation order was issued and the presence of morphine was found in her body. It seems that Irene was a healthy, fit 70 year old who could have been air-lifted to a state-of-the-art teaching hospital within an hour.
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The Health Care Complaints Commission tribunal for Dr Maendel will begin in Sydney on March 4, 2013.
Edit March 10, 2013: The Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) brought Dr Maendel before a tribunal in Sydney's District Court. On Friday - the third anniversary of Mrs Maendel's death - Judge Michael Elkaim ruled that, while two lesser penalties of unsatisfactory professional conduct had been established, Dr Maendel should not be found guilty of the professional misconduct complaint that could have led to him being deregistered.