26 Jan 2011

Pastor and lawyer claim religious persecution of parents charged for allowing 2 year old to die from pneumonia without medical care

Philadelphia Daily News - December 7, 2010

First, do no harm: Prayer or medicine?


AS THE PASTOR spoke with several hundred parishioners about the importance of family life this past Sunday, the laughing, crying, cooing and rustling of babies filled First Century Gospel Church.

The infants and toddlers were everywhere - being seen and heard and corralled by parents who silently focused on the Rev. Nelson Ambrose Clark's message.

Kent Schaible used to be among the youngsters at this church in working-class Juniata Park, where it is taught that the sick can be healed by praying to God, not by turning to doctors and medicine.

When Kent got sick in January 2009, his parents, Herbert, 42, and Catherine, 41, followed the teachings of their fundamentalist church and prayed fervently.

For 10 days the couple remained in their Northeast Philadelphia home praying over their 2-year-old son's 32-pound body, believing his symptoms, including a sore throat, chest congestion, diarrhea, and trouble swallowing and sleeping were signs of a bad cold or flu.

When the boy died of bacterial pneumonia on Jan. 24, 2009, Philadelphia Assistant Medical Examiner Edwin Lieberman ruled the death a homicide, noting that it could have been prevented with basic medical care.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible were arrested in April 2009 and charged with involuntary manslaughter and related counts. Opening statements are to begin this morning in their trial in Common Pleas Court.

Prosecuted or persecuted?

Perhaps a dozen children from faith-healing churches die without receiving medical care each year in the United States, but no one really knows the true number, said Shawn Francis Peters, who wrote the 2007 book "When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law."

"We just don't have the scrutiny of some of these smaller churches to know what's going on," said Peters, a religious-studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "They don't want to be scrutinized. They don't want people asking them questions."

First Century Gospel and Faith Tabernacle Congregation, in North Philadelphia, which also teaches faith-healing, made headlines in 1991 when nearly 500 children at the churches contracted measles and six died.

First Century Pastor Clark, 69, who said he has never taken medicine or been to a doctor, spoke at length after Sunday service about what his church teaches.

"Our teaching is to trust Almighty God for everything in life: for health, for healing, for protection, for provisions, for avenging of wrongs," said Clark, whose grandfather founded the church in 1925.

The Schaibles did just that, he said, and are now being "persecuted" for not seeking help from a flawed and dangerous medical system.

"The leading cause for death to this day - documented in a book called 'Death by Medicine' - is medical mistakes: 783,229 deaths per year," Clark said.

He said all his members can seek medical care if they want, but are taught to lean only on God for healing.

Of Kent's death after his parents' prayers, Clark said: "The result was not what they wanted because our faith is imperfect at times. But God is perfect."

Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore told the judge at the couple's October 2009 preliminary hearing that Kent likely could have been saved by antibiotics or Tylenol.

"They believe in faith-healing. That's fine for them," Pescatore said, "but this was a 2-year-old child."

In holding them for court, Municipal Judge Patrick Dugan agreed with Pescatore.

"Your child needed medical care. As parents, that's what your duty is," he told the couple, who have declined to speak with the media.

Painted as 'freaks'

Pennsylvania is not among the 19 states that allow religious defenses in cases involving felony crimes against children, according to Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. (CHILD), a Sioux City, Iowa, nonprofit "dedicated to stopping child abuse and neglect related to religious beliefs and cultural traditions."

The Schaibles' attorneys maintain that this isn't a religious case.

Despite worshiping at First Century Gospel Church, the Schaibles would have sought medical care for Kent had they known how sick he was, the attorneys said.

"If she knew he was this sick, she would have taken him to the doctor - post haste," said attorney Mythri Jayarman, who represents Catherine.

"They want to paint these people as some freaks," attorney Bobby Hoof said, on behalf of Herbert. "But they are normal everyday people. Their child suffered from cold-like symptoms. It was as much a shock to them that their child passed."

"That's a common defense in a lot of these cases," said Wisconsin professor Peters. "In some ways, it's like circular reasoning: If you don't take your child to the doctor, you will never know how sick he is."

Rita Swan, president of CHILD, also has trouble accepting the Schaibles' defense.

"Reasonable parents would know those were serious symptoms," she said. "Reasonable parents would have sought medical advice, or more likely took him to a doctor. For me, it is so obvious that they were following a religious motivation."

Pennsylvania does not exempt parents from prosecution based on religious beliefs, but those parents are not always prosecuted, Swan said.

That's why the Schaible case is so important, she said.

"This prosecution sends a message that society values the life of a child. A child is not just property of his parents, and parents must do everything within their power to safeguard the lives of children," Swan said.

Hoof, though, insisted that the Schaibles had done their best for Kent. He said that they are as normal as anyone else and that their six other children were found to be healthy by the Department of Human Services.

Herbert teaches at the church-sponsored school, on Rising Sun Avenue in Lawndale, and Catherine is a stay-at-home mom. The family roots for the Phillies and live in a comfortable home, Hoof said.

"They're still grieving, and, yet, are being prosecuted during this holiday season," he said.

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  1. Refugee of Religious Cult Tells Her Story

    by Blair Adams, AFRO Staff Writer October 31, 2013

    When Elle Benet looks back on her childhood, the memories are almost unbearable. For 18 years she lived in a world defined by verbal abuse and was part of a church that forced its members to live a life so austere that the outside world was held in disdain.

    Benet, 30, grew up in the Faith Tabernacle in Philadelphia, a faith healing church with a long history of deaths among its members because they are denied medical care.

    The Philadelphia non-profit Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. (CHILD, Inc.) claims to have documented two dozen deaths among children of church members since 1971 because the governing doctrine of the faith depends on prayer in place of medical treatment.

    She escaped the church and its practices at the age of 18 and has written a book about her experience.

    “It wasn’t until you step back as an adult and you look at the practices, then you recognize exactly what you are in,” Benet told the AFRO.

    Not being able to associate with what she called the “outside world,” Benet grew up in a secluded household in Philadelphia with four brothers.

    Benet said the decision to leave at 18 years old was “very frustrating.”

    “My two eldest brothers left because they couldn’t tolerate the abuse any longer and there was a lack of medical treatment,” she said. “It was difficult seeing my brothers get beaten by my father.”

    “My brother was on his deathbed because my parents practiced faith healing, which a lot of children would die from,” she said, referring to a brother who barely survived a condition unknown to her. “His throat was so swelled that he was unable to eat and he had to be given drops of water through a straw.”

    Without a second thought, Benet decided to leave her parents’ house.

    Travelling just a few miles from her family household, Benet went to live with two of her adult brothers who lived outside the household. She said it was too difficult to live a life that conformed to someone else’s beliefs without understanding why she was living that way.

    Her parents told Benet and her brothers that the “outside world” was evil, which made Benet fearful to leave.

    “The fear kept me in there, I was taught that the outside world and children weren’t happy and unless they came to my church they weren’t going to make it into heaven,” she said.

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  2. Leaving gave Benet a sense of empowerment.

    “My curiosity for the outside world was too aroused and I had to see it for myself,” she said. “Even if it meant I might die.”

    The escape from the cult lifestyle should have been a happy ending for Benet, but it wasn’t.

    At the age of 23, she got married and had two children; a daughter, now 5, and a son, 3. Four years later, she and her husband divorced after she discovered he had been having multiple affairs.

    She found herself facing foreclosure while simultaneously working at a stressful job.

    To get her through the difficult times, Benet began to keep a journal, putting all of her thoughts on paper. Benet soon turned her entries into a book, “They Made Me Do It.”

    The book chronicles her childhood and teen years but, she said, doesn’t dwell on the past “because dwelling on your past prohibits you from moving forward.” She said she wrote the book not to garner sympathy, but to encourage others to overcome adversities in their life.

    “There might be somebody that needed someone just like I did,” she said. “Even though I went through it alone, I know first hand how it feels and this could possibly help somebody else.”

    Benet said her book teaches not to let an individual’s past hold them back from their dreams and goals. She said she found solace in taking her positive experiences and applying them to something she could change: her future.

    Following her escape, Benet said her parents never tried to find her.

    “Sometimes my mother—without my father knowing I’m sure—would call me, but my father never did,” she said.

    Benet’s mother passed away from an illness in 2006; after the birth of Benet’s daughter in 2008, he father reconnected with her.

    “I’ve learned any negative situation I’m presented with, there is always something positive I can take from it to enhance my future,” Benet said.


  3. No-contest plea by parents in faith-healing death of second child

    by Joseph A. Slobodzian, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer November 14, 2013

    PHILADELPHIA Herbert and Catherine Schaible - the Philadelphia couple who have watched two children die because of their own belief in prayer over medicine - entered no-contest pleas Thursday to third-degree murder in the April death of their 8-month-old son.

    The decision - seven months after Brandon Schaible developed bacterial pneumonia and died, untreated, at their Rhawnhurst home - was a reluctant admission that if they didn't consider themselves guilty of a crime, prosecutors did.

    The Schaibles were serving 10 years' probation on their conviction for involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 death of another son, Kent, 2. Part of that probation included mandatory medical care for their seven surviving children, the oldest of whom is about 17.

    Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner set sentencing for Feb. 19, and the Schaibles could face significant prison terms.

    Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore, who prosecuted both cases against the couple, said the plea contained no agreement on sentencing.
    "It's no holds barred," Pescatore said.

    Still, the sentence will likely be less than if they had gone to trial and been convicted of third-degree murder, which carries a statutory sentence of 10 to 20 years.

    Mythri Jayaraman, the attorney for Catherine Schaible, 44, said the no-contest plea would allow her to focus on presenting a fuller picture of the Schaibles, their religious beliefs, and their background for the judge to consider in sentencing.

    "We want to develop the other side of the story," Jayaraman added.

    "Honestly, on the facts of the case," said Bobby Hoof, the lawyer for Herbert Schaible, 45, "he didn't want to go to trial."

    The Schaibles each pleaded no contest to third-degree murder, child endangerment, and conspiracy.

    Legally, a no-contest plea carries the same weight as a guilty plea. For some defendants, however, saying they will not contest the facts of a criminal case enables them to make the decision not to go to trial.

    Both Schaibles gave statements to homicide detectives after Brandon's April 18 death, in which they admitted they did not follow the terms of their probation.

    "My husband and I decided we wanted to trust in God," Catherine Schaible told detectives, explaining why they did not take Brandon to a doctor.

    In 2010, a Philadelphia jury convicted the Schaibles of involuntary manslaughter in the Jan. 24, 2009, death of Kent, who also succumbed to bacterial pneumonia as the couple and their pastor prayed.

    The Schaibles are members of First Century Gospel Church, a primitive-Christian congregation in Juniata Park that teaches that healing comes from prayer and that relying on medicine or doctors is a lack of faith in God.

    Herbert Schaible is in prison with bail set at $250,000; his wife was released in June after members of the church helped her raise the required 10 percent of her $250,000 bail. She remains on electronically monitored house arrest at her parents' home in Summerdale.

    Catharine Schaible may leave her parents' house only for court, to meet her lawyer, and to go to court-supervised visits with the couple's surviving children, who have been in foster care since Brandon died.