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First, do no harm: Prayer or medicine?

Children from faith-healing churches die without receiving medical care each year in the United States.

Window of the First Century Gospel Church, in Juniata Park, a church that emphasizes faith over medicine. The young son of Herbert and Catherine Schaible (inset) died from bacterial  pneumonia after his parents relied on prayer to heal him. (David Maialetti/Staff)
Window of the First Century Gospel Church, in Juniata Park, a church that emphasizes faith over medicine. The young son of Herbert and Catherine Schaible (inset) died from bacterial pneumonia after his parents relied on prayer to heal him. (David Maialetti/Staff)Read more

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.