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Couple who believed in faith healing sentenced in son's death

The Rhawnhurst couple who put their faith in prayer as their 2-year-old son died of bacterial pneumonia were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter Friday.

The Rhawnhurst couple who put their faith in prayer as their 2-year-old son died of bacterial pneumonia were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter Friday.

Continuing the silence they have kept since their arrests in April 2009, Herbert and Catherine Schaible said nothing after the Common Pleas Court jury of eight men and four women delivered the late-afternoon verdict. The couple also were pronounced guilty of endangering the welfare of a child.

Whatever emotions the Schaibles felt - the verdict could put them behind bars and mandate regular doctor visits for their seven surviving children - their faces revealed nothing.

Their pastor, Nelson A. Clark of the First Century Gospel Church of Juniata Park, which teaches healing through prayer and eschews medical care as evidence of a lack of faith in God, seemed crushed by the jury's conclusion.

"We are hurting now," Clark said as he left the Criminal Justice Center courtroom. "That should not have been. That was not what we wanted to hear. Not involuntary manslaughter."

The Schaibles' 2-year-old son, Kent, died after fighting what began as a cold and progressed over two weeks to bacterial pneumonia. According to testimony, Herbert Schaible, 42, and Catherine Schaible, 41, prayed for their son and thought he might be getting better.

But on the night of Jan. 24, 2009, the Schaibles discovered that Kent was dead. They called the church's assistant pastor, Ralph Myers, who came to the house, joined the parents in prayer, and then called a funeral director.

"We tried to fight the devil, but in the end the devil won," Herbert Schaible told homicide detectives in a statement read to the jury during the trial, which began Tuesday.

Judge Carolyn Engle Temin set sentencing for Feb. 2 but allowed the Schaibles to remain free on $150,000 bail pending that hearing.

Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore said the manslaughter count carries a 5- to 10-year prison term and the child-endangerment charge one of 31/2 to 7 years. She said she did not know if she would ask for prison time.

Pescatore said she would ask the judge, as part of the sentence, to require regular doctor visits for the Schaibles' children.

"The law is what it is," Pescatore said. "You have to take care of your children. It's not enough to pray for them."

First Century Gospel Church preaches a literal reliance on faith and prayer to heal, and cites such scriptural bases as Abraham's faith in God when he offered to sacrifice his son Isaac. While the church considers members who obtain medical care to have sinned, it does not shun those who see a doctor.

According to testimony, the church permits dental care, such as cleanings and filling cavities, and does not proscribe modern inventions such as personal computers.

The church's teaching has periodically put it at odds with civil authorities - notably in 1991, when eight children died in a measles epidemic. Their parents were members of either First Century Gospel Church or the nearby Faith Tabernacle of Nicetown, another congregation that espouses faith healing.

Defense attorneys Bobby Hoof and Mythri Jayaraman declined to comment on the verdict or a possible appeal.

"Right now, we have to prepare for sentencing," Hoof said.

The key question was whether the Schaibles knew their son was in danger of dying. The Schaibles told detectives that Kent was the first child they had lost following faith healing and that they thought the boy just had a severe cold.

The prosecution relied on the testimony of Assistant Medical Examiner Edwin Lieberman, who said Kent's symptoms - fever, coughing, diarrhea, and lethargy - were symptoms of more than a cold.

Had the boy been vaccinated or even given antibiotics, Lieberman testified, he likely would have survived.

The Schaibles did not testify in their defense. Instead, their lawyers retained the celebrated forensic pathologist Cyril H. Wecht, who testified that the child was killed by a fast-moving strain of bacterial pneumonia that probably did not develop until 12 to 24 hours before death.

By that point, Wecht said, Kent likely would not have lived even with medical care.

The jury had deliberated about 10 hours since Thursday afternoon and came back late Friday saying it was deadlocked on one of the two charges. But after Temin asked the jurors to continue deliberations, the panel returned shortly after 5 p.m. with guilty verdicts.