Child’s death raises questions on faith and healing

News Gleaner, Jan. 29, 2003
http://www.newsgleaner.com/
David J. Foster

Why can’t healing come from the hand of a physician?

That’s one of the questions being debated as police again investigate the death of another child from the Faith Tabernacle Congregation, a religious sect that believes in prayer instead of traditional medicine.

The medical examiner is awaiting test results that could determine what killed 9-year-old Benjamin Reinert, of Lawncrest, who died Dec. 31, four months after his mother passed away from an infection following a miscarriage.

The Reinerts are members of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation, a Philadelphia- based international religion that believes to seek medical help from a physician is to turn away from God. Benjamin’s father Paul is the nephew of the church’s leader, the late Rev. Charles A. Reinert.

Benjamin’s mother, Joyce, died Aug. 31 as friends and relatives prayed by her side.

This isn’t the first time children from Faith Tabernacle died when their parents failed to seek medical help. And it’s not the first time prosecutors considered filing charges against them. In 1997, Dean and Susan Heilman’s 22-month-old son bled to death after cutting his foot on a piece of glass in their yard. He was a hemophiliac. The Heilmans, of Lawndale, received 17 years probation.

A year later, Daniel and Anne Marie Foster, of Tacony, were sentenced to 14 years probation for failing to seek medical help for their 2-year-old cancer-stricken son. The boy was near death when taken by police and city social workers to a hospital and successfully treated.

The most dramatic episode came in 1991 when a measles outbreak claimed six Tabernacle children, from 14 years to 19 months.

Each time, the deaths spark debate over the struggle between the right to practice religion and government’s role in protecting children.

It also raises questions about faith and its role in healing the mind and body.

For Joseph DiVincenzo, M.D., it’s all about balance.

”Too much of anything is not a good thing,” DiVincenzo said. “Balance is a keynote to life. When things are out of balance, you or those around you suffer.

”Faith should not blind you. Why can’t healing come through the hand of a physician or anyone else other than some unseen, magical experience?”

A psychiatrist at Friends Hospital, DiVincenzo studied philosophy and religion as an undergraduate to put his medical training in perspective. Raised a Catholic, DiVincenzo is a Zen Buddhist who applies Buddhist principles to psychology and psychotherapy.

”It’s not real clear scientifically how someone’s faith- their ideas and the emotional element attached to those ideas-can impact on one’s physiologic, biologic condition,” DiVincenzo said. “Though there is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence to show that individuals whose emotions and thought processes are supported by a faith are much more likely to process an illness in a way that has much less negative effect on them. They are more likely to proceed through the illness in a better emotional or psychological state.”

Negative thoughts and emotions expressed inappropriately can be transformed into negative effects in the body with headaches, gastrointestinal problems, lethargy and breathing difficulties. “They used to be called psychosomatic illnesses,” he said. “They are often translations of unexpressed strong feelings and ideas.”

Before prescribing treatment, DiVincenzo investigates his patients’ religious beliefs and spiritual well-being. “It’s important now more than ever that they understand how this can be a significant support in helping them process what it is they are dealing with” and understand their illness in context with their faith.

That’s why he’s embraced Buddhism.

Buddhism, DiVincenzo said, is a “practice-based” religion. “Rather than rely on someone else or something else to make the (spiritual) connection, you meditate and investigate the nature of the big questions: What is God? What am I? What is life? What is death?

You can be Christian and be a Buddhist; you can be a Jew and be a Buddhist because Buddhism never answers the questions,” DiVincenzo said. “I can offer people who have no religious principles certain practices they can use with any kind of denominational association that will help them process their feelings and become more mindful and deal with their anxiety and anger.”

These principles dovetail with Friends Hospital’s traditional cognitive and behavioral therapy.

Though DiVincenzo refrains from criticizing Faith Tabernacle, “you have to question when your decisions cause more harm than good, more suffering than the alleviation of suffering,” he said.

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