A Philadelphia forensic pathologist told a Common Pleas Court jury Tuesday that a 2-year-old Rhawnhurst boy would almost certainly be alive had he received routine medical care before he died last year of pneumonia.
“This type of pneumonia, this type of bacteria, is preventable through vaccination and treatable with antibiotics,” testified Assistant Medical Examiner Edwin Lieberman, referring to the disease that killed Kent Schaible in January 2009.
Lieberman defended his decision to classify the death as a homicide as a prosecutor began her involuntary manslaughter case against the boy’s parents, Herbert and Catherine Schaible.
There is no mandatory prison term for involuntary manslaughter, but the Schaibles each could face up to 24 years in prison if convicted.
The Schaibles are members of a church that preaches forgoing medical care in favor of prayer and faith healing. Authorities allege that when their son became ill with fever, cough, diarrhea, and loss of appetite, the Schaibles cared for him at home for almost two weeks, praying for him to get well as he died.
It’s a case in which the jury must discern the boundaries of parental responsibility, religion, and the law.
Mythri Jaraman, the lawyer for Catherine Schaible, 41, argued in her opening statement that Schaible’s religion is irrelevant because the prosecution cannot prove a key element of involuntary manslaughter: that she knew or should have known Kent “faced a substantial risk of death.”
Both Schaible lawyers argued that the couple – both quit school after ninth grade – cannot be expected to know when cold and flu symptoms are life-threatening pneumonia.
This is not the first time the [First Century Gospel Church] and its members have run afoul of the law over its belief in faith healing.
In 1993, Philadelphia officials got a court order against another couple after they prayed over their 12-year-old son at home instead of taking him to an emergency room after he was hit by a car and seriously injured.
And in 1991, the church and another congregation, Faith Tabernacle of Nicetown, came under scrutiny after eight children died in a measles epidemic after members resisted vaccinating their children.
First, do no harm: Prayer or medicine?
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.
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.
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.”