A judge refused to dismiss murder charges Wednesday against a fundamentalist Christian in the faith-healing death of his son, saying things might be different if another one of his children's deaths hadn't landed him and his wife in court four years ago.
Their probation in that case required Herbert and Catherine Schaible to seek immediate medical help if another child was sick or injured. But the Schaibles instead sat and prayed over 8-month-old son Brandon before he died of pneumonia in April, according to their statements to police.
Defense lawyer Bobby Hoof argued that Brandon died just three days after he became ill, and said there was no evidence of malice, as required for a third-degree murder charge. The judge disagreed.
“They learned in the worst possible way ... exactly what these symptoms could lead to in a child, especially a young child, if not medically cared for,” Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner said, referring to the 2009 death of 2-year-old Kent Schaible. “We've been here before ... under strikingly similar circumstances.”
About a dozen children die each year in the U.S. when parents turn to faith healing instead of medicine, typically from highly treatable problems, said Shawn Francis Peters, a University of Wisconsin lecturer who has studied faith-healing deaths. At least one state, Oregon, has removed faith healing as a defense to murder charges.
The Schaibles are third-generation members and former teachers at the First Century Gospel Church, a small, insular congregation in northeast Philadelphia.
“We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil's power,” Herbert Schaible, 44, told homicide detectives after Brandon, their ninth child, died.
Their seven surviving children are now in foster care.
Catherine Schaible is due in court Wednesday afternoon for the same motion to dismiss the murder charge in Brandon's death. She is free on bail and attended the morning hearing of her husband, who remains in custody. He silently nodded to his wife after the judge's ruling.
Kent also died of pneumonia, albeit after an illness of more than a week.
The Schaibles were convicted of involuntary manslaughter in his death and placed on 10 years of probation, which included the requirement to get annual medical checkups and other medical care as needed for their children. Brandon was seen by a doctor when he was 10 days old and deemed healthy, Hoof said. But he acknowledged the boy did not see a doctor when he became ill.
“A reasonable parent probably would wait three days to take their child to a doctor,” Hoof said. “Unfortunately, this infectious organism can ... become fatal the same day. ... It's arguable (whether), even if he had taken his son to the doctor, he would have survived.”
The Schaibles' pastor, Nelson Clark, has said the Schaibles lost their sons because of a “spiritual lack” in their lives and insisted they would not seek medical care even if another child appeared near death. He has also faulted officials for trying to force his members into “the flawed medical system.”