Faith-Healing Churches Linked to 2 Dozen Child Deaths

CHOP doctor says laws need to be changed

Two Philadelphia faith-healing churches have a long history of the youngest members of their congregation dying because parents refused medical care.

Families who attend Faith Tabernacle Congregation in North Philadelphia and First Century Gospel Church in Juniata Park have lost more than two dozen children to illness since 1971, according to non-profit Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. (CHILD, Inc.). Both churches believe in the power of prayer over modern medicine.

The Schaibles are one of those families.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible stand charged with third-degree murder and other crimes after their 7-month-old son Brandon died from bacterial pneumonia, dehydration and a group B streptococcus infection on April 18.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams says the boy’s death could have been prevented, but the couple instead turned to prayer.

This is the second time the couple lost a child to illness. They were sentenced to 10 years probation after the 2009 death of their 2-year-old son Kent. Kent died after contracting pneumonia, an illness prosecutors said could have been prevented with basic medical care.

With Brandon’s death, prosecutors allege the couple violated their probation by not taking the baby to the doctor.

The Schaibles are members of the First Century Gospel Church. Founded in 1925, the church is an offshoot of its mother church Faith Tabernacle Congregation. At least 22 children from the congregations have died from illnesses.

In 1991, Faith Tabernacle lost five children to the measles after an outbreak. One child from First Century Gospel also died.

Dean Heilman was 22-months-old when he bled to death as a result of his hemophilia. His parents, Dean and Susan, were charged with involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to probation in 1997, according to court records.

Court records also show Annemarie and Daniel Foster were also charged in 1997 with endangering the welfare of their son Patrick. The 2-year-old went months without treatment for a tumor. The Fosters were given probation and got Patrick treatment, according to CHILD, Inc. He died in 2007.

NBC10’s Lu Ann Cahn spoke to one member of First Tabernacle Thursday about the church’s beliefs.

“The church believe that people get sick because they’re not doing the right thing,” the man named John said. He refused to give his last name during the interview.

“God promised us that if we do his will, that there’s no infection; all these diseases that you name, would not come to you,” the man explained. John says he believes the congregation is being persecuted for their beliefs.

Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, says a parent’s faith does not trump their health.

“Although, you are allowed to martyr yourself to your religion, you are not allowed to martyr your child to your religion,” he said.

Dr. Offit is now writing a book about the 1991 measles outbreak. He says Pennsylvania’s laws need to be changed to prevent additional faith-healing related deaths from happening.

“In the State of Pennsylvania, there are religious exemptions to child abuse and neglect laws, we are backward in that sense,” he said. “I think we need to eliminate those exemptions.”

The Schaibles are being held on $250,000 bail. But prosecutors are seeking to have the bail revoked over the violation of the couple’s probation. A judge will decide whether the bail should stay or go during court proceedings Friday.

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