A pastor in a fundamentalist Christian sect that rejects doctors and drugs has been charged in the death of a child — his own granddaughter — from medical neglect. The novel prosecution is raising hopes among some advocates that it might spur change in a church that has resisted it.
Faith Tabernacle Congregation has long told adherents to place their trust in God alone for healing. As a result, dozens of children, mostly in Pennsylvania, have died of preventable and treatable illnesses. Church members reject modern medicine as a bedrock tenet of their faith, even as some have faced manslaughter charges in child deaths dating back 35 years.
Until now, though, no leader in the sect has ever faced charges.
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"It could be a new tool to save the lives of these children," said Rita Swan, one of the nation's top experts on faith-based medical neglect. She leads the group Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, which works to eliminate religious exemptions in state laws requiring parents to provide appropriate medical care.
With a routine course of antibiotics, 2-year-old Ella Foster would have almost certainly beaten the pneumonia that took her life in November. But her parents refused medical care, and she succumbed shortly after they asked the Rev. Rowland Foster to anoint her.
Foster, 72, pastor of a Faith Tabernacle Congregation church district in eastern Pennsylvania, was charged with a felony this month under a state law requiring clergy members, teachers and other "mandated reporters" to turn the names of suspected child abusers over to authorities for investigation. The law makes no exception for clergy who happen to be related to the abused child, as Foster was to Ella.
Most states have similar laws that require clergy to report abuse.
"He was well aware of the fact that this child was in need of medical treatment and he never reported it, nor do I believe that he ever had the intention to report it," Berks County District Attorney John Adams, whose office is prosecuting Foster, said in an interview.
Cathleen Palm, of the Pennsylvania-based Center for Children's Justice, said she hopes the prosecution, at a minimum, will spur action in the Legislature to protect children whose parents don't seek necessary medical care based on religion.
"What the district attorney has done is clearly pivotal," she said.
Neither the Rev. Foster nor his attorney returned calls for comment. Foster is due in court next month for a preliminary hearing that will likely attract a heavy presence of church members.
Ella's parents, Jonathan and Grace Foster, were charged earlier with involuntary manslaughter and await trial. Police have said Jonathan Foster attributed Ella's death to "God's will."
The reclusive sect, founded in Philadelphia more than a century ago, does not give media interviews. At the Faith Tabernacle church and school campus in Mechanicsburg, where Rowland Foster is the pastor, an Associated Press reporter who entered the building was quickly ordered to leave. An older man who accepted a letter seeking comment from church officials promised to shred it.
Outside, dozens of Faith Tabernacle kids played during recess.
"People are making them out to be monsters, like they don't care. They do care. They're devastated" by Ella's death, said Denise Houseman, 49, who left the church as a teenager after nearly dying of complications from untreated Crohn's disease. "This is the last thing they want to happen."
But Houseman isn't sure the felony charge against the pastor will deter the faithful or alter teachings.
"You have to start somewhere, but it's not going to be an easy fix," she said. "I think it's going to make them dig in deeper."
Even Adams, while encouraging other prosecutors to follow his example, is skeptical it'll make a wider impact.
"I am concerned that because of their teachings, because of their beliefs, they will continue to violate the law," he said.
Nationally, some two dozen religious sects oppose all or most forms of medical care, according to Swan's group, CHILD. The group has documented more than 300 deaths but says the number is almost certainly far higher because most are not investigated.
In Pennsylvania, more than 25 Faith Tabernacle children have died over the years.
The church operates three schools in Pennsylvania — in Philadelphia, Altoona and Mechanicsburg — that together enroll several hundred students. Teachers at the schools are required by law to report suspected abuse to Pennsylvania's ChildLine system for investigation, but it's unclear whether ChildLine has ever fielded a report from the schools.
One hindrance for prosecutors seeking accountability from Faith Tabernacle pastors and teachers is a lack of clarity in Pennsylvania's child protective services law, which was revamped after the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State.
Withholding medical care due to religious belief isn't considered child abuse under the law, which makes a charge of failure to report in that situation legally problematic, said Adams' chief deputy, Jonathan Kurland. The DA's office was able to pursue a charge against Foster because the religious exemption does not apply if medical neglect causes a child's death, Kurland said.
"If our Legislature is interested in protecting children, that needs to be changed," Adams said. "Because, to me, it is outrageous that a church teaches that medical care is not to be sought for children."