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Judge tosses charge against pastor in faith-healing death

| Wednesday, April 19, 2017, 9:55 p.m.
Rev. Rowland Foster leaves district court after charges were dismissed against him Wednesday, April 19, 2017 in Bernville, Pa.

BERNVILLE — A judge on Wednesday ruled there was insufficient evidence to charge the leader of a church that rejects modern medicine, but prosecutors said they would try again to bring him to trial in the pneumonia death of his granddaughter.

Prosecutors want to hold the Rev. Rowland Foster accountable by charging him with failing to report suspected child abuse in the death of 2-year-old Ella Foster, his granddaughter.

Hours after the district judge's decision, the district attorney's office said it planned to refile the felony count.

Foster, 72, serves as pastor of Faith Tabernacle Congregation, part of a fundamentalist Christian sect that instructs members to eschew treatment by physicians and the use of pharmaceutical drugs. Prosecutors argue he should have reported the girl's condition to authorities because state law requires ministers to report suspected abuse.

The girl's parents, Jonathan and Grace Foster, are charged with involuntary manslaughter and await trial. They have relinquished custody of their six other children, but have not commented on the allegations.

The church's stance against modern medicine has resulted in the deaths over the years of dozens of children from preventable or treatable illnesses, most in Pennsylvania, according to an advocacy group that tracks faith-based medical neglect. Their members have said they hope the pastor's prosecution might spur change in a church that has resisted it.

Defense attorney Chris Ferro said after the hearing that “there's just a lack of evidence all the way around.”

“This is a grieving grandfather, not a criminal,” he said.

Prosecutor Jonathan Kurland told District Judge Andrea Book that the Fosters “failed to provide adequate medical care for Ella Foster when it would have been apparent to a reasonable person that she needed that medical care.”

“And she died as a result,” he said.

The girl's parents summoned the elder Foster to their home while she was dying, and he anointed her head with oil. A funeral home alerted police, who found her body fully dressed, partly covered with a blanket.

Ella Foster likely suffered from severely labored breathing and a temperature of about 104 on the day she died, police said in charging documents.

Dr. Neil Hoffman, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, called her condition “quite easily or eminently treatable” and said she almost certainly would have survived had she been given antibiotics. He said she would have had severely labored breathing and a bad cough for at least a day before she died.

“The treatment could have been started within an hour or so of death and still had a high likelihood of being effective and saving the child,” Hoffman testified.

Trooper Brian Cipko, the lead investigator, told the judge Ella may have been dead for several hours before authorities arrived. He said he grew suspicious about the answers when he asked the family what happened.

“The parents say, ‘We don't know, she was sick,'” Cipko said. “That's a red flag. As an investigator, a big red flag.”

The pastor told police he has never been to a doctor.

He did not testify at the preliminary hearing and did not comment afterward. A few dozen supporters attended the hearing, some softly singing hymns in the rural central Pennsylvania court building.

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