No bail for parents in faith-healing death
PHILADELPHIA — After their 2-year-old son died of untreated pneumonia in 2009, faith-healing advocates Herbert and Catherine Schaible promised a judge that they would not let another sick child go without medical care.
But now they've lost an 8-month-old child to what a prosecutor called “eerily similar” circumstances. And instead of another involuntary manslaughter charge, they're now charged with third-degree murder.
“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 Philadelphia homicide detectives after their ninth child, Brandon, died in April. Medicine, he said, “is against our religious beliefs.”
The Schaibles were ordered held without bail Friday, two days after their arrest, although defense lawyers argued that they are neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.
“He is incarcerated because of his faith,” said lawyer Bobby Hoof, who described client Herbert Schaible's mindset as resolute.
“He's strong-willed,” Hoof said. “(Yet) he's mourning this son. He's hurting as any dad would.”
The only people theoretically at risk are the couple's seven surviving children, who are now in foster care, the lawyers said.
A judge acknowledged that the couple had never missed a court date in the first case but said he worried that might change amid the more serious charges. And he feared they may have supporters who would harbor them.
“Throughout this country ... there are churches like the Schaibles' whose members and leaders probably don't think they did anything wrong, and might be willing — to paraphrase the Schaibles' pastor — to put their interpretation of God's will above the law,” Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner said.
About a dozen children die each year in the United States 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.
In Oregon, four couples from a faith-healing church have been prosecuted, the most recent in 2011 when a couple was sentenced to more than six years in prison for manslaughter in the death of their newborn son.
The state legislature that year removed faith healing as a defense to murder charges. Members of the Followers of Christ have consistently refused to speak with journalists.
Defense lawyer Mark Cogan declined to comment Friday on whether the legal actions have changed the practice of any church members. Some testified at the 2011 trial that they do get medical care.
At the Schaibles' sentencing in February 2011 in their son Kent's death, they agreed to follow terms of the 10-year probation, which included an order to get their children regular checkups and sick visits as needed. Catherine Schaible, 43, let her husband speak for her and never addressed the judge.
“It's very clear that the law says that religious freedom is trumped by the safety of a child,” Common Pleas Judge Carolyn Engel Temin said.
But a transcript of a later probation hearing that year shows probation officers were confused by their mandate to oversee the required medical care and felt powerless to carry it out. The family was not being monitored by child welfare workers, who are more accustomed to dealing with medical compliance.
“I think that we all on the jury thought that it would not happen again, that whatever social and legal institutions needed to be involved in their situation would just take over ... and that the mandated visits would be robust enough that they would not be able to do this again,” Vincent Bertolini, 51, a former college professor who served as jury foreman at the Schaibles' first trial, said Friday.