Pattye Benson

Community Matters

First Century Gospel Church

Religious Freedom or Child Abuse . . . You be the judge!

Risking a volatile outburst from some Community Matters readers, there is troubling news from the Philadelphia courts. I have been following this story from January 2009 and the case had its day in court yesterday. Although the verdict was guilty, I am far from satisfied by the sentencing. If you are not aware of this specific case, here is the background.

In January 2009, 2-year old Kent Schaible of the Rhawnhurst section of Philadelphia became sick. His parents, Herbert Schaible, 42 and Catherine Schaible, 41 are members of the First Century Gospel Church of Juniata Park, which teaches healing through prayer. For 10 days, the couple remained in this Northeast home praying over their son, believing their son’s symptoms, including a sore throat, chest congestion, diarrhea and trouble swallowing and sleeping were signs of the flu or of a cold. The parents did not seek medical treatment for their son. Following the fundamental teachings of their church, they believe that the sick can be healed by praying to God, not by turning to doctors or medicine.

Kent died of bacterial pneumonia on January 24, 2009. When the Schaibles discovered that Kent was dead, they called the church’s pastor who came to the house. He joined the parents in prayer and then called a funeral director. The Philadelphia medical examiner ruled the death a homicide but noted that it could have been prevented with basic medical care. Herbert and Catherine Schaible were arrested in April 2009 and charged with involuntary manslaughter and related counts.

The trial began late last year and at one point Herbert read a statement to the jury, which included “We tried to fight the devil, but in the end the devil won” as part of their defense. I supported the Schaible’s conviction in December of involuntary manslaughter but was shocked by yesterday’s sentence. The sentence for the death of their 2-year old son was 10 years probation, as imposed by Common Pleas Court Judge Carolyn Temin!

Why no prison term for the couple? Temin decided against prison for the couple because they had no prior criminal record and they have seven other children, now ages 1 to 15, and they needed their parents. Temin says that she made it clear that the parents must get the children regular medical exams. Do we really think that is going to happen . . . ? Commenting on the sentence, Herbert’s attorney, Bobby Hoof, commented there is a clear message that “religious freedom is trumped by the safety of children.”

As an aside, Mr. Schaible teaches at the school that is attached to their church, the fundamentalist First Century Gospel Church, of which they are members. Mrs. Schaible’s father is principal of this school. How can the Schaible’s support the doctrines of the church and school and have regular check-up and medical care? The church and school teachings believe that all medical treatment is a sin.

The couple could have received 5-10 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and 3 ½ -7 years for endangering the welfare of a child. In handing down the probation sentence, Judge Temin said that if the Schaible’s violate the terms (which means seeking medical care and regular check-ups for their other children they will be sent to jail. What happens if their violation of medical treatment causes another death of a child? How can these people be allowed to retain custody of their children?

When it comes to religious beliefs, I support the rights of an individual. However, I draw the line when a religious belief causes harm or worse, . . . death. Maybe I am going out on a limb on this, but I view The Schaible’s actions as a form of religious child abuse. The fundamental teachings of their church, directs those that seek medical attention are to be shunned . . . so how is that this couple is going to remain members of the church, teach in the school and follow the terms of the sentence in the raising of their seven children? Not possible.

Here is an interesting thought . . . would the proposed school voucher plan work for parents wishing to send their children to the fundamental First Century Gospel Church School? Good possibility that this church school located in Juniata Park could be located close to one of the 144 low-performing public schools and therefore would qualify to receive a student with a voucher. Isn’t that a scary thought?

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