PHILADELPHIA – A fundamentalist Christian couple who relied on prayer, not medicine, to cure their dying toddler son was convicted Friday of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment.
Herbert and Catherine Schaible of Philadelphia face more than a decade in prison for the January 2009 pneumonia death of 2-year-old Kent.
"We were careful to make sure we didn't have their religion on trial but were holding them responsible for their conduct," jury foreman Vince Bertolini, 49, told The Associated Press. "At the least, they were guilty of gross negligence, and (therefore) of involuntary manslaughter."
The Schaibles, who have six other children, declined to comment as they left the courthouse to await sentencing Feb. 2.
Experts say about a dozen U.S. children die in faith-healing cases each year. An Oregon couple were sentenced this year to 16 months in prison for negligent homicide in the death of their teenage son, who had an undiagnosed urinary blockage.
Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore will ask the judge at sentencing to put the couple's other children under a doctor's care. She was not yet sure if she would seek prison terms for the two felonies.
Kent Schaible's symptoms had included coughing, congestion, crankiness and a loss of appetite, although his parents said he was eating and drinking until the last day, and they had thought he was getting better.
The lone defense witness, high-profile coroner Cyril Wecht, testified that a deadly bacterium could have killed him in hours.
Herbert Schaible, 42, teaches at a school affiliated with their church, First Century Gospel Church. His wife, 41, previously taught there, but now stays at home with the couple's children, from an infant to teenagers.
The Schaibles grew up in the church and have never received medical care themselves, not counting the help of the 84-year-old lay midwife who attends home births, according to pastor Nelson A. Clark.
Clark, 69, knew the couple as children and described them as honors students who dropped out of the church school in ninth grade, a year shy of the school's 10th grade graduation. Catherine Schaible did so at age 16 to begin teaching younger students, he said.
Clark balks at suggestions the church is a cult or fringe religion.
Church elders do not shun members who seek medical care, although they pray that they make a different choice next time, he said. He notes the high number of deaths blamed each year on medical mistakes — as many as 100,000 a year in hospitals alone, according to a widely discussed Institute of Medicine study from 1999.
"The legal community is trying to force our church group to put them in the hands of this flawed medical system, when they have chosen to put them in the hands of a perfect God, who does not make mistakes," Clark said Friday.
The couple did not take the stand during the four-day trial, but a social worker testified that Kent Schaible once said "the devil won" in the battle for their son's life.
Pescatore argued Thursday that adults can choose to forgo medical care for themselves but not for their children.
"If you want to be a martyr yourself and you don't want to go to the doctor or the dentist or the eye doctor, that's (within) your power. We're in America," she said in closings. "But you must take care of your children."
About a dozen U.S. children die in faith-healing cases each year, a handful of which spawn criminal charges, according to Shawn Francis Peters, a University of Wisconsin lecturer who wrote a book about the phenomenon.
The Schaibles deployed a defense strategy common in such cases: Their lawyers said they did not know Kent was near death.
Defense lawyers also argued that the case was not about religion. But Bertolini, who works for an educational testing service, said there was no putting religion aside. He said the deliberations were informed by several people of faith on the jury.
Some states carve out exceptions to criminal neglect statutes for parents who rely on faith or spiritual healing. But even in states that don't, juries or judges often sympathize with them.
In a 2009 Oregon trial with parallels to the Schaible case, a jury acquitted the defendants of manslaughter in their 15-month-old's pneumonia death, convicting the father, Carl Worthington, only of a misdemeanor.
But his in-laws, Jeff and Marci Beagley, were the couple sentenced to prison this year in their 16-year-old son's death.
"The fact is, too many children have died unnecessarily — a graveyard full," Judge Steven Maurer said at their March sentencing. "This has to stop."
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