Pair who chose prayer on trial in son’s death

October 9, 2009

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PHILADELPHIA - A fundamentalist couple who prayed over their sick toddler rather than get medical help before his pneumonia death have been ordered to stand trial on manslaughter charges.

Prosecutors believe 2-year-old Kent Schaible succumbed because his parents chose prayer over modern medicine.

But defense lawyers - perhaps mindful of Pennsylvania’s strict parental-duty laws - deny the case hinges on religious freedom. They say Herbert and Catherine Schaible did not know their son was dying.

“We’re talking about symptoms that mirrored the flu and the common cold,’’ said public defender Francis Carmen, who represents the mother. “The Commonwealth is dragging this [issue] into the courtroom, to persecute them for their minority religious beliefs.’’

About a dozen US children die each year in such cases, often from diabetes, pneumonia, and other treatable illnesses, according to Shawn Francis Peters, a University of Wisconsin lecturer who wrote “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law.’’

Their parents often say they failed to recognize the severity of the illness, he said.

The Schaibles, who quit school after ninth grade, work as teachers at their church, First Century Gospel Church in northeast Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia judge who upheld involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment, and conspiracy charges Wednesday against the Schaibles called them “loving’’ but “misguided.’’

Kent died Jan. 24, about 10 days after he fell ill. His symptoms included coughing and congestion, the parents told police in their Jan. 26 statements. Police later asked why they didn’t call a doctor.

“They both pretty much said: ‘We believe in God for healing. We don’t take it ourselves, either,’ ’’ Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore said yesterday. She believes the child suffered.