You get two tries

There are these parents, Catherine and Herbert Schaible. Their two-year-old son died of treatable pneumonia in 2009 after they “treated” him with prayer instead of medical care. They were under a court order not to do that again (which seems a good deal too generous, frankly). They did do it again, and another child died of pneumonia.

The Schaibles are third-generation members of an insular Pentecostal community, the First Century Gospel Church in northeast Philadelphia, where they also taught at the church school. They have seven surviving children.

Judge Benjamin Lerner rejected defense claims that their religious beliefs “clashed” with the 2011 court order to get annual checkups and call a doctor if a child became ill. The order came after a jury convicted them of involuntary manslaughter in Kent’s death, and they were sentenced to 10 years of probation.

“April of 2013 wasn’t Brandon’s time to die,” Lerner said, noting the violence committed throughout human history in the name of religion. “You’ve killed two of your children. … Not God. Not your church. Not religious devotion. You.”

And that court order that didn’t work, and the decision to let them go on being parents to those eight children, who are now seven.

“It was so foreseeable to me that this was going to happen,” said Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore, who prosecuted both cases. “Everybody in the system failed these children.”

After the first death, she and public defender Mythri Jayaraman agreed that the couple’s beliefs were so ingrained that their children remained at risk. They asked the earlier judge to have the family supervised by a Department of Human Services caseworker. Instead, the judge assigned them to probation officers, who are not trained to monitor children’s welfare.

Jeez. The prosecutor and the defender agreed that the children were at risk, and on what should be done about it? Yet the judge didn’t take their advice. Well that’s a pity.


  1. chigau (違う) says

    In order to get to “third-generation” you need 2/9 children to die?
    With 7/9 not dead, I guess they still Win™.

  2. Bjarte Foshaug says

    You’ve killed two of your children. … Not God. Not your church. Not religious devotion. You.

    Obviously an idea cannot kill anyone all by itself. What ideas can do, however, is make killing your child (or any other atrocity you can think of) seem like the only right thing to do. If you really believe that prayer works*, if you really believe that life goes on for eternity after death and that your actions now determine whether you will have an eternity of suffering or an eternity of bliss, if you really believe that choosing medicine over prayer is an insult to the almighty creator of the universe who decides where both you and your child will spend eternity, and if you really believe that “no matter how cruel this may seem to us, it’s actually both perfectly good and perfectly justified for reasons that are only known to God and of no concern to us”, it follows quite naturally that keeping your child’s disposable physical body working for another few decades is less important than caring for his/her eternal soul. All you have to do to reach such a conclusion is to want the best for your child. (Just ask yourself “if all of this were definitely true and I knew it, what would I do?”)

    Of course there is absolutely no reason to think that any of these things are actually true, and so my main objection to faith-based religion in general is, once again, that it allows otherwise intelligent people to think and act as if such claims were true even if they are not. What we call “religious extremism” is simply what follows, quite naturally, from that. The main thing for which religious lunatics like the Schaibles can be blamed is to leave the most important questions in life up to blind faith in the first place. Once you have done that, the internal logic of whatever arbitrary belief-system you end up with makes certain conclusions about ethics and behavior pretty much inescapable unless you reject the whole belief-system.

    As I wrote a while ago, cases like this always struck me as one of the strongest rebuttals to religious apologists – whether they are believers in God or believers in belief – who deny any causal link between religious beliefs and harmful behavior. According to them religion itself is only ever an excuse for harmful or immoral behavior while the real motive is always secular. So, once again, my question is: What is the secular motive that would have caused parents like the Schaibles to deny necessary medical treatment for for their children in every single case, even if we took away their religious beliefs while keeping everything else constant? I’m not talking about other parents letting their children die because of other wacky beliefs (in homeopathy** etc.) or sheer neglect. I’m talking about those parents who do site explicitly religious motives for letting their children die. What is the secular motive that would have cause those parents to behave the exact same way no matter what they believed about the efficacy or prayer or the sinfulness of medicine?
    * Unless, of course, your faith wasn’t strong enough, or unless it was part of God’s plan to let the child die anyway.
    ** Incidentally, I have never heard a “skeptic” argue that there’s nothing wrong with believing in homeopathy since parents sometimes let their children die for reasons other than belief in homeopathy.

  3. quixote says

    Wait. Don’t tell me. Both prosecutor and defender are female. Judge is male. A case of Miss Trigg? “What a good idea ladies. Perhaps a man would like to propose it.”? I’d be curious to know whether that judge has a history of ignoring female counsel.

  4. anne mariehovgaard says

    If you have killed one of your children this way, you should lose custody of any other children you might have. Because this is a point of no return: to accept that you were wrong, and you need to take your sick children to a doctor, means accepting that you killed your child for no good reason. No judge should believe a “so sorry, won’t do that again” from such people unless accompanied by a total break with their religious community. And the normal emotional reactions of someone who suddenly understands that they’ve killed their own child while delusional.

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