On Mother's Day the First Century Gospel Church in Philadelphia is filled. Big families, arriving in vans, gather as an assistant pastor offers his sermon: "Heavenly Father ... pray for our children who are distracted by Satan. Ensure our members are in good health."
For many in this congregation of 520, who call themselves Independent Baptists, that is the extent of their health care: faith that God will cure them. But choosing prayer over medicine has left members Catherine and Herb Schaible charged with murder. On April 18 their 8-month-old son Brandon died from untreated bacterial pneumonia. "We believe God wants us to ask Him for healing," Catherine, 43, told police. At the time of Brandon's death they were on probation for manslaughter after the 2009 death of another son, Kent, 2, who died from the same thing. "We tried to fight the devil," Herb, 44, told a social worker then, "but in the end the devil won."
The first time around, the Schaibles avoided prison but were ordered by a judge to seek regular medical care for their seven kids and follow a doctor's advice "to the letter." Prosecutor Joanne Pescatore had her doubts that would work. "You could tell by their reaction to the judge's sentence that they weren't going to do it," she says.
Their lawyers say the Schaibles took their children to yearly checkups - although they did not take Brandon to the doctor when he got sick - and are loving parents. Their remaining children have been sent to three foster homes. The older ones still attend their school, where dad Herb was a teacher. Says Catherine's attorney Mythri Jayaraman: "They are shattered."
First Century pastor Nelson Clark plans to stay in touch with the couple, who are behind bars. They will still see their children, ages 3 to 17, twice weekly for two hours each. "They're doing well under the circumstances," he says. "Every single member supports them." Still, the incident has brought unwanted attention to this very private sect. Clark, whose father and grandfather led the church before him, says members are not ostracized for seeing a doctor. "We're not a cult. They make their own decisions." Yet he counsels that "sickness is caused by a spiritual lack in us." Before Kent, he says, there had not been an "untimely" death here "for years."
Today the Schaibles' brick home, once full of kids, is quiet. Says a dismayed neighbor: "They are good, Christian-living people. But this 'no doctor' bit? Children deserve more."