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Parents who opposed medical care for child are sentenced

PHILADELPHIA — A couple who believed in faith-healing were sentenced Wednesday to 3½ to 7 years in prison in the death of their son, the second time they lost a child by failing to seek medical care.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible defied a court order to get medical care for their children after their 2-year-old son, Kent, died in 2009.

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Instead, they tried to comfort and pray over 8-month-old Brandon last year as he, too, died of treatable pneumonia.

‘‘My religious beliefs are that you should pray, and not have to use medicine,’’ Catherine Schaible, 44, told the judge. “But because it is against the law, then whatever sentence you give me, I will accept.’’

She added that her beliefs have since changed.

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.’’

Experts say about a dozen US children die in faith-healing cases each year.

The Schaibles are the rare couple to lose a second child that way. Their pastor, Nelson Clark, blamed Kent’s death on a spiritual lack in the parents’ lives, and insisted they would never seek medical care, even if another child was dying.

‘‘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 judge in that case 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.

Pescatore has called Brandon’s symptoms ‘‘eerily similar’’ to Kent’s. They included labored breathing and a refusal to eat.

In his police statement last year, Herbert Schaible, 45, said: ‘‘We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing, and that he died on the cross to break the devil’s power.’’

The Schaibles pleaded no contest to third-degree murder in Brandon’s death, and faced a maximum 20- to 40-year term. Pescatore asked for eight to 16 years, while Jayaraman sought less than two years for Catherine Schaible.

‘‘I didn’t know what to do when Brandon was sick, because it was much quicker,’’ said Catherine Schaible, who said he died within a few days. ‘‘The district attorney is actually right. I feel like I failed as a mother because they’re not alive.’’

Herbert Schaible has already served about a year, while his wife has been free on bail.

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