READING — A pastor in a fundamentalist Christian sect that rejects doctors and drugs has been charged in the death of a child — his own granddaughter — from medical neglect. The novel prosecution is raising hopes among some advocates that it might spur change in a church that has resisted it.
Faith Tabernacle Congregation has long told adherents to place their trust in God alone for healing. As a result, dozens of children, mostly in Pennsylvania, have died of preventable and treatable illnesses. Church members reject modern medicine as a bedrock tenet of their faith, even as some have faced manslaughter charges in child deaths dating back 35 years.
Until now, though, no leader in the sect has ever faced charges.
“It could be a new tool to save the lives of these children,” said Rita Swan, one of the nation’s top experts on faith-based medical neglect. She leads the group Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, which works to eliminate religious exemptions in state laws requiring parents to provide appropriate medical care.
With a routine course of antibiotics, 2-year-old Ella Foster would have almost certainly beaten the pneumonia that took her life in November. But her parents refused medical care, and she succumbed shortly after they asked the Rev. Rowland Foster to anoint her.
Foster, 72, pastor of a Faith Tabernacle Congregation church district, was charged with a felony this month under a state law requiring clergy members, teachers and other “mandated reporters” to turn the names of suspected child abusers over to authorities for investigation. The law makes no exception for clergy who happen to be related to the abused child, as Foster was to Ella.
Most states have similar laws that require clergy to report abuse.
“He was well aware of the fact that this child was in need of medical treatment and he never reported it, nor do I believe that he ever had the intention to report it,” said Berks County District Attorney John Adams, whose office is prosecuting Foster.
Cathleen Palm, of the Pennsylvania-based Center for Children’s Justice, said she hopes the prosecution, at a minimum, will spur action in the Legislature to protect children whose parents don’t seek necessary medical care based on religion.
“What the district attorney has done is clearly pivotal,” she said.
Neither the Rev. Foster nor his attorney returned calls for comment. Foster is due in court next month for a preliminary hearing that will likely attract a heavy presence of church members.
Ella’s parents, Jonathan and Grace Foster, were charged earlier with involuntary manslaughter and await trial. Police have said Jonathan Foster attributed Ella’s death to “God’s will.”