To some extent, Nelson Clark has been down this road before. In the early ’90s, there was a measles outbreak among the children in the Faith Tabernacle and First Century congregations. (Clark’s grandfather was a member of Faith Tabernacle, a similar church, before leaving to found First Century.) Five Faith Tabernacle children died; First Century lost one. No one faced legal trouble, but the city’s health commissioner ordered medical teams to go door-to-door in the affected neighborhoods to check on children. Pastor Clark remembers it well. His son Ambrose—his only child—had recovered by the time a doctor knocked on their door on Front Street.
This time, it’s different. Pastor Clark is worried that assistant district attorney Joanne Pescatore, who is trying the third-degree murder case against Herbert and Catherine Schaible, wants to close down his church.
At the end of August, I spend a second afternoon with Pastor Clark in his home. His tone has shifted. Early on, right after the Schaibles were arrested last spring, his attitude with the press seemed practically cocksure. He insisted that Herbie Schaible, as decision-maker for his family, would never call a doctor if another of his children became sick. “Oh no,” Pastor Clark told a reporter, “that thought would never enter his mind.”
It must now, he says. Recently, Pastor Clark was visiting Cathy at her parents’ home; some of her children came for a supervised visit, and little Nolie, now four years old, rushed into her arms on a dead run and would not let go. “Herb will have to speak for himself in court,” Pastor Clark says. “He’ll have to convince both courts, family and criminal, that he’s sorry that he didn’t follow the court orders—though he’s not sorry that he followed God.” If he doesn’t, Pastor Clark says, there is no hope: The Schaible family will be ruined. Little Nolie and his brothers and sisters will be lost, lost to the world.
Both Herbie and Cathy now seem halfway convinced, Pastor Clark says, that following the court’s orders for medical care doesn’t mean they don’t trust in God, though Cathy might be the harder parent to break. “She is so exacting,” Pastor Clark laments. “She can’t get past that point.” She told her pastor: “If I literally place my child in a nurse’s hands, you are telling me I didn’t do it? But I did do it.” Clark says, “She struggles with that.”
It’s a strange irony—a pastor urging a congregant to relax in terms of a church belief in order to save her family. And it also gives a window into Cathy, who is described by everyone within the church as quiet and kind and devoted and always deferential to her husband. But she can also come off as hopelessly withdrawn and indecisive. Even her lawyer and social workers assigned to her can never divine what she’s thinking, or whether she even knows her own mind. But perhaps it is time to let our judgment rest: After all, shouldn’t people who say they are living as they wish be left alone to do exactly that?
The answer isn’t so obvious when two children are dead.