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Crime

Faith Healing Pastor Headed to Trial in 2-Year-Old Granddaughter’s Pneumonia Death

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Rowland Foster
Mark Scolforo/AP

The pastor of a fundamentalist church that rejects modern medicine will face trial for failing to notify authorities as his 2-year-old granddaughter died of pneumonia, a Pennsylvania judge ruled Wednesday.

Reversing an earlier decision to throw out the charge against Rowland Foster for failing to properly report suspected child abuse, a third-degree felony, Magisterial District Judge Ann Young ruled that there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial, according to court records.

Foster, 72, is the pastor of Faith Tabernacle Congregation in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a fundamentalist Christian sect where members use faith healing and reject doctors and medicine.

Foster’s granddaughter, Ella Foster, died in November from a form of pneumonia that a forensic pathologist testified could have been easily treated with antibiotics, ABC News reports.

The case weighs religious freedom versus the welfare of a child.

Calling the toddler’s death “sad, beyond belief,” the judge said she decided to send the case to trial after reviewing testimony from the forensic pathologist, the AP reports.

The forensic pathologist “testified (that) in the morning before she died it would have been apparent to a reasonable person that Ella was in need of medical care and medical intervention,” District Attorney Jonathan Kurland said in court, ABC News reports.

As a pastor, Foster is legally required to report cases of child abuse and neglect.

Foster’s lawyer, Chris Ferro, says his client is “a grieving grandfather, not a criminal” and that “the Commonwealth is going to be unable to prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The judge set the arraignment for the case for Aug. 28 at Berks County Courthouse.

Foster isn’t the only family member facing charges in connection with the toddler’s death: In February, involuntary manslaughter charges were filed against Jonathan and Grace Foster, Foster’s son and daughter-in-law, who belong to the church and are also awaiting trial, the Lebanon Daily News reports.

It was not immediately clear if they have entered a plea, and PEOPLE’s calls to their lawyer, Bryan DePowell, were not immediately returned.

This isn’t the first time the church has been under scrutiny.

In 1920, 7-year-old Mary Sheeler died in “agony” from severe burns after her dress caught fire at the church’s private school and her parents refused to consult a doctor, according to a Lebanon Daily News investigation.

In 1924, a diphtheria outbreak killed at least nine members and made dozens of others sick, according to the Lebanon Daily News.

Ada Roth, who lost five family members to the outbreak, said at the time, “I would rather have my children and myself dead and on our way to Heaven than to be saved by medicine and go to Hell,” according to Time Magazine, which picked up the story.

Calls to Kurland and Ferro were not immediately returned.