Court Tosses Case Against Detroit Priest

News: US News
by Rodney Pelletier  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  July 14, 2021   

Fr. LaCuesta free to preach Catholic teaching on suicide

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Michigan court is refusing to rule against a Detroit priest who preached against suicide at a 2018 funeral Mass.

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18-year-old Maison Hullibarger and Fr. Don LaCuesta

A panel of judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled 3–0 on Thursday the court is not competent to judge the appropriateness of a priest's homily. The court decided it does not have the competency "to evaluate Catholic philosophy and doctrine."

Speaking to the content of homilies, the court quoted the 1953 case of Fowler v. State of Rhode Island, stating it's not "in the competence of courts under our constitutional scheme to approve, disapprove, classify, regulate or in any manner control sermons delivered at religious meetings." It added, "Sermons are as much a part of a religious service as prayers."

The ruling stems from a homily given back in December 2018 by the pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Temperance, Michigan. Father Don LaCuesta gave the homily while officiating at the funeral Mass of 18-year-old Maison Hullibarger, a victim of suicide. The priest said suicide is "a sin against God with dire eternal consequences."

The deceased's parents were outraged, objecting to LaCuesta's remarks about their son. In November 2019, the teen's mother, Linda Hullibarger, sued LaCuesta, the archdiocese of Detroit and the parish. Her initial lawsuit was thrown out by the court but was taken up afterward by the state's appeals court.

She called LaCuesta's homily "extreme" and "outrageous," claiming he violated her privacy by revealing the fact her son died from suicide. She also claimed it "caused her to lose religious faith and made it difficult for her to 'practice religion through the Church.'"

The court decided it does not have the competency 'to evaluate Catholic philosophy and doctrine.'

In her lawsuit against the archdiocese, she asserted (among other things) negligence. Hullibarger claimed in court documents that LaCuesta was "unfit and/or incompetent to perform" his pastoral duties and that both the parish and the diocese were liable. In last week's ruling, however, the court was unsympathetic to her accusations. 

Regarding her charge that LaCuesta's homily was "extreme" and "outrageous," the court referred to the so-called ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The court noted that if the case's merits were to be ruled on, the judiciary would be required "to evaluate Catholic philosophy and doctrine regarding suicide and whether Fr. LaCuesta complied with it," something courts lack competence to do.

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The court further denied Hullibarger's claim that LaCuesta invaded her privacy by disclosing her son's suicide. It cited a longstanding judicial aversion to becoming entangled in internal Church affairs, warning that an adjudication of the case would require "an inquiry into the decision-making process behind drafting and giving religious sermons, as well as into Catholic doctrine and teachings regarding suicide." The opinion further stipulated that "courts should not evaluate sermons delivered at religious services."

Courts should not evaluate sermons delivered at religious services.

In his 2018 funeral homily, LaCuesta asked, "Can God forgive and heal this? Yes, God can forgive even the taking of one's own life. In fact, God awaits us with His mercy, with ever-open arms."

He added, "Because of the all-embracing sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, God can have mercy on any sin. Yes, because of His mercy, God can forgive suicide and heal what has been broken."

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Jeff and Linda Hullibarger

Hullibarger immediately complained to the archdiocese, going so far as to demand that LaCuesta be removed from the priesthood. The Detroit archdiocese responded with an apology: "We understand that an unbearable situation was made even more difficult, and we are sorry." 

Speaking for LaCuesta, Detroit continued, "After some reflection, [Fr. LaCuesta] agrees that the family was not served as they should have been served." The statement also revealed, "He will have all other homilies reviewed by a priest-mentor."

Lansing diocese priest Fr. Jeffrey Robideau responded to LaCuesta's homily, stating that to explain the Church's teaching on suicide is "pastoral and [a] loving thing to do."

"A funeral homily is about more than just the deceased; it also about the people left behind. People must know his sorry state and so pray for him," added Robideau. "People also must know the serious evil under which he died so as to deter others from doing it."

Suicide rates have been rising over the last 20 years. Between 2006 and 2016 the suicide rate for White children ages 10–17 surged 70%. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reveals that "more than half of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition."

During the 2020–2021 China-virus panic, suicide attempts have gone up among young people. The CDC reported in June that young people are considered high risk, citing several factors — including not being in contact with peers for extended periods of time and "anxiety about family, health and economic problems."

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