In 2018, 18-year-old Maison Hullibarger took his own life. His grieving parents, Jeff and Linda, hoped that a local Catholic priest would be able to offer words of solace during Maison’s funeral.
It didn’t happen. Rev. Don LaCuesta only made everything worse. Besides saying the word “suicide” six separate times — even though the family never told him the reason Maison had died — LaCuesta said that the method of his death could block him from getting into Heaven.
LaCuesta probably thought he was just repeating Catholic dogma. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says very clearly that “Suicide is contrary to love for the living God,” though there is some language in there meant to offer leeway to people dealing with mental health issues or suffering that’s out of their control. But using someone’s funeral to chastise his placement in the afterlife was a uniquely despicable thing to do to those in attendance.
It came as a shock in part because the Hullibarger had met with LaCuesta prior to the funeral and said they wanted him to focus on “how Maison lived, not how he died.”
“He was up there condemning our son, pretty much calling him a sinner. He wondered if he had repented enough to make it to heaven…
“There were actually a couple of younger boys who were Maison’s age who left the church sobbing,” Jeff Hullibarger said. The bereaved father at one point walked to the pulpit and whispered to the priest, “Father, please stop,” but their pastor continued with statements denouncing the way their son’s life ended, the couple said.
“People told me there was almost a smirk on his face,” Jeff Hullibarger said.
Whether or not that’s true, LaCuesta took a moment that was meant to honor a young man who’s no longer here and made it all about himself. The Archdiocese of Detroit almost immediately announced that LaCuesta would no longer be performing at funerals and that his sermons would be reviewed by another Church leader. The Hullibargers also vowed never to set foot back in the Church.
Then they decided to take their concerns to another level by suing the priest, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish, and the Archdiocese of Detroit for roughly $25,000 (plus punitive damages and attorneys’ fees) for the trauma they put the mother through.
While the legal case here was dubious, it raised some valid questions: Could you sue a Church for causing psychological harm? How about after you explicitly told a priest not to do that? Did the situation even matter? The family made clear what they wanted, and the Church ignored their requests, further traumatizing them. A mere slap on the wrist to the priest in question didn’t resolve the problem.
It won’t surprise you to learn that lawsuit failed. And now the Michigan Court of Appeals has affirmed that earlier decision:
“Father LaCuesta’s conduct was protected by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” the appeals court said in a 3-0 decision Thursday. “As such, we cannot pass judgment on the content of his sermon. Consequently, all of plaintiff’s claims necessarily fail.”
You can read the whole ruling here. As the judges explain pretty clearly, this one’s just out of their hands:
… the actual adjudication of each of plaintiff’s claims would require an inquiry into religious doctrine and practices regarding sermons and funeral services, suicide, as well as why Father LaCuesta chose the words that he did, and personnel issues regarding hiring practices of the Catholic Church.
The courts just don’t get involved in those issues. The result isn’t news. But the takeaway is simple: Don’t expect a religious leader to be a decent human being when his religion isn’t built on decency. You can have a funeral without inviting a religious stranger to deliver a eulogy. When a tragedy occurs, especially to young people, no doubt there are others who can eloquently speak about their lives in a way that honors them. There’s no need to get a church involved.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)