Priest was wrong to condemn son's suicide at funeral, family's lawsuit says

The archdiocese apologized after "one of its parish priests was unable to bring comfort to a grieving family."

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By Alex Johnson

A Michigan mother says the Catholic priest who presided at her son's funeral last year betrayed her trust by disclosing that the young man had died by suicide and condemning him for it.

Linda Hullibarger of Temperance, about 50 miles southwest of Detroit, alleges in a lawsuit filed last week in Wayne County Circuit Court that the Rev. Don LaCuesta disregarded the family's request for a "positive, uplifting and loving message" at the funeral for Maison Hullibarger, 18, who died Dec. 4.

Maison Hullibarger in an undated photo.via WDIV-TV file

Instead, according to the complaint, LaCuesta — whom the Archdiocese of Detroit later said it had barred from speaking at funerals because he "did not display appropriate sensitivity to the situation" — delivered a homily about the "sin" of suicide and refused to allow family members to speak or participate in the laying of the cloth.

According to the lawsuit, the Hullibargers hadn't publicly disclosed their son's cause of death, and LaCuesta's homily was the first time that friends and classmates had learned of it. Some in attendance were "visibly distraught," it says.

Maison Hullibarger's father, Jeff, twice tried to stop the service, but LaCuesta rebuffed him, the complaint alleges.

According to a transcript of the homily provided by the archdiocese, LaCuesta said: "I think that we must not call what is bad good, what is wrong right. Because we are Christians, we must say what we know is the truth — that taking your own life is against God who made us and against everyone who loves us."

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According to the transcript, he added: "The finality of suicide makes this all the worse. You cannot make things right again."

But "we remind ourselves that he is not lost to God who seeks to save all of his children," LaCuesta said, according to the transcript. "And so, we take great comfort and consolation in all this. Nothing — not even suicide — can separate us from the unconditional love of God."

Hullibarger alleges in the complaint that soon after the service, Archbishop Allen Vigneron agreed to meet with the family but that when they arrived, he told them that "he wasn't there to discuss Father LaCuesta." When Linda Hullibarger complained to a bishop, he told them to "let it go," it alleges.

The archdiocese has declined to comment since December, referring reporters to a statement it released at the time, which formally apologized because "one of its parish priests was unable to bring comfort to a grieving family at the recent funeral of their beloved son."

The statement acknowledged that "the family expected a homily based on how their loved one lived, not one addressing how he passed away."

In a statement he also released at the time, LaCuesta apologized for having fallen "well short of providing them the comfort they so desperately need."

"Instead, I added to their pain," he said. "I deeply regret that, and I am sorry."

Linda and Jeff Hullibarger, the parents of Maison Hullibarger, in December 2018.via WDIV-TV file

The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church declares that "suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life."

"It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God."

It goes on to say, however: "We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance."

The suit seeks undisclosed compensatory and punitive damages against LaCuesta at a jury trial for alleged infliction of emotional distress, misrepresentation and invasion of privacy. It further accuses the archdiocese and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish of vicarious liability and negligent hiring and supervision of LaCuesta.

A status hearing is scheduled for Feb. 12.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.