Parents of autistic boy denied communion say New Jersey church portrayed them 'as liars'

"They’re just trying to backpedal because of all the backlash they got," Nicole LaCugna, the boy's mother, told NBC News.
Saint Aloysius Parish in Jackson, N.J.
Saint Aloysius Parish in Jackson, N.J.Google Maps

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By Janelle Griffith

A New Jersey couple who said their 8-year-old son was denied First Communion because he is autistic says they have been inaccurately portrayed by the church that refused the sacrament.

"To add to our devastation we are being painted not as the special needs parents advocating for our child, but instead as liars," Jimmy LaCugna wrote in a Facebook post on Friday.

LaCugna said his family was "horrified" by how the story "has been twisted" by St. Aloysius Church in Jackson, about 30 miles from New Jersey's capital Trenton, which they have attended for years.

LaCugna said in a now-viral Facebook post Tuesday that he and his wife, Nicole, were informed by the church that their son Anthony would not be able to receive communion there.

The couple said they were told by a religious educator at the church that Anthony, who is nonverbal, is not at the "benchmark required to make his communion."

A day later, the church said in a statement on Facebook that it was rethinking its policies and has been researching ways to assist children with cognitive disabilities so they can receive communion.

"We strive to serve these populations to the best of our abilities and to adapt our Religious Education and Sacramental Preparations for them within the guidelines of the Catholic Church," the statement said.

The church also said that the LaCugna family had been made aware of the changes, a claim that Jimmy and Nicole LaCugna have denied.

Nicole LaCugna told NBC News on Monday that she and her husband have not heard from St. Aloysius Church or its pastor, Rev. John Bambrick.

"We have never spoken to Father Bambrick at all," she said. "We’ve had no contact with him. Even though he’s stating that he spoke to us after they took back their denial."

The church's Facebook page was no longer available on Monday and it did not immediately return a request for comment.

Bambrick expressed regret at how the matter was handled in a statement on the parish's website that does not mention Anthony by name.

"A matter relating to the preparedness of a special needs child in St. Aloysius Parish to receive First Holy Communion has generated a great deal of confusion and concern, which I would like to address," the statement said. "While we had tried to adapt our preparation process to accommodate the child’s special needs, there was an unfortunate breakdown in communication that led to a misunderstanding."

Bambrick said he regretted that the matter evolved as it did, and "for our part, acknowledge that it could have been handled differently."

"It is extremely unfortunate that, as a result of this controversy, there are families with special needs children who may now doubt the Church’s commitment to welcome all children into their religious education programs," his statement continued. "Nothing could be further from the truth; special needs children and adults are welcomed and ministered to in parishes across this Diocese, and throughout the Church, including this Parish."

Nicole LaCugna said there was no misunderstanding.

"It’s very hard to misunderstand someone when they literally say, 'Your child cannot make First Communion,'" she said Monday. "That’s pretty straightforward and clear."

"They’re just trying to backpedal because of all the backlash they got," she said.

She also refuted Bambrick's claim that her family had been informed Anthony could receive his first Holy Communion this year.

The LaCugna family said their faith will not be shaken.

"We’re continuing in the Catholic faith," Nicole LaCugna said, echoing sentiments shared by her husband in his Facebook post Friday. "We don’t feel like because one parish or one priest did our family wrong that we should turn our back on the Catholic faith."