On Sunday, there was a video of a priest kicking a 7-year-old disabled child out of his sister’s baptism. We can train priests better than this. The boy is a non-verbal autistic and also had Sotos syndrome, which is a rare genetic condition characterized by excessive early growth that tends to be comorbid with autism, intellectual disability, delayed development, low muscle tone, and speech impairments. The boy dropped a toy and made a small noise. Then, the priest yelled at him and told him to leave. This matches some other stories where a priest caused a serious issue in mistreating someone with an invisible disability like autism.
I’m going to summarize the incident, mention the diocesan statement, and indicate how we can improve. I think we can train priests better regarding disabilities. If you have already read up on this incident, skip right to the third header, as the first two are background.
Here’s the video with a short follow up by a well-known autism advocate.
Mom Describing the Baptism
Here’s how the mom, Julia Ponce, described the incident. [Emoji removed as I can’t get them to appear correctly.]
Yesterday was Sofia’s baptism. Of course, I wanted her older brothers to be a part of the celebration. When I confirmed the date of the event, I was told it would, in fact, be a private celebration for just our family, no one else. With this information, I felt more comfortable taking Nicky [the autistic son] as he doesn’t do well with a full mass and large group settings. My mother in-law was staying close to our boy while we were front and center for the baptism. Yes, he was playing with a toy where he should not have been, however, the way the priest kicked him out of the church was completely rude and disrespectful. I tried to explain that Nicky has autism and doesn’t understand.
We finished the ceremony, put the kids in the car and then Marc went back in to speak to the priest. He explained that our son has autism and he is non-verbal and doesn’t understand. The priest then began to raise his voice and tell my husband that he should not have been playing in church and that it was a distraction to him trying to perform the baptismal ceremony. My husband told him that he thought a priest, of all people, would be more sympathetic to a child with special needs, that he was completely unprofessional and ruined our celebration. He told him our family deserved an apology. The priest came outside to speak to our family but instead of apologizing he began to try to justify the reason he kicked our child out, again saying he was distracting him. At this point, I told my husband let’s go.
I have been with Christ the King Church in Hillside since I was a small child. I attended the catholic school across the street from kindergarten through 8th grade. I have never had a negative experience and thought nothing of having my third child baptized in this church like the others. I’m just so upset still, and I will be reporting this priest to the archdiocese. He needs to be educated on tolerance and acceptance. The Bible speaks of welcoming all God’s children! Where is the compassion and plain human decency? He needs to be more sensitive and respectful in addressing a child, especially one with special needs. We are our child’s advocate. This behavior is completely unacceptable! Our biggest regret is not walking out in that moment. I think this is why this is weighing so heavy on me still the next day. (Father Luke, I’d like to speak to your manager. Dear God, you’ve got a reckless one down here.)
On a positive note: Sofia looked beautiful in the dress her godmother bought her. She enjoyed the celebration, unknowing of all the drama that took place on her special day. She loved being with family and her loving God parents. Thank you to everyone who celebrated with us. We wish we could’ve invited ALL our family, but we want everyone safe with coronavirus still out there. We hope we will be safely together with everyone again soon. God Bless Sofia!
The Diocesan Statement
On behalf of the parish and the Archdiocese of Newark, we offer our heartfelt apologies for the abrupt behavior demonstrated by one of our pastors on Saturday during a private family ceremony.
The pastor was unaware that the sibling playing in a nearby candle room during the ceremony has autism. The pastor did not understand the child’s behavior, he felt unprepared to respond appropriately, and his reaction to the situation was not pastoral.
He acknowledges and is regretful for the mistake. Our Archdiocesan Office for Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities is in touch with the family to support healing and moving forward together, and we are working with all to come to a pastoral resolution and to ensure that there is greater awareness in working with individuals with disabilities and their families.
We Need to Train Priests on Disabilities
Reading the official statement, I see something I have encountered with most priests where issues have come up. The priest was unaware, did not understand the child’s behavior, and felt unprepared. This is often not malice but something we can change with training. Considering about 2% are autistic and overall about 10% live with an invisible disability, it would be great to train priests to deal with these situations.
It might seem like a small thing but these incidents matter a lot to the families. Also, mistakes in this regard make big media issues for the Church. However, above all of these, we can remember what Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) We Christians should be the exemplars of treating the disabled well, not the ones who need correction by secular sources.
I know we can’t undo the incidents that have already happened. But I hope that some kind of training could help priests or other Catholics in ministry avoid this in the future. I can present on these topics if any diocese or deanery wanted me to present on this topic. You can either message me via social media or use this contact form.
- Sorry, I’m late. I tried to avoid any work like this these two weeks but a few messages convinced me to write something.
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