A Michigan mom is suing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit for the emotional distress she says she endured after a priest preached about the immorality of suicide during the funeral of her son, who killed himself last year.
The Rev. Don LaCuesta’s decision to pose questions about the eternal fate of 18-year-old Maison Hullibarger during his funeral service last December caused his mother, Linda Hullibarger, “irreparable harm,” a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Michigan state court says.
Linda Hullibarger claims LaCuesta brushed aside the family’s needs and requests in pursuit of his own desire to preach about suicide during her son’s funeral ― and as a result “knowingly” brought her emotional distress.
“At our own child’s funeral, we were taken down yet again when it was a place that we were supposed to be lifted up,” the mom said in a statement.
The lawsuit names the archdiocese, LaCuesta and his church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Temperance, as defendants.
A spokeswoman told HuffPost that the archdiocese is not able to comment on pending litigation.
Maison Hullibarger died on Dec. 4, 2018. His funeral service was held on Dec. 8 at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church.
The teen’s parents, Linda and Jeff Hullibarger, were members of the church at the time. They met with LaCuesta before the funeral Mass to discuss the service, according to the lawsuit. The parents allegedly told the priest that they wanted the funeral to be a celebration of their son’s life.
“[The parents] requested that the homily be uplifting and focus on the importance of kindness — an attribute their son was well known for,” the complaint states.
The priest agreed to the parents’ requests during the meeting, the complaint says. The Hullibargers say they did not discuss the cause of their son’s death with LaCuesta before the funeral. Only close friends and family were aware that the teen died by suicide, according to the suit.
When LaCuesta revealed the nature of the teen’s death during the funeral sermon, the Hullibargers and other guests “became visibly and vocally distraught,” the complaint says. Some of the teen’s close friends allegedly “burst out crying.”
LaCuesta’s sermon repeatedly referred to the fact that Catholic doctrine considers suicide to be immoral.
“I think that we must not call what is bad good, what is wrong right,” the priest said during the funeral, according to a copy of the sermon posted online by the archdiocese. “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.”
LaCuesta tried to assure the Hullibargers during the sermon that God can have mercy on “any sin,” including suicide.
Linda Hullibarger said the priest’s comments exacerbated her feelings of devastation about her son’s death.
“No parent, no sibling, no family member should ever, ever have to sit through what we sat through,” the mother said in the statement.
Catholic doctrine historically treated suicide as a mortal sin that could exempt someone from eternal salvation. But the church’s approach has changed in recent decades. In 1992, the church officially acknowledged that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” and that God can offer those who die by suicide a chance to repent.
After the funeral, the Archdiocese of Detroit issued an apology acknowledging that the family was hurt by LaCuesta’s choice to share Catholic teachings about suicide during the sermon. LaCuesta also apologized and admitted that he had added to the family’s pain.
The archdiocese banned LaCuesta from speaking at funerals and announced that all of the priest’s future sermons would be reviewed by a mentor. The archdiocese declined to give HuffPost an update on the status of the disciplinary measures enacted against LaCuesta. LaCuesta is still listed as pastor on Our Lady of Mt. Carmel’s website.
Wesley Merillat, an attorney for Linda Hullibarger, told HuffPost that his client is not satisfied with the steps the archdiocese has taken to address the situation.
Since her son’s funeral, the mom has experienced “severe and permanent emotional distress,” for which she is still seeking psychological treatment, the complaint says. Formerly a devout Catholic, the mom has also allegedly lost her faith.
She is seeking at least $25,000 in damages.
Merillat said that Linda Hullibarger was broken by her son’s death, but “destroyed” by LaCuesta’s “guerrilla sermon.”
“She has lived this past year alienated from her Church, lost in her faith, and in complete torment over her son’s funeral service,” Merillat said.
“When this family was in deep mourning, when they were at their most vulnerable, Father LaCuesta intentionally destroyed them,” he added.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.