The mother of a 13-year-old autistic boy who was banned by a court order from attending services at a Roman Catholic church in Bertha, Minn., woke up Sunday determined to take her son to mass.
But Carol Race changed her mind when Todd County Sheriff Pete Mikkelson met her at the end of her driveway Sunday and told her she would be arrested if she brought her son, Adam, into the Church of St. Joseph.
Instead, Race took Adam and her four other children to mass at Christ the King Church in nearby Browerville, Minn. "It occurred to me that if I step foot in [St. Joseph], they will arrest me and I won't end up going to mass anyway," she said.
A court hearing on the matter has been continued until June 2 so that Race can hire an attorney.
The dispute has drawn attention to what Race and advocates for the disabled say is a lack of education and understanding about autism. Race said that even though her son, who is home-schooled, sometimes acts up in church, the experience benefits him.
"He has a sense of the routine," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about the Catholic mass for autistic individuals, its routine."
The Rev. Daniel Walz, who did not return calls left at the Church of St. Joseph parish office, wrote in court documents that Adam's behavior was "extremely disruptive and dangerous." He alleged that Adam, who is more than 6 feet tall and weighs over 225 pounds, spits and urinates in church and has nearly injured children and elderly people.
In an affidavit, Walz wrote: "The parish members and I have been very patient and understanding. I have made repeated efforts through Catholic Education Ministries, Caritas Family Services, and most recently, sought to try and mediate the matter with the family to ask them to voluntarily not bring Adam to church, but it has been to no avail." The Diocese of St. Cloud said in a statement that the restraining order, issued May 9, was "a last resort."
Race said Walz's descriptions of Adam's behavior illustrate that he understands little about autistic behavior and how to address it. She said that Walz used language like "urinate" to describe an incontinence problem that Adam sometimes has which is no worse than that an elderly person or a young child might have.
Adam's parents sometimes tie his hands and feet with fabric restraints, which Race said is a technique used by other families and school personnel who work with autistic children. At Sunday's service in Browerville, Race said Adam participated in the service, kneeling with the congregation and accompanying family members when they went up front to take communion.
Carol Race said that her husband, John, attended mass at St. Joseph's on Saturday evening without his family and had stayed home Sunday morning because the family wanted to ensure that one parent would be available to care for the children if Carol were arrested.
The restraining order will remain in place for one year.
The Races haven't decided whether they will attend another parish. "My primary focus is to do the right thing, according to what God wants me to do," Carol Race said. "Without church every Sunday, my family life would have fallen apart. This is what sustains us."
Sheriff Mikkelson said he sent deputies to Sunday's service in case the Races tried to violate the restraining order.
"It was an uncomfortable thing, and we didn't want to get involved," he said. "She heeded our warning. Now, hopefully, this will get resolved through our courts."
Then, yesterday was this update:
Carol Race thinks it's important for her 13-year-old son to be in church on Sundays for Catholic Mass.
Leaders of the Church of St. Joseph once felt the same way, but not anymore. They say Race's autistic son Adam is disruptive and his erratic behavior threatens the safety of other parishioners.
The northern Minnesota church has obtained a restraining order to keep Adam away, an action that has been deeply hurtful to the Race family and has brought them support from parents of other autistic children.
"My son is not dangerous," Carol Race said. The church's action is "about a certain community's fears of him. Fears of danger versus actual danger," she said.
In court papers, church leaders say the danger is real. The Rev. Daniel Walz wrote in his petition for the restraining order that Adam _ who already is more than 6 feet tall and weighs more than 225 pounds _ has hit a child, has nearly knocked over elderly parishioners while bolting from his pew, has spit at people and has urinated in the church.
"His behavior at Mass is extremely disruptive and dangerous," wrote Walz. "Adam is 13 and growing, so his behaviors grow increasingly difficult for his parents to manage."
Carol Race said Walz's claims are exaggerated.
"He's never actually injured anyone," she said. "He's never knocked down anyone. He's never urinated on anyone or spit on anyone."
Carol Race was cited for attending church May 11 in violation of the restraining order, and faces a hearing Monday. She says she can't afford a lawyer and will defend herself in court. A lay mediator is scheduled to meet with her and church board members on Wednesday.
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. It is more severe in some people than others. Adam has limited verbal skills.
Walz did not return calls seeking comment, but Jane Marrin, who works for the Diocese of St. Cloud and is acting as a spokeswoman for the parish, said the church board tried working with the Races to find "reasonable accommodations." That included offering a video feed of Mass that could be watched in the church basement.
The family refused all suggestions, she said.
"It's a difficult issue," Marrin said. "There are no easy answers."
Carol Race dismissed the church's suggestion that Adam watch a video feed in the church basement, saying that "does not have the same status as attending Mass. Otherwise we could all just sit home and watch it on TV and not bother to come in."
"It's considered a sin in the Catholic church not to attend Mass on Sundays and every holy day of obligation," she said. "And that's what this is about. I'm just trying to fulfill my obligations."
Adam is one of five children. The family's home in nearby Eagle Bend has separate study rooms so the other children can read books and use crayons that Adam could otherwise destroy.
Carol said Adam has two favorite spots in the house, the prayer room and the kitchen table. "He likes to eat," she said, laughing.
Adam is prone to anxiety attacks. Carol said some of those outbursts force members of the family to sit on him to calm him down, or restrain his hands and feet with a strip of felt.
In his court petition, Walz said that after one service Adam got into another family's car, started it and revved up the engine while there were people in front of the vehicle.
"Adam's continued presence on parish grounds not only endangers the parishioners, it is disruptive to the devout celebration of the Eucharist," Walz wrote. "I have repeatedly asked John and Carol to keep Adam from church; they have refused to do so.
"In fact, Carol told our parish council that she would have to be dragged from church in handcuffs if I tried to keep Adam from attending Mass," he wrote.
The Races have received support from other parents, including Chris and Libby Rupp, who brought their autistic daughter from St. Paul on Memorial Day weekend and sat in the church's back pew normally occupied by the Races.
"I think this case is mostly about not understanding autism," Libby Rupp said. "I wanted to show them another example. Ultimately, we just need more people to truly understand autism."
Rupp met the Races and said she could see why some people might be uncomfortable around Adam, but she added: "Never at one point did I feel that anyone was in danger."
This is an incredibly difficult situation. There are two competing problems for the priest in this situation: acceptance and shepherding his flock. The Christian ministry to the outcast and downtrodden is delineated in Matthew 25: 34-46:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
There is also Jesus' command to the apostles to allow the children to approach him when they would have prevented it (Matthew 19:13-14 but also Luke 18:16).
On the other hand, there is the responsibility of a pastor to take care of his congregation. How guilty would you be if you allowed a dangerous situation to continue until someone was hurt? We cannot kid ourselves that culpability and responsibility are also matters of legal importance: what if someone was seriously injured by this young man while at church? I was in a situation where the priest of my church banned a woman from the premises after she took advantage of one of my fellow-parishioners and managed to obtain several hundred dollars from her. This woman didn't actually attend services-- she would hang around the outside of the church on Sundays and approach people to ask for money. Sometimes, she would come into the sanctuary during the benediction to make it look like she had attended the service. I once offered her a ride home, and was astonished when she pulled out a cell phone and began talking away-- and this was at a time when cell phones were pretty expensive. Nonetheless, her asking us repeatedly for assistance was all fine-- until she hurt one of the members of my congregation. At that point, I had to agree with my priest when he asked her not to return-- we have to care for everyone in our parish and try to protect them, too.
When my children were very small, I took them to a small service on Saturday evenings. It was my very great fortune that the people who regularly attended this service with us (including the priest) agreed with my assessment of my children as the most beautiful and precious children ever. If the baby cooed or babbled, they insisted that I stay in the sanctuary rather than take them out. If the baby was really crying, I would take her outside, and someone would come out and take her so that I could have communion. But that was a baby, not a very large child whose own family has so much difficulty controlling him that they sometimes sit on him or TIE HIM UP. (!!!-- And I'm sorry, but WHAT?)
The shame here is that each side feels it has been driven to an extreme position. I am sure that this family is exhausted from the demands of taking care of this young man constantly-- and since he is home-schooled, they probably get no break. Now some have suggested that the family should just go to another parish to worship. However, many Catholic bishops enforce residency requirements (usually when they have some less than dynamic priests in parish ministry, from my experience) in parish boundary lines, and forbid parishioners to "church-shop," so that wherever you live, that's where you go to church. In this case, however, it appears that the family would have to travel to another town in order to attend a different Catholic parish.
As a teacher, I have had experience with children who have disabilities along the autistic spectrum-- either diagnosed or, sadly, undiagnosed. I appreciated how the other students learned to welcome these kids and become friends with them. There was one, however, who was extremely unpredictable. When he would have a violent outburst, he was known to punch teachers, kick his aides, or throw himself against the walls or furniture. He even pushed on of his aides down a hill. To me, this crossed the line. A person's right to attend school ends when he has demonstrated a danger to others at the school, and his or her right should be suspended until he or she can no longer endanger the safety of those around. I actually would usually also say that when a student's behavior in a classroom substantially disrupts the learning environment, then that student's rights do not trump the rights of the other students in the class room to a free education in the least restrictive environment possible. However, a school is not a church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about attendance at Sunday Mass under the subheading "Precepts of the Church":
The first precept ("You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.") requires the faithful to participate in the Eucharistic celebration when the Christian community gathers together on the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord.
To not do so without a compelling reason incurs what is called "a mortal sin." I am sure the phrase "participate in the Eucharist" is why the mother refuses the video hookup option. I don't know if this was offered, or even if it is a possibility, given the shortage of priests (many rural priests serve more than one parish), but could those who wanted to have attended another Mass?
But here's another question: what does it take to take part in the liturgy (which literally means, "the work of the people")? Must we be physically present? If I am home with a broken leg and am watching a prayer service on television, and I am praying with them, am I participating in worship? Christianity is not a religion one should, and I would even say CAN, practice in isolation: we are called into community with each other as the Body of Christ. Adam Race is certainly a member of that Body just as much as any other Christian is. But our membership in that Body is not active only when we are sitting in a sanctuary. We are called to act as the Body of Christ wherever we are, to the utmost of our abilities. Nonetheless, the inability to behave peaceably in church probably constitutes that "compelling reason" that the Catechism mentions. So I am not sure that the mother's claim that the church's exclusion of her son from the regular worship service is forcing her to commit a grave sin actually holds water.
The mother's refusal to take seriously the fears of the parishioners, many of whom are no doubt elderly, could also be reckoned a sin, as well-- and certainly, the fact that she does not feel endangered doesn't mean that others share her confidence. I'm assuming that this parish has had thirteen years of accommodating this young man's situation, and have gotten alarmed by his size and strength as well as his unpredictability, which promises only to increase as he continues through adolescence.
It is truly a shame that the parish felt it was compelled to solve this situation through a restraining order. It certainly doesn't appear to be a Christ-like action. I have to assume that this option was utilized only after repeated requests for the family to be accommodating to the needs of others in the parish-- just as they expect their needs to be accommodated. The members of this parish apparently feel that they're not just being inconvenienced-- they feel endangered.
Should people be excluded from worship services? In extreme situations, yes-- such as when they endanger others. But we still need to try to minister to them. Let's remember, though, that some people will not accept our ministrations to them, either.
Some things are just not possible for some people, and this is a message that our society strongly resists. It is apparently not possible for this young man to attend Mass without having an anxiety attack. Perhaps his behavior is an attempt to communicate this to his family. If they can't help him overcome his anxiety so that he actually can participate in the Mass, then they need to accept that message. And if they occasionally resort to tying him up, then they obviously need to be presented with some other behavior modification options. Wow.