Warning: This article is about suicide and may be distressing for some readers.
The homily at Maison Hullibarger's funeral began typically enough: The priest acknowledged the anguish of the 18-year-old's parents and asked God to use his words to bring them light.
Then the Rev. Don LaCuesta's message took a sharp turn.
"I think that we must not call what is bad good, what is wrong right," LaCuesta told mourners at his parish in Temperance, Michigan. "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."
Jeffrey and Linda Hullibarger were stunned. They hadn't revealed how their son had died outside of a close circle of friends and relatives, but LaCuesta went on to say the word "suicide" six times and suggest that people ending their own lives was an affront to God.
Nearly a year after LaCuesta presided over the funeral on Dec. 8, 2018, Linda Hullibarger has filed a lawsuit against him, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Detroit, alleging that the homily irreparably harmed her already devastated family. The action filed last Wednesday elevates to the legal realm the Hullibargers' ongoing effort to seek greater accountability from the archdiocese.
"That funeral was not for our son, not for our other kids, not for my family," Linda Hullibarger told The Washington Post. "In my opinion, he made our son's funeral about his own agenda."
• 'Marching to hell': Why young men are still choosing to become Catholic priests
• Priests accused of sex abuse turned to under-the-radar group
• Victims relieved after paedophile priest from Dunedin defrocked
• Rugby: Priest's powerful message to Israel Folau
Melinda Moore, a co-lead of the Faith Communities Task Force at the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, said faith leaders are important partners in preventing suicide and responding when it happens. She said homilies like LaCuesta's reflect the stigma that suicide still carries in faith communities and often reinforce loved ones' feelings of responsibility, shame and anguish.
Hullibarger alleges in her lawsuit, filed in Michigan state court, that LaCuesta's homily caused that type of heartbreak after she and her husband turned to their longtime parish for comfort. LaCuesta failed to show compassion when he met the couple to plan the funeral, the lawsuit says, and instead went right to talking about the church's availability.
The Hullibargers told the priest they wanted the funeral to celebrate the life of Maison, a freshman at the University of Toledo who was studying criminal justice. The couple also wanted the funeral to spread a positive message about kindness to others, and the lawsuit says LaCuesta agreed to the requests. The parents did not disclose how their son had died, nor did the priest ask, according to the lawsuit.
After hundreds of people gathered at the church for the service, LaCuesta said in the homily that God could forgive suicide as he forgives all sins when people seek his mercy. He said God could judge someone's whole life without considering only "the worst and last choice the person made."
"Because of the all-embracing sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God can have mercy on any sin," LaCuesta said, according to a copy of his homily published by the archdiocese. "Yes, because of his mercy, God can forgive suicide and heal what has been broken."
Mourners were visibly upset to learn the cause of Maison's death, according to the lawsuit. Jeffrey Hullibarger approached the pulpit and whispered to LaCuesta to "please stop" talking about suicide, the lawsuit says, but the priest did not change course. He allegedly finished the service without letting the family read their chosen scripture passages or say final words about Maison.
Other people later told Linda Hullibarger that they had heard similarly insensitive homilies about their loved ones from LaCuesta, the lawsuit says. The family met with Archbishop Allen Vigneron and Bishop Gerard Battersby but was dismissed, according to the lawsuit. Battersby allegedly told Linda Hullibarger to "let it go."
The family called for LaCuesta's removal, but the priest told his parishioners that he preferred to stay and to serve the parish community. He remains listed on the church's website.
Linda Hullibarger told The Post that she thinks the homily posted online was a more caring version than the one LaCuesta actually gave. The archdiocese declined to comment on that allegation.
Archdiocesan spokeswoman Holly Fournier declined to comment on the lawsuit but pointed to a statement that the archdiocese made in December to apologize for hurting the Hullibarger family, rather than comforting them.
"We acknowledge . . . that the family expected a homily based on how their loved one lived, not one addressing how he passed away," the statement said. "We also know the family was hurt further by Father's choice to share Church teaching on suicide, when the emphasis should have been placed more on God's closeness to those who mourn."
The Catholic Church has long held that suicide contradicts the responsibility of each person to protect the life that God gave them. Until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, people who killed themselves were not allowed to receive a Christian burial. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, approved by Pope John Paul II in 1992, maintains that suicide is "gravely contrary to the just love of self" but acknowledges that many people who end their lives have a mental illness.
"Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide," the catechism says.
Many members of the clergy are inadequately trained on suicide and don't know how to help a deceased person's family and friends, said Moore, who is also a psychology professor at Eastern Kentucky University. She said faith leaders should listen to the bereaved, express condolences, refer to scripture for guidance and talk about how the deceased person lived - not just how they died.
"Saying that it's a sin, it's an act of the devil, imposing your own thinking on this and not really looking to your own church's teaching on this," Moore said, "is something that I think faith leaders need to not do."
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans 0800 726 666
• If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.