Priest remarks at Michigan teen's funeral were 'heartless condemnation,' lawsuit says

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Relatives of a Monroe County teen say a priest shocked them with "heartless condemnation" of suicide at his funeral last year and the Archdiocese of Detroit failed to properly address their concerns.

Maison Donnelly Hullibarger, 18.

According to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Wayne County Circuit Court, the Rev. Don LaCuesta deviated from the “uplifting and loving message about the importance of kindness to one another” that Maison Hullibarger’s parents had requested for his Dec. 8 service at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Temperance.

Although the family had not shared what caused the 18-year-old’s death, the priest mentioned it soon after starting his homily, which “sent the family and many of those in attendance into shock,” the filing stated. “Father LaCuesta repeatedly discussed suicide and how it is condemned by the church, how it is a secular crime, and … a sin against God with dire eternal consequences.”

A copy of the sermon the archdiocese posted on its website shows LaCuesta said in part: “…There is hope in eternity, even for those who take their own lives. … I think that we must not call what is bad good, what is wrong right. 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. Our lives are not our own. They are  not ours to do with as we please … .”

The priest went on to say "because of the all-embracing sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God can have mercy on any sin," including suicide, according to the document.

When Maison’s father, Jeff, approached the pulpit to tell LaCuesta to “please stop,” the pastor ignored the plea, continued his message and failed to let the family share final words about their son, the lawsuit claims. 

“No parent, no sibling, no family member should ever, ever have to sit through what we sat through,” Maison’s mother, Linda Hullibarger, said in a statement Thursday. “…When you’re already beyond devastation, why would you make it even worse?”

Andrea Young, an attorney at Charles E. Boyk Law Offices, the Toledo firm representing Linda Hullibarger, added: “At a time of tragedy, the Hullibarger family turned to their church for peace and comfort but instead, Father LaCuesta’s actions caused them irreparable harm and pain.”

LaCuesta did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. In a statement to parishioners last December, he said: “As with any funeral, it was my intent to serve this family in their time of grief, but I fell well short of providing them the comfort they so desperately needed. Instead, I added to their pain. I deeply regret that, and I am sorry.”

Soon after the funeral Mass, Maison’s parents requested a meeting with Detroit Catholic Archbishop Allen Vigneron. But once they gathered and Linda Hullibarger started discussing LaCuesta, the archbishop “ended the meeting, telling her he wasn’t there to” talk about him, the lawsuit said.

On another day, when Hullibarger spoke with an archdiocesan bishop, the official allegedly “scolded her that she needed to ‘let it go,’ ” according to the document.

Hullibarger’s lawyers accuse LaCuesta of outrageous conduct and argue that the Archdiocese of Detroit supported it by failing to remove him.

Reached for comment Thursday night, Holly Fournier, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, told The Detroit News in an email: “We can’t comment on pending litigation.”

Shortly after the 2018 incident, the archdiocese apologized and announced LaCuesta would not be preaching at funerals for the foreseeable future and “agreed to pursue the assistance he needs in order to become a more effective minister in these difficult situations.”

The lawsuit, which also names Our Lady of Mount Carmel, asserts Hullibarger “continues to suffer great pain of mind and body, shock, severe and permanent emotional distress … and difficulty in practicing religion through the church.” It seeks at least $25,000 in damages.