A New Jersey mom is demanding an apology after her son, who has autism and is nonverbal, was kicked out of a Catholic church by a priest for dropping a toy during a private baptism ceremony.
On Facebook, Julia Vicidomini said the Rev. Luke Duc Tran, the priest at Christ the King Church in Hillside, kicked her 7-year-old son, Nicky, out of her baby daughter Sophia's baptism.
According to Vicidomini, Nicky finds comfort in bringing toys to public places and was playing in a candle room adjacent to the baptism when he dropped a toy and it clattered on the floor.
"Out," the priest said, according to a video posted to Vicidomini's Facebook page. "This church is not for play."
"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," Vicidomini wrote in a caption accompanying the video.
"I was told it would, in fact, be a private celebration for just our family, no one else," Vicidomini explained. "With this information, I felt more comfortable taking Nicky as he doesn’t do well with a full Mass and large group settings."
Vicidomini and her husband, Marc, have decided to leave the church where she grew up after discussing the incident with the priest and receiving an unsatisfactory response.
"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," Vicidomini wrote. "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."
Vicidomini told NBC that her son "thankfully" did not understand what was happening and left the church with her mother-in-law. Still, she said it was "painful" to witness the priest interact with her son that way, adding the incident “shows there is still much to be done to educate others of those with disabilities."
The Archdiocese of Newark, in a public statement, apologized for the incident.
"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," read the statement obtained by WABC. "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," it continued.
The archdiocese also said that its Office for Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities is working with the Vicidomini family "to ensure that there is greater awareness in working with individuals with disabilities."
Vicidomini said she is still hoping for a personal apology from the priest.
"The Bible speaks of welcoming all God’s children, but there was no compassion in this instance," Vicidomini told NBC. "Since sharing our story, others have shared stories of their own family members with special needs being shunned from the church. We want to continue spreading awareness that this is just not right.”
A survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research of 1,000 Protestant pastors and 1,002 American Protestant churchgoers found that nearly every pastor (99%) and churchgoer (97%) says someone with a disability would feel welcomed and included at their church.
However, just half of churches (50%) provide an additional teacher to aid a person with special needs in a class, and only 29% say their church provides classes or events specifically for people with disabilities.
Tim Lucas, the pastor of Liquid Church in Parsippany, New Jersey, told The Christian Post that in general, the “Church is 30 years behind culture when it comes to special needs.”
“[Churches] don’t have the manpower and muscle even if they’re passionate about it,” he said, adding that it takes intentional effort to make families that have special needs feel at home.
Heather Avis, a mother to three adopted children — two of whom have Down syndrome — shared with CP simple, practical ways the Church can make room for those who typically don’t have a seat at the table.
“The thing with people with different abilities is that everyone is so different. It’s about meeting the needs of the individual where they’re at,” Avis said. “It’s as simple as asking parents, ‘what does your kid need?’ that’s huge.”
“I wish,” she added, “it was as simple as ‘do these five steps to be more inclusive,’ but really that’s not how this community works. It’s about meeting people where they are, creating genuine relationships, and being willing to adjust for the one. It’s the radical idea of, 100 of us are going to shift everything so one person can be a part of our church."