When clergy fail those they serve

Two decades of serving as a first responder to those who have lost loved ones to suicide has taught me that the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a difficult and dangerous time for the victims of certain types of mental illness. I know too many stories of those who have died by suicide at this time of the year, and each year I approach this season with a certain degree of fear and trepidation because I know that the risk is high for families who have members who live with severe depression and anxiety. It is a good season to reach out with extra love and compassion to those who suffer. At the same time, so many mental illnesses remain hidden and it is often difficult or impossible to see the danger of a coming suicide. For those who lose a loved one the experience is generally one of sudden and traumatic loss. They are unable to do anything to prevent the death because they do not know that it is coming.

I’ve been on the response team to work with families who have lost loved ones to suicide twice in the past week and our County lost two other citizens to suicide in the prior week. The overwhelming tragedy of these situations will color the holiday season for these families for the rest of their lives.

As a LOSS team member, I don’t hide the fact that I am a Christian and that I am a minister, but I am always careful to remind myself that my role in the situation is to bring comfort to those who are suffering and to make and strengthen connections with their communities of faith and sources of spiritual guidance and strength. I ask them if they have a pastor or priest that they want to be contacted. I look for connections that already exist. If I were to find myself in a situation of needing to respond to a suicide in my own congregation, I would ask other members of the LOSS team to respond so that I could respond as pastor. It is not my role to be a pastor when I am serving as a member of the team. I’m careful of these boundaries. They are important to protect families from further suffering.

Over the years I have witnessed some of my pastoral colleagues who have failed to maintain proper boundaries when serving families who have lost loved ones to suicide. They have become judgmental and failed to understand the nature of mental illness, which is a real disease that can be fatal. They have allowed their own grief, which includes anger, to invade funeral services and made statements that are inappropriate and which cause additional pain. They mistakenly focus on the way a person died without giving sufficient attention to how that person lived.

The church doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to serving those who die by suicide. In support groups I have been asked directly about statements heard in churches concerning the salvation of those who die by suicide. These statement reflect old theologies and old legal interpretations that judge a suicide victim for their last minute decisions. The person who dies by suicide is seen to have committed a crime and in some churches that crime is judged to be significant enough to warrant eternal punishment. Prior to the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s those who died by suicide were denied a Roman Catholic funeral and were not allowed to be buried in Catholic cemeteries. In 1990, Pope John Paul II approved the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which acknowledges that this who die by suicide suffer from mental illness.

Not everyone in the church has gotten the message however. Katie Mettier wrote the story of Maison Hullibarger in the Washington Post this week. She reports that the devout Catholic family lost their son to suicide on December 4 and worked with their priest to plan his funeral. Mason was a brother to five siblings, an athlete and teammate, a good student and a passionate Pittsburgh Steeler fan. But during the funeral service, Father Don LaCuesta told mourners that Mason may be denied admittance to heaven because of the way he died. He continued to rail agains suicide. Finally Mason’s father, Jeffrey walked to the pulpit. “Father,” he whispered, “Please stop.” The priest did not.

After the funeral the family barred the priest from the cemetery and conducted their own graveside service with the assistance of friends and other mourners.

From my point of view the priest’s performance is shocking and cruel and he should not be allowed to conduct any more funerals. He is creating irreparable damage in the name of the church. The demands for the priest to be removed finally elicited an apology from the Archdiocese of Detroit, but so far he continues to serve in his position. Family members and friends are afraid that he will be moved to another parish where the potential exists for him to cause more pain. It is a similar situation to priests who have abused children. There is no question in my mind that the priest is guilty of abuse of the family.

Mental Health Ministries, Suicide Prevention Ministries, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and many other organizations provide guidelines and resources for clergy who are serving families suffering from suicide loss. It is not difficult for those who care to become educated and to benefit from the experiences of others. The failure to make this education mandatory for all clergy is tragic.

Uninformed and harmful clergy are not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. Rather than judging the victims of suicide and their families the church needs to take a good look at itself and take reasonable steps to educate clergy. A funeral that inflicts additional and unnecessary pain on a family is more than a tragedy. It is abuse by clergy, plain and simple. A clergy person occupies a position of power and abuse of that power cannot be tolerated.

Fortunately, admittance to heaven is not controlled by priests or other clergy. It is controlled by God who is compassionate and loving. As the letter to the Romans states: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!