Restraining order keeps autistic 13-year-old out of Minnesota church

BERTHA, Minn. (CNS) -- An Eagle Bend mother has been cited with violating a May 9 temporary restraining order that prohibits her and her husband from bringing their autistic 13-year-old son onto the property of St. Joseph Church in Bertha.

Carol Race received a citation from a Todd County sheriff's deputy May 15, four days after she and her family were at Mass at the parish. She appeared in court May 19 to answer the charge but received a continuance in the case until June 2 so she could hire an attorney.

The restraining order came as a surprise, Race said. "I'm just a mom with a kid who wants to go to church on Sunday," she said.

"The Mass is the source and summit of Christian life," she added. "This is about implementing church teaching."

Father Daniel Walz, St. Joseph's pastor, sought the order in Todd County District Court, according to a May 16 statement from the parish, "as a last resort out of a growing concern for the safety of parishioners and other community members due to disruptive and violent behavior" on the part of Adam Race, the son of St. Joseph parishioners John and Carol Race.

Jane Marrin, parish spokeswoman, said that Adam's behavior in the church and his parents' inability to control it, not his disability, prompted the court action.

On May 18, the Races attended Mass at Christ the King Parish in Browerville, where they have occasionally attended in the past.

Carol Race told the St. Cloud Visitor, the diocesan newspaper, May 19 that Adam's behavior and his autism are inextricably connected and cannot be separated from each other. She also said that the petition for the restraining order was "not a last resort, but almost a first resort," and disagreed with the parish's statement that offers of reasonable accommodation were made to the family.

The restraining order states that "Adam is autistic and has continuously exhibited disruptive and dangerous behavior during Mass," including striking a child, bolting unexpectedly from church and nearly knocking over people, spitting and urinating in church.

It also states that Adam, who is more than 6 feet tall and weighs more than 225 pounds, is "growing so his behaviors grow increasingly more difficult for his parents to manage. ... His parents often sit on him during Mass in an effort to restrain him. He responds with fighting and loud noises. He lays on the pew, the floor and sometimes in the aisle."

The order states further that the parish's insurer advised that the church has "a duty to provide a reasonable safe environment" and could be held responsible for not minimizing or eliminating known threats or hazards.

Since June 2007, "the parish explored and offered many options for accommodations that would assist the family while protecting the safety of parishioners" but the family refused them, court documents state.

The parish also consulted with the St. Cloud Diocese's Catholic Education Ministries for assistance in making reasonable accommodations, "and made an offer for mediation -- which was also refused," according to the documents.

The parish offered to allow Adam and the Races to view a live video of the Mass in the church basement or for Adam to attend Mass in a separate room in the church for parents and their children. Father Walz also offered to celebrate Mass weekly at the Races' home. Watching the diocesan TV Mass also was suggested.

Race said she agreed with a parish statement inviting the family "to reach a mutually acceptable accommodation that will ensure the safety of parishioners."

Race, who holds a licentiate of sacred theology from the University of Freiburg in Germany, said none of the accommodations are acceptable because she believes it is important for Adam to be present at a live celebration of the Mass. She said she declined the parish's offer of mediation because she did not believe solutions emerging from the process would include the possibility of Adam attending Mass with the parish community.

Race also disagreed with the characterization of Adam's behavior. People could infer, for example, that the phrase "Adam urinates in church" means that he is exposing himself, she said, when it is instead an issue of incontinence. She agreed that the loud noises her son makes "are more common" but disagreed that he has "continuously exhibited disruptive and dangerous behavior."

Most of the so-called violent outbursts, she added, "have been isolated incidents," and the danger to others could be alleviated if aisles were cleared when Adam entered and exited the church.

The Races could seek to modify the order, which remains in effect until May 2010, if Adam's behavior improves with the assistance of medical or medicinal care, the order states. But Race said she does not favor medicating Adam.

In 2005, Race was a recipient of Catholic Education Ministries' and Catholic Charities' Opening Doors Award for "mainstreaming her sons into parish worship." She has another son, Joshua, whom she described as "almost recovered" from autism.

Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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