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Partnership called for, after church bans autistic boy

29 May 2008

by Pat Ashworth

Asked for Guidance: Pope Benedict waves in St Peter's Square at his general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday PA

Asked for Guidance: Pope Benedict waves in St Peter's Square at his general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday PA

THE POPE has been asked to provide guidelines on autism for the Roman Catholic Church, after an RC priest in the United States barred an autistic boy whom he considered dangerous from his church.

The priest, Fr Daniel Walz, of the St Joseph’s, Bertha, Minnesota, resorted to a temporary restraining order to prevent 13-year-old Adam Race’s parents’ taking him to mass. A statement from the diocese of St Cloud said that the petition had been filed “as a last resort out of a growing concern for the safety of parishioners and other community members due to disruptive and violent behaviour on the part of that child”.

Adam, who is six feet tall and weighs 16 stone, is reported to have shown disruptive and violent behaviour towards parishioners, and to have spat and urinated in church. Fr Walz wrote in an affidavit: “The parish members and I have been very patient and understanding. I have made repeated efforts through Catholic Education Ministries, Caritas Family Services, and most recently sought to try and mediate the matter with the family to ask them to voluntarily not bring Adam to church, but it has been to no avail.”

The case has divided opinion in the US. Mrs Race, who won an award from the diocese in 2005 for efforts to encourage families with disabled children to attend mass, has countered all the claims that Adam’s behaviour was dangerous, and has said the court order was discriminatory. The family was offered accommodations, including a TV monitor to relay the service into the hall, and mass at home. The church has a “cry room” for those needing to go out of a service.

Ivan Corea is head of Autism Awareness Campaign UK, and initiator with his wife, Charika, of Autism Sunday (News, 8 February). He said on Tuesday: “It’s really sad when something like this happens, and this is exactly why we are calling for a partnership between parents and carers and children and adults with autism, and the Church.

“It’s good that Pope Benedict has been asked to provide guidelines, because no Pope has ever spoken publicly about autism. Clergy and church staff need training in autism. They need to talk about how you integrate a child into parts of the service. Churches need to have a sensory room, a time-out place where a young person or adult can be taken if things get too much.”

Mr Corea worships at All Saints’, Woodford Green, in Essex, where his son, Charin, who has Austistic Spectrum Disorder, is among 15 children with disabilities whom he describes as successfully integrated into the congregation. “[The provision] is absolutely wonderful. Children with special needs feel they are part of the service. It’s give and take on both sides: it’s partnership working between the church and the families,” he said.

All Saints’ is hosting a special-needs conference on 14 June, a move Mr Corea describes as the way forward — “a dialogue together that explores problems and solutions”.

“This is the first ban in history of a child with autism,” he said. “We need to learn lessons from Bertha, Minnesota. I was horrified to think the sheriff had threatened to arrest the parents if they entered the church, and always think: ‘What would Jesus have done?’ He would never have said: ‘Arrest them and send them away.’”

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