Boy with autism denied First Communion at Catholic church: 'That is discrimination,' mom says

Joe Strupp, Asbury Park Press
·6 min read
Eight-year-old Anthony La Cugna, second from left, surrounded by his family.
Eight-year-old Anthony La Cugna, second from left, surrounded by his family.

MANALAPAN, N.J. — Nicole and Jimmy LaCugna both grew up with a strong Catholic faith. Each attended religious education as children, married in a Catholic church and sent their first son, Nicholas, through a faith-based pre-K program.

So when their second son, 8-year-old Anthony, reached second grade last fall, he was on track to receive his first Holy Communion in April.

But just days ago, the couple learned Anthony would not be allowed to receive the sacrament at St. Aloysius in Jackson, New Jersey, the church the family has attended for years.

The reason given by the church: He has autism and is unable to express the contrition the church requires before receiving Communion.

“That is discrimination,” Nicole LaCugna said during an interview. “This should not affect his religion. It is absurd.”

Contacted by the Asbury Park Press, the Rev. John Bambrick, pastor of St Aloysius, said the church had reviewed the situation and determined that a person's disability did not necessarily preclude them from receiving a sacrament. He did not reverse the decision regarding the LaCugna's son, but indicated it could be revisited.

Nicole LaCugna said church administrators told her that because Anthony is not able to express contrition for his sins as part of the sacrament of reconciliation — also known as first confession — he cannot be prepared for First Communion.

Nicole LaCugna said Anthony is diagnosed with a serious form of autism, is 100% nonverbal and with severe apraxia, which is defined as “a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to perform learned (familiar) movements on command, even though the command is understood and there is a willingness to perform the movement.”

Rev. John Bambrick of St. Aloysius Church in Jackson, New Jersey, is shown in a file photo from January.
Rev. John Bambrick of St. Aloysius Church in Jackson, New Jersey, is shown in a file photo from January.

She said it causes him to have a “shutdown of the brain. If he gains a word he can lose it, if he gains a sound, he can forget it.”

But she says Anthony is as happy and active as any boy and attends an inclusion class at a regular public school.

“He does well for his abilities, his process is a slow process and he does what he is able to do,” she said.

The family, who had lived in Jackson until last year, moved to Manalapan but continued to attend events and religious education through St. Aloysius, she said.

When Anthony reached first grade in the fall of 2018, Nicole LaCugna wanted to start him on the religious education track toward First Holy Communion but did not believe he could attend regular classes.

She said she asked the parish if she could home-school him for religious studies and said the parish agreed.

In September, she said she received permission to continue at home, but with a plan that he would receive his First Holy Communion along with other second graders in April.

“I was always transparent about him, they knew what was here,” she said. “I knew what he wouldn’t be able to do.

“I stressed that there is no way he could sit through a Mass, so they were going to let us come to a different Mass, with a different group, and he would be the only one who would receive Communion.”

But Nicole LaCugna said she received a call Monday from St. Aloysius explaining that Anthony would not be able to receive First Holy Communion.

“I cried two times with them on the phone. I said it is unfair, my son is a child of God,” she said. “He is welcomed into the Catholic faith. My son is being discriminated against.”

Jimmy LaCugna posted a lengthy comment on a local Facebook page Tuesday venting his frustration and disappointment with the church.

“This is very hard and upsetting to comprehend when we all are created by God and now our son is being shunned from the Catholic faith due to his inability to communicate,” his post stated. “This is something that I hope goes viral and these parties involved get their names called out for this disgraceful and disheartening act against a child who has a disability and wouldn’t even be able to create a sin because he is one of the sweetest and innocent little boy someone would ever meet.”

So far, the post has drawn thousands of likes and supportive comments.

Nicole LaCugna said she reached out to the Diocese of Trenton, which oversees St. Aloysius, and was told the final decision rests with Bambrick, St. Aloysius pastor.

“He never even contacted me," Nicole said. "My response was that he should have called me directly, and he has never met my son."

Bambrick told the Press in a lengthy email that the church had done further research since its initial denial and found that all baptized Catholics have a right to all sacraments.

But he stopped short of changing his decision, saying only that a delay may be necessary. He placed a similar note on the church's Facebook page.

“The latest information states that in severe cases of disability we should now presume the severely disabled person has some interior life where God touches the soul, and we should rely on this for the severely disabled for First Holy Communion and for First Penance to allow a parent to inform the priest their child knows when they have done wrong. That is the basic sum of what I have found,” the email said, in part.

“This morning this was communicated to the family. We have dozens of handicapped, autistic, developmentally disabled, cognitively impaired and other forms of disability in our parish, and we recognize their dignity and strive to meet their needs while working within the framework of our faith," the email continued. "I am still unsure as to how we will adapt this particular case, but we will work it out with the family.”

Nicole LaCugna said "this does not change our view. This only came about because of the feedback his parish is receiving. We were denied yesterday, so the so-called research stopped yesterday early."

Rayanne Bennett, executive director of communications and media for the Diocese of Trenton, said she could not comment about the LaCugnas specifically, saying via email, “Because we are committed to preserve the privacy of our community members, the diocese does not share information about an individual child, student or family.”

But she also noted that such decisions are made at the local level: “the pastoral care of students with special needs is primarily the responsibility of the local parish, which does its best to prepare children for their sacraments. It is ultimately the role of the local pastor to determine the level of preparedness of any given child.”

Nicole LaCugna said even if the church changed its decision, she would not allow Anthony to receive the sacrament there: “I will not have him go to a priest who treated him this way.”

Follow Joe Strupp on Twitter at @joestrupp

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Discrimination? Boy with autism denied First Holy Communion at church