- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2008

BERTHA, Minn.

CarolRace feels that it’s important for her autistic 13-year-old son to be in church for Catholic Mass on Sundays.

Leaders of the Church of St. Joseph once thought the same way, but not any more. They say Adam Race is disruptive and his erratic behavior threatens the safety of other parishioners.

The northern Minnesota church obtained a restraining order to keep Adam away, an action the Race family calls deeply hurtful and which has brought them support from parents of other autistic children, but criticism from some such parents, too.

“My son is not dangerous,” Mrs. Race said, denouncing the church’s action as “about a certain community’s fears of him. Fears of danger versus actual danger.”

In court papers, church leaders say the danger is real. The Races attended the church with little problem for the first 11 or 12 years of Adam’s life, but problems began in 2007 when Adam began going through puberty and his growth spurt.

The Rev. Daniel Walz wrote in his petition for the restraining order that Adam - who already is more than 6 feet tall and weighs more than 225 pounds - has hit a child, has nearly knocked over elderly parishioners while bolting from his pew, has spit at people, has groped a woman’s thighs and buttocks, has urinated on himself in the church and started to rev up a car engine during an anxiety attack.

“His behavior at Mass is extremely disruptive and dangerous,” wrote Father Walz. “Adam is 13 and growing, so his behaviors grow increasingly difficult for his parents to manage.”

Mrs. Race said Father Walz’s claims are exaggerated - though she does not say they are false - and that nobody has been hurt by her son’s behavior.

“He’s never actually injured anyone,” she said. “He’s never knocked down anyone. He’s never urinated on anyone or spit on anyone.”

Mrs. Race was cited for attending church May 11 in violation of the restraining order. She entered a not guilty plea during a brief hearing Monday in Todd County District Court. A lay mediator is scheduled to meet with her and church board members this week.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It is more severe in some people than others. Adam has limited verbal skills.

Father Walz did not return calls seeking comment, but Jane Marrin, who works for the Diocese of St. Cloud and is acting as a spokeswoman for the parish, said the church board tried working with the Races to find “reasonable accommodations.”

That included offering a video feed of Mass that could be watched in the church basement or having a priest come to the Race family home to celebrate a private Mass.

The family refused all suggestions, she said.

“It’s a difficult issue,” Ms. Marrin said. “There are no easy answers.”

Mrs. Race dismissed the church’s suggestion that Adam watch a video feed in the church basement, saying that “does not have the same status as attending Mass. Otherwise we could all just sit home and watch it on TV and not bother to come in.”

“It’s considered a sin in the Catholic Church not to attend Mass on Sundays and every holy day of obligation,” she said. “And that’s what this is about. I’m just trying to fulfill my obligations.”

Illness, incapacity or other grave reasons do allow dispensing with the Mass obligation.

Adam is one of five children. The family’s home in nearby Eagle Bend has separate study rooms so the other children can read books and use crayons that Adam could otherwise destroy.

Mrs. Race said Adam has two favorite spots in the house, the prayer room and the kitchen table. “He likes to eat,” she said, laughing.

Adam is prone to anxiety attacks. Father Walz said some of those outbursts force members of the family to sit on him to calm him down, or restrain his hands and feet with a strip of felt.

In his court petition, Father Walz said that after one service Adam got into another family’s car, pushed aside the driver, started it and revved up the engine while there were people in front of the vehicle.

“Adam’s continued presence on parish grounds not only endangers the parishioners, it is disruptive to the devout celebration of the Eucharist,” Father Walz wrote. “I have repeatedly asked John and Carol to keep Adam from church; they have refused to do so.

“In fact, Carol told our parish council that she would have to be dragged from church in handcuffs if I tried to keep Adam from attending Mass,” he wrote.

The Races have received support from other parents, including Chris and Libby Rupp, who brought their autistic daughter from St. Paul on Memorial Day weekend and sat in the church’s back pew normally occupied by the Races.

“I think this case is mostly about not understanding autism,” Mrs. Rupp said. “I wanted to show them another example. Ultimately, we just need more people to truly understand autism.”

Mrs. Rupp met the Races and said she could see why some people might be uncomfortable around Adam, but added: “Never at one point did I feel that anyone was in danger.”

But the case, which has raised hackles on the Internet, has brought out parents of autistic children on the other side of the issue, with some calling Mrs. Race an “activist” type who sees only her son and his subjective intentions - which everyone agrees are not malevolent - while being blind to the objective threat he poses, particularly since his size makes it much more difficult for his parents to control him.

“The priest has a responsibility to serve his entire community and … is going to be expected, by the entire congregation, to do something. That something is not going to be to ‘educate’ the community on autism to explain away things like spitting, urinating and running out into the parking lot to rev up the engine of another parishioner´s car,” wrote the anonymous blogger Simply Catholic, a homeschooling mother named Darcee who said she had to put her 14-year-old autistic daughter in a group home when she bit her brother. “It is terribly unfair to ask the entire parish to come to Mass and have to worry about what Adam will do next.”

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