N.J. Mom Says Priest Kicked Son, 7, with Autism Out of Sister's Baptism for Being a 'Distraction'
"We were outraged. We wanted to do something in that moment but we were in shock," Julia Vicidomini says of the incident
A 7-year-old boy with autism was recently kicked out of his sister's baptism by the priest for being a "distraction" during the ceremony, according to his parents.
Julia Vicidomini says she and her husband Marc Vicidomini are still coping with the fact their son Nicky was removed from Christ the King Church in Hillside, New Jersey for playing with a ball during his younger sister's baptism.
The event left the parents so outraged that they have decided to leave the church altogether, opting to find a more inclusive, accepting environment for Nicky, as well as their daughter Sofia, 11 months, and son Christopher Davis, 16.
"We are still upset but we are starting to heal as we await a personal apology from [the priest] Father Luke," Julia, 38, tells PEOPLE. "It is difficult [to leave]. My roots are with this church; it holds much sentimental value. But it has changed over the years so unfortunately, this situation is making it much easier to go."
Julia initially spoke out about the encounter on Facebook Sunday, sharing a video of the moment Nicky, who is non-verbal, was told to leave, and admitted that she "hesitated posting this" but was "still so upset" and needed to vent.
In the post, Julia explained that the celebration was a private gathering for immediate family, which she felt comfortable taking Nicky to because "he doesn’t do well with a full mass and large group settings."
Once at the church, Julia said her mother-in-law was watching over Nicky while she, Marc, 38, and Sofia stood at the front of the altar near Father Luke. As the ceremony went on, Nicky can be seen in the corner of the video tossing a ball near the candles.
The priest eventually became agitated by his actions, pausing the ceremony to demand that the 7-year-old leave. In response, Julia can be heard explaining to Father Luke that her son has autism and he doesn't understand.
Though both parents appeared calm in the clip, Julia tells PEOPLE she and Marc were far from it.
"We were outraged. We wanted to do something in that moment but we were in shock and didn’t want to react in any way that was disrespectful in church," she explains.
"Thankfully, Nicky didn’t understand what was happening. He is a good, sweet boy and just complied when my mother-in-law took him out," she added.
After the ceremony, Julia said Marc attempted to mend the situation but was met with resistance by Father Luke yet again.
"The priest then began to raise his voice and tell my husband that he should not have been playing in church and that it was a distraction to him trying to perform the baptismal ceremony," Julia wrote. "My husband told him that he thought a priest, of all people, would be more sympathetic to a child with special needs, that he was completely unprofessional and ruined our celebration."
Eventually, Julia and Marc were fed up and decided to go home, leaving the church for good — a decision that has been incredibly difficult for the New Jersey mother, as she has been a part of the parish since kindergarten.
"I have never had a negative experience and thought nothing of having my third child baptized in this church like the others," she wrote. "The Bible speaks of welcoming all God’s children! Where is the compassion and plain human decency? [The priest] needs to be more sensitive and respectful in addressing a child, especially one with special needs."
Though Father Luke has yet to personally apologize to the Vicidomini family, Julia tells PEOPLE the archdiocese apologized on his behalf and the family "appreciate[s] their response to the situation."
A statement from the Archdiocese of Newark was also publicly issued, where they apologized for the incident.
"On behalf of the parish and the Archdiocese of Newark, we offer our heartfelt apologies for the abrupt behavior demonstrated by one of our pastors on Saturday during a private family ceremony," read the statement, which was obtained by WABC. "The pastor was unaware that the sibling playing in a nearby candle room during the ceremony has autism."
"The pastor did not understand the child's behavior, he felt unprepared to respond appropriately, and his reaction to the situation was not pastoral. He acknowledges and is regretful for the mistake," it continued. "Our Archdiocesan Office for Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities was in touch with the family to support healing and moving forward together, and we are working with all to come to a pastoral resolution and to ensure that there is greater awareness in working with individuals with disabilities and their families."
A spokesperson for Christ the King Church did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.
In the wake of sharing Nicky's story, Julia says the response has been "overwhelming" and that they have been invited to multiple churches with "welcoming and tolerant parish."
But while they're looking forward to starting fresh in a new church one day, Julia says she's most hopeful that her son's story will help spread more awareness and acceptance for children living with autism and other special needs.
"Nicholas has a rare condition called Sotos syndrome and autism is a manifestation of that syndrome," she explains. "Individuals with special needs need to feel comfortable being able to go out into the community in any capacity that they are able to handle, even if it means having a ball or toy with them for comfort."
"The way our son was treated is just another example of how there is still much to be done to educate others of those with disabilities," she adds.
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