April 26, 2011— -- A Catholic church turned away 8-year-old Kevin Castro of Floresville, Texas, from his First Communion because he had cerebral palsy, according to the boy's family.
When the Rev. Phil Henning of Sacred Heart Catholic Church denied Kevin his first reception of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, Henning said the boy had "the mental capacity of a 6-month old" and didn't have "sufficient knowledge of Christ" to participate in the religious rite, even though Catholic doctrine doesn't specify what level of knowledge is adequate.
Kevin's grandmother, Irma Castro, said Kevin had prepared for months for the "religious milestone" only to be offered a ritual for those who are sick.
"That is the anointing they give you before death," his grandmother told ABC's affiliate KSAT. "That was very offensive."
Kevin's family cried "discrimination."
Cerebral palsy can include any number of neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination but don't worsen over time, according to the National Institutes of Health.
It is the most common motor disorder in children and is second only to autism as the most common disability in children, according to United Cerebral Palsy, an organization that provides education and support for people with a spectrum of disabilities. Each year about 10,000 babies born in the United States will develop cerebral palsy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It affects boys more frequently than girls.
Cerebral palsy, though, is not always associated with intellectual disability. "It's not the same as intellectual disability, and it does not cause intellectual disability," said Chris Thomson, general counsel for UCP. "Individuals who have cerebral palsy can also have intellectual disability. But one does not cause the other and they are separate conditions."
It can, however, come with its share of misunderstanding and discrimination, like the kind Kevin Castro experienced in his church.
"Faith is an important part of people's lives, and we hope that his church and family can find a solution that allows Kevin to be an active and full participant of his faith community," said Stephen Bennett, president and CEO of UCP. "UCP is committed to full citizenship for people with disabilities, regardless of the severity and expression."
"Without knowing [Kevin's] medical diagnosis, it is impossible to know what he may be experiencing," said Thomson. "But people often mistakenly confuse cerebral palsy for an intellectual disability because of the symptoms they witness, such a slurred speech, drooling or spasticity."
Irma Castro said that she had been helping to prepare Kevin for months for his communion, and the priest's decision had shaken her faith. "I hurt for my grandson and my family," she said.
First Communion Is Important Rite
The important ceremony means the child has been embraced by the church community. and it is accompanied by traditional family celebrations and gifts.
Deacon Pat Rodgers, from the Archdiocese of San Antonio, told ABCNews.com that the decision whether to give the sacrament lies with the local priest, but emphasized, "It's never our desire, hope or wish to withhold a sacrament from someone who wants or needs it."
Henning's church offices were closed Tuesday, and he did not return messages left by ABCNews.com.