By Christy Strawser
CBS Detroit Managing Editor
GRAND HAVEN (CBS DETROIT) A Michigan priest says he’s gotten nothing but support since he was admonished to stop hugging kids during church services after someone anonymously reported it made them uncomfortable.
“I’ve heard from tons of people, great support, everything’s going to be great, I’m probably the only priest doing it … Everything’s going to be fine, it’s just one of those things, but I sure got a lot of support,” said Father Bill Langlois of St. Patrick and St. Anthony Parish.
For 16 years at the parish, Langlois has set aside time during services to hug children of all ages — anyone who got in line. He reportedly told them things like “I am hugging you, you are hugging me and Jesus is hugging us.”
But recently, the Diocese of Grand Rapids received a letter from someone who anonymously wrote that the practice could be viewed as “inappropriate.” There was no allegation of wrongdoing.
The diocese asked him to discontinue the hugs — and Langlois released a statement to his parish, saying “The world we live in has changed since 2002 … In our ministry we must respect that change.”
Since then, he’s gotten support from the parish, the community, and the public at large.
Lifetime parishioner Kari Mayer, for one, is distraught at the change.
“He’s so loved within the church that people beg him to come to their homes for dinner. They want him to be involved in his lives — graduation, open houses, weddings. People want him in their lives,” Mayer said.
Mayer said she’s happily received Langlois’ hugs her entire life.
“I first am appalled that this happened, Father Bill is a mentor to me,” she said. “I could never imagine this happening, it’s the type of person he is, he loves people. This was something that started many years ago and it was a voluntary thing. It’s done in the middle of the Mass, parents bring their children up to him, all ages.
“He’ll say, ‘Hugs are transferable, when you hug me you’re hugging a child in Haiti,’ he’s made it very open and loving.”
She added that no hint of scandal has ever been attached to the priest’s name. “I find the letter itself an allegation,” she said, adding, “An anonymous letter from an out-of-town person. I wish they had talked to someone at the church, it’s a very open, welcoming church.”
Beyond the culture shift the “no hugging” policy means for the church, Mayer worries about what it says about society at large.
“To be stopped cold, it’s weird. It’s weird to digest,” she said. I find that this struck a nerve, it’s going beyond religion and toward a human thing. Are doctors not allowed to hug their patients? Teachers not allowed to hug their students? How far does this go?
“It’s comforting, I know I’m appreciated, I know I’m safe, I will go to him and get a hug. I will wait in line as a 30-year adult for a hug. I remember saying to somebody that these hugs are all that these kids look forward to. They’re so excited to get a hug from Father Bill.”
Langlois doesn’t want to make a big deal out of the change, saying all will be fine. But how does he plan to spread God’s love to children now during services? Langlois plans to use the new hug: A fist bump.