Faithful question church funeral for killer

Date: 2008-05-05

Steven Sueppel murdered his wife and four children before committing suicide.

By ERIN JORDAN

REGISTER IOWA CITY BUREAU

Copyright 2008, Des Moines Register and Tribune Company

Iowa City, Ia. - The Catholic Church's decision to grant Steven Sueppel a funeral at St. Mary's Church after he killed his wife and four children on Easter night has left behind an emotional debate among Iowa City-area Catholics and Catholic scholars.

Edward Peters, a professor of Catholic doctrine, or canon law, at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, says Sueppel should not have been given a Catholic funeral.

Sueppel would be what canon law calls a "manifest sinner" because he murdered his wife and four young children before killing himself, Peters said.

He said his interpretation of canon law leads him to conclude that Sueppel should not have been granted a Catholic funeral because doing so creates a "scandal for the faithful."

Officials of the church's Davenport Diocese declined a request to be interviewed about the specifics that went into the decision to allow Sueppel's funeral to be held at St. Mary's.

"The funeral for Steven was in keeping with the laws of the church," said Deacon David Montgomery, spokesman for Davenport Bishop Martin Amos. "The church requests spiritual assistance for the departed, and at the same time brings the solace of hope to the living in the belief that God's mercy is extended to all."

Teresa Heitman of Coralville has kept the issue alive. Heitman, 43, a Catholic who writes a blog about faith and politics under the pen name Teresa Wymore, wrote in her blog, "As the Diocese of Davenport seeks to heal the remaining family of Steven Sueppel, they have forgotten about the rest of the community."

Sueppel, 42, allegedly used a baseball bat to beat his wife, Sheryl, 42, and their four children, Ethan, 10; Seth, 8; Mira, 5; and Eleanor, 3, on March 23 or 24 in their Iowa City home.

Steven Sueppel, a former vice president for Hills Bank & Trust, was awaiting trial on federal embezzlement and money-laundering charges at the time of the killings. He took his own life shortly after the killings by driving the family van into a concrete stanchion on Interstate Highway 80 northwest of Iowa City.

Police found a suicide note in the Sueppel home in which he described the killings and his several attempts at suicide.

About 800 people attended the joint funeral Mass for the six Sueppels at St. Mary's on March 29. The Rev. Ken Kuntz, the church's pastor, praised the extended families of Steven and Sheryl Sueppel for their forgiveness and said the "scourge of mental illness leaves us bewildered, confused and, perhaps, angry."

No history of mental illness

No information has been released publicly about Steven Sueppel suffering from a mental illness. Police officers who read Sueppel's suicide note and listened to phone messages he left March 23 and 24 said there is no evidence of him having a diagnosed mental illness.

"Nothing says, 'I've tried to get help,' or 'I'm medicated,' or 'I'm off my meds,' " said Iowa City Police Sgt. Troy Kelsay.

The suicide note also indicates Sueppel had been contemplating some type of action since last fall, which is when the alleged embezzlement was discovered by bank officials and he was fired.

"It wasn't as if what happened that night was a totally spontaneous event," Kelsay said.

Blogger objects to church funeral

A March 24 statement from the extended families of Steven and Sheryl Sueppel states they saw nothing unusual on Easter or in the days leading up to the killings.

Allusions to Sueppel being mentally ill when he killed his family and himself bother Heitman, the blogger.

"I understand some people feel that any man who could do this must surely be insane by the very fact of doing it, but that just isn't the case," Heitman said. "Steven Sueppel had been a successful banker, family man and parishioner, all while managing to conceal serious financial crimes over many years. Hardly the (resume) of a man afflicted by mental illness."

Heitman said she has gotten more than 1,000 hits on her blog posts about the Sueppel case, including a posting on April 25 in which she quotes from Peters' canon law blog.

Several respondents said they agree with Heitman.

" ... My girlfriend said let the family heal, but I think how can you heal when you're using a lie to make the killer seem not so bad?" one respondent wrote. " ... If everyone thinks he just snapped then nobody learns. I believe God can make something good from everything bad, but not if you lie about what happened."

Others praise church for its forgiveness

Other Catholics say church leaders did the right thing by allowing Steven Sueppel to be mourned with his wife and children in the church where the Sueppels were married and their children baptized.

"What the church did is the best of what our faith offers, which is mercy and forgiveness," said Dorothy Whiston, an Iowa City Catholic. "If they had taken a hard, legalistic stand or used it as a time for moral pronouncement, people would have been more scandalized."

The Catholic Church used to deny church funerals for people who committed suicide, but those rules relaxed as society learned more about mental illness.

The Rev. John Dietzen of Peoria, Ill., writes a question-and-answer column on Catholic doctrine that appears in church newspapers across the nation.

Dietzen said funerals can be granted in case of suicides and even murder-suicides because church leaders do not presume to know the perpetrator's mental state.

"With a lot more understanding of the complicated psychological construction of the human mind, we admit we don't know where a person stands with God," Dietzen said.

Sometimes a horrible, unexplained act without prior hint of the behavior is evidence enough of a mental break, Dietzen said.

Human free will is 'a mystery'

But Peters, the canon law scholar, cautioned: "I think it's quite possible for a normal functioning person to commit a reprehensible act for which they are responsible. Human free will is a mystery."

Peters wrote on his blog that Catholic canon law no longer automatically denies church funerals to those who commit suicide:

"This approach makes good sense, for suicide typically seems to involve some form of grave mental or emotional deficit which can be seen as mitigating the culpability one might otherwise incur for murdering oneself.

"But murder-suicide, indeed as here, mass murder-suicide, seems different to me," Peters added. "On the last day of this life, the embezzler Steven Sueppel became a mass murderer. If such behavior is not 'manifest sin,' what behavior would be?

"We can, and should, pray for Steven Sueppel; indeed, Mass can be offered for him. But he should not be accorded the church's final liturgical and sacramental commendations; not, I think, if the canons on ecclesiastical funerals mean anything close to what they seem to say."

Catholic Church's history is mixed

The Catholic Church in Iowa and around the world has a mixed record on granting funeral rites in the case of suicide or murder.

More than 100 priests and the former bishop of the Davenport Diocese attended the funeral in 2001 for the Rev. Mark Swanson, a Riverside priest who shot himself while suffering from depression.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI denied a Catholic funeral to Italian poet Piergiorgio Welby because Welby, who suffered from advanced muscular dystrophy, persuaded a doctor to remove him from the respirator that had kept him alive for years. The pope condemned euthanasia and said life was sacred until its "natural sunset," according to a Reuters news account.

Notorious New York mafia boss John Gotti was denied a Catholic funeral in 2002 after the Brooklyn Diocese decided he met the definition of a "manifest sinner" whose Catholic funeral would cause "scandal for the faithful."

Scandal, in the context of canon law, does not mean controversy, said Peters, the Detroit professor.

"What it means is that the behavior, if left unpunished, tends to show others it's OK to do it," he said.

Peters believes allowing a Catholic funeral for Sueppel also causes scandal. He said church leaders should carefully consider church law in cases like these.

"The rules are thought out when emotions aren't running high," Peters said.

Inquiry still open

Iowa City police are still waiting for the results of toxicology tests as part of the autopsies conducted in the Sueppel murder-suicide investigation, Sgt. Troy Kelsay said.

The tests, performed at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation laboratory in Ankeny, would show, among other possible findings, whether Steven Sueppel had drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of his death.

The test results typically have an eight-week turnaround, Kelsay said. Police have not expedited the results because Sueppel, who admitted killing his wife and four children, took his own life.

The final police reports cannot be completed until the toxicology results are known, Kelsay said.

Photo By: Brian Ray/(Cedar Rapids) Gazette

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