The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

A Catholic funeral for a killer?

Years ago, I can remember the debate that raged over whether John Gotti should receive a Catholic funeral and burial. But now comes this story out of Iowa. See what you think:

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 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.

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.”

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.”

For more, check out the link. And pray for this man and his family.

Meantime, you can read Teresa Wymore’s blog for more on the case, and canon lawyer Ed Peters has his own blog on all matters relating to canon law.

Photo: Flowers surround a photo of the Sueppel family during the funeral Mass on March 29 for Steven Sueppel, 42, his wife, Sheryl, 42, and their four children — Ethan, 10; Seth, 8; Mira, 5; and Eleanor, 3, at St. Mary’s Church in Iowa City. (BRIAN RAY/(CEDAR RAPIDS) GAZETTE)

Comments read comments(10)
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Marilyn Heller

posted May 5, 2008 at 10:55 am

The debate raging around John Gotti was that he was “not” given a Catholic funeral. The pastor of St. Helen’ in Howard Beach went to the funeral home and the cemetery. However, Gotti was denied a Catholic funeral.

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posted May 5, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Surely another case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t!”

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posted May 5, 2008 at 4:17 pm

From the picture, it looks as if the Suepples adopted four Asian children.

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posted May 5, 2008 at 4:42 pm

Isn’t this less about honoring the person and more about consoling the family. If the families could get it together to be there for the funeral, who are we to criticize?I am the survivor of a murder victim in a murder/suicide. It is a horrible place to be. But it is more horrible to be the survivor of the perpetrator. To know that your loved one caused all this pain can feel insupportable.I don’t think that the perpetrator in my family’s case was mentally ill. He had lived a life that would not make one surprised at the final outcome, to tell the truth. But denying his family the right to bury him with dignity – and to be consoled by the the ministry of the church – that would have been horrible.It is very easy to dissect a case like this from a distance. From the middle of the mess, it is much less clear cut. The emotions go everywhere and someone has to be there to help the families deal with them. If this helped that healing process for them, I think that the judgements of others have far less weight.

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posted May 5, 2008 at 9:33 pm

Tough question. Once upon a time suicides could not get a funeral, but now they are seen as mentally unsettled and allowed.

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posted May 7, 2008 at 8:44 am

We all have the human tendency to paint everything black or white. Unless we have had the experience that the families of all the victims have had, we really don’t understand. I agree with ccrino – ecpecially the last paragraph…Peace

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posted May 7, 2008 at 10:06 pm

After reading this, I did a little googling… If you want to do some more reading, this canon law journal article was about the Gotti funeral: interesting take on the situation. The author argues that the bishop made the wrong call canonically by refusing to permit a Catholic funeral.

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posted August 7, 2010 at 7:01 pm

I can see that his family might want to include him in this funeral as if something terrible had just happened to the whole family – but this was not a fire nor an accident – the something terrible was Steve Sueppel. His wife’s family was probably in shock and did not want to deal with this nor go against the Sueppel family who doubtless made the arrangements after years of involvement in this church. To bury him with the same honor and dignity that attended the wife and four innocent, vulnerable little children this thief murdered diminishes their deaths and makes a mockery of the ceremony. what does it mean to live a Catholic, Christian life these days? Heaven is not a fraternity you can buy your way in to, and this did nothing to heal this community. His parents are wealthy and influential in the community and in the church and I wonder how much that had to do with the decision to have a funeral that would include him as just another victim. He wasn’t mentally ill. The way those children died being chased by the man whom they trusted to protect them, hearing their siblings die by his hand – herded from one room to the next-their terror and betrayal dooms him to hell right next to Judas whatever ceremony attends his passing. His family could be consoled by the church without granting him the same status as his victims in a joint funeral. That is about their needs, not sacrament, and not justice.

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Randy Crawford

posted September 30, 2010 at 12:36 am

The bodies were found early Monday morning. By Tuesday, the Iowa City police already had their full-strength press announcement out claiming > Curious. How do they know so much, the very next day, that they somehow know it will be impossible to solve the case? Especially considering how Steve Sueppel left numerous notes and voicemails detailing what he was up to, to be found once the police arrived, and his dad and brother at the law office were left voicemails to listen to. The police claim of instant ignorance and instant unsolvability was so transparently bogus they felt compelled to have another session for the TV cameras two days later. On Thursday, officer Troy Kelsay again proclaimed the incredible story > Strange, how once again proclaimed ignorance of the facts is supposed to magically convey knowledge of what is and isn’t possible to know. Then, at the Saturday mass funeral at St. Mary’s in Iowa City, the priest walked in from the rectory, carefully and calmly and meticulously adjusted his hair and clothes in the mirror at the SW entryway to St. Mary’s, and in the middle of his ceremony proclaimed to add extra anesthetic to that heaped already upon the hopefully gullible citizenry: > Equally, how would the priest know what is and is not impossible to know, based on the premise of professed ignorance? Any schoolchild understands complex felonies tend to take weeks and months to solve, and yet the police and priest were in a mad insistent scramble to repeatedly propagandize the public that somehow they knew so much so quickly that they knew knowing was impossible. Real curious, especially how these pronouncements of ‘expert’ ignorance were offered every two days until the bodies were buried. As the coffins exited the church, I could see the family exiting with them from less than 6 feet away. Steve Sueppel’s mom and dad, and brother William, had no emotion in their faces other than a determination to hold it all in and maintain damage control. But son William’s wife was beside herself with grief, barely able to walk, and obviously wasn’t in on what had been going on. At the cemetery, I handed Kleenex to the bludgeoned wife’s father as he and his son wondered “Why? Why?” and as they received no merciful hint toward resolution from those among the family, police, and clergy who were in on the cover-up efforts to anesthetize the public. Steve Sueppel had claimed he embezzled the money to feed his cocaine habit, yet he had no trace of cocaine in his body, his house, his office, his car, or anywhere else. Nor did he have cocaine containers, paraphernalia, or any knowledge of where or how to get cocaine, much less a dealer’s name. The cocaine story was obviously a cover-up for the real truth, which was much more shameful. If you understand that his criminal defense lawyer, Leon Spies, has a law practice that has run elaborate scams to do sabotage, espionage, and cover-ups for Iowa City’s homosexual racket, and ditto for policeman Troy Kelsay, you begin to understand that once one of their own was in deep doo-doo at the half million dollar level, and that was too much to cover-up— then once Steve Sueppel became a mass murderer those interests really wanted to cover things up– it all becomes a lot easier to understand. Of course his family had wanted Steve Sueppel to pretend to be a normal guy, but he had a homosexual’s devotion to his wife and kids. So, the innocent victims paid the price for associating with a vile fraud who was prone to one level of deception and selfishness to cover up for his earlier deceptions and selfish manipulations.

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Randy Crawford

posted September 30, 2010 at 12:52 am

Copying of the above writing was partially cut short internally by the software. The quotes removed by faulty software were to the effect of police and the priest saying words to the effect of ”It’s (the Steve Sueppel murders are) all a big mystery, and we don’t think we’ll ever be able to get to the bottom of it/solve the murders/etc.” Repeatedly, ‘experts’ magically and instantly know (?) that it is allegedly impossible to know what they know can’t be known– they say.

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