The Deacon's Bench

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)

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