Debate continues, after AP report on Catholic church's apparent blessing of assisted suicide

It looked like an innocuous religion story and the kind we often get here in the Pacific Northwest: A positive feature on a dying man who decided to end his life through euthanasia –- and about a Catholic church that played a role in it all.

Until complaints started to pour in, asking why a Catholic priest and parish appeared to be giving their blessing to assisted suicide. What followed was a comedy of errors on the part of an archdiocese caught flatfooted by the event.

Yes, this is an old story. But the debates are going on and on and on.

Dated Aug. 25 (yes, I am a few weeks late on this), the Associated Press story began thus:

The day he picked to die, Robert Fuller had the party of a lifetime.

In the morning, he dressed in a blue Hawaiian shirt and married his partner while sitting on a couch in their senior housing apartment. He then took the elevator down three floors to the building’s common room, decorated with balloons and flowers.

With an elaborately carved walking stick, he shuffled around to greet dozens of well-wishers and friends from across the decades, fellow church parishioners and social-work volunteers. The crowd spilled into a sunny courtyard on a beautiful spring day.

A gospel choir sang. A violinist and soprano performed “Ave Maria.” A Seattle poet recited an original piece imagining Fuller as a tree, with birds perched on his thoughts.

A year ago, he got cancer of the tongue and decided against chemo, saying he’d go the assisted suicide route. His decision was understandable. The cancer was causing him slowly to choke to death. His throat was so blocked up, he had to take food through a gastric tube. Radiation would just prolong the agony.

Fuller began returning more often to the Catholic church he had long attended. His spiritual views were hardly orthodox — he considered himself a shaman, and described his impending death as a state of “perpetual meditation” — but Seattle’s St. Therese Parish was known for accommodating a range of beliefs. Fuller was beloved there, and he craved the community. He had sung in the gospel choir and read scriptures from the lectern during services, sometimes delivering insightful or funny remarks off the cuff, said Kent Stevenson, the choir’s director…

The Roman Catholic Church opposes aid-in-dying laws, citing the sanctity of life. But Fuller’s decision was widely known and accepted among the parishioners. At the service where he received his last communion on May 5, the Rev. Quentin Dupont brought over a group of white-clad children who were receiving their first communion.

They raised their arms and blessed him.

Sure enough, there is a photo of the priest, the Rev. Quentin Dupont, and children doing just that.

In this case, the reporter did throw in a contrarian point of view from a fellow at Seattle’s Discovery Institute who said that such deaths normalize suicide, so the piece wasn’t a total paean to the right-to-die movement.

But one place the reporter apparently didn’t check in with was the Seattle archdiocese.

Let me repeat that: the reporter apparently didn’t contact the Seattle archdiocese.

All hell (pun intended, sort of) must have broken loose, as the archdiocese quickly put out a press release the following day, saying the priest in the photo had no idea Fuller was planning on suicide, only that he was dying and needed prayer. When the parish pastor (not Dupont) subsequently learned of Fuller’s intentions, he confronted him. The release didn’t say what Fuller’s response was.

Oddly, the release is not to be found on the archdiocesan website. Instead, it was released as a PDF. The timing of the article was awkward, coming out one week before a new archbishop was going to take over the helm of the archdiocese. And the archdiocese’s explanation seems a bit strange in that what did they think an Associated Press photographer was doing in church that day if not to record Fuller’s farewell?

The Catholic News Agency pounced on the story, producing earlier Facebook postings by Fuller that said that the clergy knew very well what he was planning on doing and that not only had they given him their blessing, a parish choir would come to his house and perform a few hours before he took the fatal dosage. Also, an unnamed Jesuit priest had given his blessing to the procedure. However, the Rev. Maurice Mamba, the pastor at St. Therese, is not a Jesuit. Who was Fuller referring to?

The archdiocese put out a second press release the following day, saying Dupont was not aware of any news photographer at the church. Really? (You can find links to both press releases on this site). The release added a different scenario, saying the main parish pastor had been aware of Fuller’s suicidal intents (it didn’t say when he was told) and that when he couldn’t get Fuller to change his mind, he got permission from the archbishop to host Fuller’s funeral with the understanding that assisted suicide would not be endorsed.

Then America magazine got into the act as well, using their Jesuit connections to contact Dupont (the priest in the photo) to get his side of the story.

Dupont told the magazine that not only did he know about the news photographer, he also saw a TV crew there doing a story on Fuller. But he didn’t know any of the background.

I know Dupont was only a supply priest and not the regular parish pastor but honestly, folks, did you think all that media was hanging around there just because an older guy was on his last legs?

No, they were there because of Washington state’s Death with Dignity law and here was a man whose church was going along with it. Those photos of the priest and kids, all dressed in white, praying over Fuller, are classic. The photographer must have felt she died and went to heaven, what with all these helpful church folks posing as they did.

Nowhere in any story is Mamba, who supposedly remonstrated with Fuller not to kill himself, mentioned by name. Why was Mamba gone this particular Sunday? This was a service where kids were having their First Communion in mid- May. Typically, a parish priest would be at such a service. But the archdiocesan statement said Mamba was celebrating Mass elsewhere that morning.

In the America article, Dupont confirmed he was the only priest there. Some parishioners suggested that he pray over Fuller, which he did, only to learn after the service of Fuller’s true intentions during the coffee hour.

The whole story does not add up and there’s large swatches of information left out.

Father Mamba’s role in all this is particularly cloudy. If this was Fuller’s last Sunday, why didn’t he warn Dupont about this, not to mention the fact that media were showing up? And how could anyone walk into this situation with photographers present and not figure out the reason for their presence? Who was this TV crew? It’s been four months since Fuller died and I’ve seen no video posted online about it although this article by the Seattle Housing Authority said it was from KING-TV Ch. 5, Seattle’s NBC affiliate.

The story has been floating around elsewhere. Real Change, a newspaper for Seattle’s homeless, ran a long feature about Fuller’s death in May. Fuller was obviously quite busy contacting local media in the months before his death.

So, what about all the other church members who showed up at Dupont’s home a few days later to say goodbye and literally watch while he took the fatal dose?

Someone was clearly sleeping at the switch at the church. I’m curious at the AP reporter’s choice of words about St. Therese “being known for accommodating a range of beliefs,” being that Fuller was also openly gay and considered himself a shaman?

I doubt anyone is going to dig too hard into all the inconsistencies here but clearly this was a parish playing fast and loose with the anti-euthanasia doctrines of the Catholic Church. And the archdiocesan press office needs to know how to get its facts straight. I’m guessing that with the new archbishop installed on Sept. 3, everyone’s hoping this story will be forgotten.

But it won’t be forgotten in the Catholic press. Meanwhile, it was fortunate that AP caught on camera the story of a parish caught between Catholic Church teachings and a parishioner who was going to die the way he wanted to. It’s not a comfortable place on which to take a moral stand. Clearly, compromises were being made. I just wish all the involved parties were a bit more honest about their part in it all.

Please respect our Commenting Policy