Father Quentin Dupont responds to AP story on assisted suicide of Catholic man in Seattle

Quentin Dupont, S.J. (Courtesy of Jesuits West)

A report published on Aug. 26 from the Associated Press tells the story of the final days of Robert Fuller, who after a battle with cancer chose to take his own life using a fatal combination of drugs. Among the things Mr. Fuller sought before his death was a blessing in the midst of his parish, St. Therese in Seattle, Wash. An AP photo captures the moment: Mr. Fuller dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and above him Quentin Dupont, S.J., arms raised in prayer. What the photo does not capture is the full story behind the capacity in which Father Dupont was present and what he knew about Mr. Fuller’s decision, both of which have been the subject of confusion since the story was published.

The Archdiocese of Seattle has issued two statements in response to Mr. Fuller’s actions, the second of which states that “neither [the pastor] nor the parish could support his plan to take his own life.” However, reports of Facebook posts allegedly by Mr. Fuller state that “a Jesuit” had given his blessing to Mr. Fuller’s decisions. Some have assumed that this is a reference to Father Dupont, an accusation he said is completely untrue. In an exclusive interview, Father Dupont told America that, although he knew Mr. Fuller was very ill, he was unaware of Mr. Fuller’s intent to die by assisted suicide until after the Mass and blessing were over. At that point he says he felt “completely stunned.” We reached Father Dupont by phone on the evening of Aug. 29 to discuss the events described in the AP report.

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Editor’s note: Father Dupont has occasionally contributed to America, and several editors at America know Father Dupont and have lived with him in Jesuit community. One of those editors, Sam Sawyer, S.J., issued the invitation for this interview through the director of communications for Jesuits West, the province where Father Dupont is currently serving in ministry. Neither Father Sawyer nor any other editor with a personal relationship with Father Dupont had any further involvement in the execution or editing of this interview. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Many people were introduced to you recently through the photo and story in an AP report about the death of Robert Fuller in May. But I want to start by pulling back a little to allow you to tell us a bit about yourself. What are your full-time responsibilities?

My full-time responsibilities are as a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle studying finance and business economics. I help at St. Therese as a supply priest. That means I’m not even on the staff; I’m not part-time there. I’m just there on an ad hoc basis. On average I’m there once a month. Basically, I come in a little before Mass, I make sure things are set up and then we celebrate Mass together and then after Mass I greet people; I say hello and I go home. I don’t have the kind of pastoral relationship that one would have as a pastor or associate pastor or senior priest in residence. I’m not there all the time.

The AP photo and the story have generated a lot of discussion. Can you tell us the story behind this particular photo from your perspective?

I’d signed up for that Sunday and I arrived at church and I saw a parishioner there and I asked how he was doing. He said, “Well, this is Bob Fuller’s last Mass,” and I was puzzled and so I asked him what he meant. He said, “Well, Bob is going to die.” I didn’t know much about Mr. Fuller. I knew he was very ill and I thought that meant that his treatment had run out, that he was getting off treatment and that Mr. Fuller knew he had days to live. And I continued my way to the sacristy and I met another couple of parishioners who said likewise, that this was Bob’s last Mass. Through those conversations, I became aware that this man that I knew was very ill would like a blessing. So we talked about doing a blessing at the end of Mass. We had Mass and at the end of Mass we blessed him.

I thought the pastoral situation I was walking into was with this very ill man who knows he’s about to die. I wanted to make sure he felt cared for by the church. It’s only after Mass at the social hour that I learned of his intentions [to kill himself] from a parishioner. I had absolutely no idea what his intentions were before that. The moment I learned about his intentions, I was completely stunned. I was shocked; and I was just really really puzzled. I remain very puzzled.

Had you met him in other contexts before? How well did you know him?

I’m there once a month, so I had seen him before Mass or after Mass at the social and said hello. That’s the extent that I knew him. I don’t have an ongoing pastoral relationship or ongoing contact with the parishioners.

Can you tell me about the content of the blessing that you offered?

From what I remember—as this is almost four months ago, and this is something that came up when I walked into church—I wanted to pray for his comfort and his peace in the difficult days ahead. And so that’s what I said. I knew there were children there, and so I didn’t want to talk about death explicitly. But I prayed for his comfort and his strength in the days ahead and that he may feel the love of God as he faces a very difficult time.

The last thing I want to do is be part of a confusion, and I certainly have no desire to question the church’s teaching on the sanctity of life.

Since that time, obviously the story has come out and there has been some follow-up questions about some Facebook posts that Mr. Fuller allegedly wrote regarding his impending death. One states: “I have absolutely no reservations about what I am doing. And my pastor/sponsor has given me his blessings. And he’s a Jesuit!!!” Are you the pastor and/or sponsor referenced in this post?

Absolutely not.

Do you know who that priest is?

No.

Did you know that the press was present at the Mass?

I knew that there was a TV crew there and they had been there before. I knew they were there because Bob was there. I didn’t probe what story they were writing. I thought they were making a story about this man who was facing great health difficulties and who had a life of faith, which I assumed was an interesting story to tell in a day and age which is heavily secularized. There was a photographer there. I do not at all remember being introduced to this photographer as a member of the press. I was never asked for an official release about images that would be taken of me or photos that would be taken of me. I thought that this photographer was there because this was [Mr. Fuller’s] last Mass and he wanted a memento, a memory, of this Mass, this community, this time, when later he would be gravely ill in bed and he wanted to feel the strength and the love of the community with him. And I thought this was a professional photographer that he had hired to take some pictures to have them as memories and souvenirs for himself.

How have you felt since this story has come out?

I am shocked. I feel absolutely terrible about the confusion that has arisen out of this story, and I feel that the archdiocese in both statements has done its best to let people know what actually happened and how this story came to be. It has been a difficult few days. The last thing I want to do is be part of a confusion, and I certainly have no desire to question the church’s teaching on the sanctity of life. I believe that life is a gift. I believe that it is a gift from God and an opportunity every day to learn from God and love as God is trying to teach us to love though scriptures and the examples of Christ and the saints. I feel terrible that there is an insinuation that I, or a member of the clergy or religious order or this archdiocese, would think otherwise or would make a public statement otherwise. It’s been a tough couple of days because I love the church and I feel like I tried to respond appropriately, pastorally to what I knew of the situation at hand, and it was actually an entirely different situation and it’s being made to cause confusion and I absolutely dislike that.

I believe that it is a gift from God and an opportunity every day to learn from God and love as God is trying to teach us to love though scriptures and the examples of Christ and the saints.

What responsibilities does a priest have when they learn that a parishioner with an illness might be considering taking his or her own life? It’s a difficult situation that has the potential to become increasingly frequent as states consider allowing assisted suicide.

Had I known that these were his intentions, and had I seen him in church that day knowing that these were his intentions, I would have offered to have a one-on-one conversation about the sanctity of life and the gift of life. I would have talked about the beautiful things I’ve learned and that I cherished about the Jesuits and relatives of mine that I have seen going through suffering but being witnesses to the fact that life is a gift from God.

I also am aware that I am not this man’s pastor. I do not have cura animarum over him, care for the soul. I have a responsibility to him to the extent that I am a priest and that I think that he is mistaken about his position, and I talked to the parish staff about this after I learned it. As you saw in the statements about this that came out from the archdiocese, the pastor reached out to Mr. Fuller and had a conversation with him about the sanctity of life and the gift of life, and I think this is the appropriate response.

One aspect of the story that I find fascinating is that, even though Mr. Fuller obviously disagreed with the church on this teaching regarding the sanctity of life, he still turned to the church for some comfort. Why do you think that is, and how can the church better engage those moments in which people who are in tension with the church—which really is all of us at times—still want to turn to the church for comfort or direction?

When he turned to the church, at that point this really became the pastor’s task and job and responsibility to respond to Mr. Fuller’s desire to celebrate his life and find comfort at that point in time. I wasn’t there, and the pastor didn’t tell me all of the conversations he had with Mr. Fuller, but from reading the archdiocese’s press releases I can say that he responded very pastorally and very well. Both statements from the archdiocese, the one from Aug. 27 and Aug. 28, emphasize the church’s compassion towards people who seek comfort, and this is exactly what happened here.

I think that what you see in the statements from the archdiocese is a desire to care for the members of the faithful in the archdiocese.

Which aspect of the response are you talking about?

I’m talking about the pastoral visit, [during which the archdiocesan statement states that “[t]he pastor discussed the gift of life and tried to convince [Mr. Fuller] to change his mind]," the planning of the funeral, the archdiocese being willing to let this funeral happen for this man who sought and wanted this comfort in this celebration of life in the church.

It’s a tough situation because the church wants to help people navigate these issues in a way that is pastoral, and that is true to the church teaching, but that is also clear for the people who witness it in action. As you said, you don’t want to cause or contribute to any kind of confusion for the faithful. How can we as a church, more generally, think about these very complicated situations in a way that accounts for all of these elements?

This is a wonderful question; it’s something that I’ve been trying to think about for the past three days as I was confronted with the confusion itself. This is of course something that has been on my mind ever since I heard about Mr. Fuller’s intentions after that Mass. Not being a theologian, not being a bioethicist, not being someone who is full-time in ministry—I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about a lot of other issues related to my studies—I haven’t really formulated a coherent system of answers for you. But I think that what you see in the statements from the archdiocese is a desire to care for the members of the faithful in the archdiocese. What you see is a desire to comfort those who are ill. What you see is a desire to be attentive and to walk with those who mourn. And this is the church, this is the field hospital where people carry wounds and we walk with them. And we walk with these people and these situations such as they are, trying to grow in love of God and the love of one another, rather than sowing the seeds of division and confusion. And I think you see this caring for and with one another in the responses that the bishops of Seattle have formulated. This is, I’m sure, something that we’ll continue to reflect about as a church as those situations, as you say, might continue to arise.

We need to talk to people thinking about making those voluntary end-of-life decisions, with those friends and family that they have that love them and want time with them. This is really a way in which we are community together and this is a gift that God gives us in our faith and in this life. I can’t speculate about what would be the best theological and pastoral answer, but I can tell you I certainly think the archdiocese has put its pastoral, caring, comforting attitude forward in every opportunity that they were able to do so.

Is there anything else about this story or series of events that you want people to know?

I simply want to emphasize that [my involvement in these events] is a much more simple story than whatever was construed in the press. I was absolutely, unequivocally unaware of Mr. Fuller’s intention [to kill himself]. I’m not part of the conversations that happen in [the St. Therese] community all the time. I was given very limited information, and I had very limited knowledge about Mr. Fuller’s situation. I did what I thought was pastorally expedient with the knowledge that I had. And it turns out I did not have key pieces of the story, otherwise I would have reacted completely differently.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mary O'Neill
2 months 2 weeks ago

Excellent questions and answers. Thank you.

Ignatius Myosurus
2 months 2 weeks ago

It certainly doesn't surprise me that some people who use this to falsely smear the Father. This has become disgracefully common.

Personally, though, I don't agree with the church's stance on end-of-life decisions. When someone is of sound mind, terminally ill, and knows what's coming, I don't see it as a sin for them to choose to not prolong it. Or someone with Alzheimer's who knows that in a few months, they won't recognize their loved ones, and their loved ones won't recognize them either? Why is it a sin for them to decide to spare their spouse and children that agony?

Modern technology is prolonging things in a way that didn't used to happen. If we ACTUALLY just left it up to God, many of these people would have died much earlier.

Robert Klahn
2 months 2 weeks ago

You have the right to refuse treatment.

Crystal Watson
2 months 2 weeks ago

What is the explanation for why a person who's already dying cannot decide for themselves to end their life a few days or weeks early because of suffering? Because suffering is "a gift from God" as Mother Teresa said? Because, as the Onion once wrote, God's not done toying with them yet? Jeez :(

Tim Donovan
2 months 2 weeks ago

I very much sympathize with people who are terminally ill, but have several reasons for opposing assisted suicide. Although I'm a pro-life advocate, I've attempted suicide several times, due to depression because of being gay. However, because my loved ones responded with acceptance and care once I revealed my orientation, I found that as a single man, reaching out to care for others gave my life meaning. Second, I worked for six years as a Special Education teacher instructing children with brain damage and worked in other capacities with disabled people for another twenty years. In my view, their lives are no less valuable because of their limitations. Killing the disabled by abortion is commonly justified. I don't believe that such lethal discrimination against disabled human beings is valid. In many ways our culture has made advances in our treatment of the disabled, but legal abortion in my view contradicts such advances made in education, employment, and social acceptance. I live in a nursing home, and many of the residents are severely physically or mentally disabled, and several people I know,have dementia. Many people are also very elderly (I'm 57). I'm fortunate that my mother as well as my sister regularly visit me, and so I'm able to go out into the community. One of my roommates who is younger than me, like some other residents, never has any visitots. This is sad and very unforunate. However there are a number of social and recreational activities that take, place daily, as well as outings, i n the community. I think this makes life worthwhile, though of course challenging at times. Finally, my aunt had brain cancer in 1994. A childless widow ,who lived alone, she moved into my parents house and, assisted by a compassionate hospice agency staff, my parents and me took care of my dear aunt. The hospice staff provided palliative care, and my aunt was able to die peacefully at (my parent's) home. I believe that excellent hospice care is the solution to the tragedy
of assisted suicide.

Ann Rock
2 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you for so frankly sharing the struggles you’ve faced as well as your very valuable experience in both working with the disabled and the pro life movement. You have obviously found comfort in your faith in dealing with the trials in your life. And that’s the point, isn’t it? When we turn to God no problem, no pain, no hurdle is insurmountable. This human life is full of suffering, some worse than others. It is, however, nothing when compared with eternity with our Lord. Wishing you all the blessings of God.

Tim Donovan
2 months 2 weeks ago

Dear Ann. Thanks so much for your kind words. All the best to you as you journey with Jesus to eternal life. Take care! Respectfully, Tim Donovan

Ann Rock
2 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you for so frankly sharing the struggles you’ve faced as well as your very valuable experience in both working with the disabled and the pro life movement. You have obviously found comfort in your faith in dealing with the trials in your life. And that’s the point, isn’t it? When we turn to God no problem, no pain, no hurdle is insurmountable. This human life is full of suffering, some worse than others. It is, however, nothing when compared with eternity with our Lord. Wishing you all the blessings of God.

Robert Klahn
2 months 2 weeks ago

" I believe that excellent hospice care is the solution to the tragedy
of assisted suicide."

AMEN!

Robert Klahn
2 months 2 weeks ago

" I believe that excellent hospice care is the solution to the tragedy
of assisted suicide."

AMEN!

Crystal Watson
2 months 2 weeks ago

"I believe that excellent hospice care is the solution to the tragedy of assisted suicide." I don't think so. Not all suffering, physical and emotional, can be obviated by hospice care, and not everyone wants to be drugged to the gills during what time they have left.

Ann Rock
2 months 2 weeks ago

We live in very dangerous times when people are looking for facts which support their point of view rather than the truth. Perhaps before touting Father’s involvement in apparently blessing this man’s very sad decision they should have interviewed him directly. That, however, wouldn’t have been nearly as salacious. I hope Fr. DuPont suffers no lasting repercussions from this very unfortunate use of his kindness. May God bless him and grant him the grace of a long and fruitful priesthood.

J Jones
2 months 2 weeks ago

Excellent interview, Kelly. Fr Dupont sounds like a kind man and a steady priest. Having read the original story, Mr Fuller sounded like a man who loved and suffered in equal measure. In a story about the right to fully informed decision making about one's own life and spirit, how painful that Fr Dupont was not afforded the same opportunity. As the family member of a man whose young life was ravaged by schizophrenia in the 1980s and who chose to end his life, I am profoundly grateful that the Catholic Church is merciful with funeral masses and burials. Abandoning God's children in times of suffering and sorrow serves no Christian purpose I can imagine.

J Jones
2 months 2 weeks ago

Kerry, you are a very fine professional journalist.

Crystal Watson
2 months 2 weeks ago

The former governor of my state, Jerry Brown, a Catholic, signed into law physician assisted suicide in California. He said "“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others." I agree with him.

Will Walsh
2 months 2 weeks ago

Is it the case that Bob Fuller the terminally ill patient, or anyone else sought to create film footage which might make it seem as though the Catholic Church was not opposed, or that priests were not consistent in upholding Catholic teaching regarding the sanctity of life and suicide? The presence of the TV crew and photographer and the lack of any prior connection between Fr. DuPont and Mr. Fuller makes me suspect that someone had invited the press to make a point and that they duped Fr. Dupont in order to do so. I lack another explanation that is plausible to my mind, but perhaps there is one.

If so, it seems to me to show that some find it intolerable that the Church teaches that what they do is a sin even when the law is as they would wish. This was St. Thomas More's problem.

MAUREEN O'RIORDAN LUNDY
2 months 2 weeks ago

I agree with Mr. Walsh - it does look like Fr. Dupont was set up with the purpose of neutralizing Church teaching on assisted suicide.
The congregation seems to have been complicit. That children were present and apparently participating - see photograph - is scandalous.

J Jones
2 months 2 weeks ago

I agree that it appears that Fr Dupont was denied the opportunity to make a fully informed decision about his own participation. If that is the case, I believe that IS truly scandalous.

As far as the kids: I, for one, trust God AND kids. A frail old man was blessed with the kindness and love of the gathered Christians and with a plea for the mercy and accompaniment of God whom they love and trust. Those children will be harmed only if adults tell them they were harmed by participating in the Catholic ritual of blessing the sick and dying. That IS the blessing Fr Dupont offered. He did not bless the act by which Mr Fuller would die because he did not know about that act. God turns all things to good. A frail and dying man whose life had been filled with love AND great suffering was blessed with God's love and mercy and the generosity of the gathered children of God, notwithstanding any exploitation which may have occured. (The reporter is now stuck with a documented reality that does not support the reported facts and photo (and that is bad journalism); and some folks at St Therese would seem to have some soul-searching to do about what we owe each other when we gather in God's name in Christian community. Again, I trust God.

Crystal Watson
2 months 2 weeks ago

This was some kind of nefarious plot to make the church look more merciful than it actually is? Thank God it was foiled! Perhaps we should grill the Jesuit a few more times, just to make sure he wasn't a co-conspirator! Wow, somebody just died and what everyone is worried about is the hard-line reputation of a baseless doctrine.

J Jones
2 months 2 weeks ago

Crystal, I imagine that a bunch of kind and well-meaning people wanted this man they loved to receive a blessing before he died; and it is implausible that they would not have known a priest would want to know he was blessing a man widely known to be planning to kill himself within days. Kindness and integrity and respect for each person's spiritual journey, not just Mr. Fuller's, demanded that someone inform Fr Dupont of what so many others knew about his impending death and what the journalists present would document. I support Washington's death with dignity law; consistent with that is the fact that I support without reservation Fr Dupont's right to fully informed decision-making about how he too lives his relationship with God and Life, and that appears to have been denied him that day. If that's a true, it was unfair, and it speaks of a lack of Christian charity for a man engaged in Christian charity. I understand those folks perhaps desperately wanting to offer that communal blessing at Mass for their beloved friend; and that doesn't excuse what appears to have been a decision to leave Fr Dupont out of this profoundly important loop. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that this priest, if included in what so many others knew, may have found a way to offer a blessing that day. He doesn't sound like a man lacking wisdom and mercy.

I am sick to death of Catholic "religious freedom" politics in taxpayer funded contexts (quit your taxpayer funded job or, if you run a Catholic adoption agency or family shelter and want to refuse services or family shelter to gay people, quit asking for and accepting all those taxpayer dollars!!). That said, holy Mother of God, if ever there were a legitimate argument for ensuring that each person has the freedom not to participate in that which would violate his religious beliefs, THIS was it. And if anyone would understand the sanctity of fully informed decision-making, I would have thought that folks who support assisted suicide would be at the front of the line.

Crystal Watson
2 months 2 weeks ago

I think the priest had the responsibility to at least speak to the person he was going to bless and make himself aware of the situation before he acted. He's not exactly a victim here. And at the end of the day, what is the horrible harm done? Are we supposed to blessing God was fooled by the priest's accidental blessing?

J Jones
2 months 2 weeks ago

After this, I imagine this apparently generous and spiritually- and emotionally- present priest may draw back and require more information. There would likely be no real harm in that; yet, what a sadness the genesis of such caution would be this painful breach of trust.

Given the description of St Therese, it seems they and Fr Dupont were a wonderful match: each generous and committed to the beauty of a caring community that greets and cares for each child of God so lovingly and demonstrably. (I wish I lived nearby, and I pray they and Fr Dupont will not lose each other; that would be a tragic coda to Mr Fuller's story.)

I don't think God can be tricked, and I don't hear in any of Fr DuPont's responses any concern that God was harmed.

If fully informed decision-making is not extended to and protected for all participants, it ceases to be about human autonomy and dignity; instead, it is reduced, intentionally or not, to mere willfulness and selfishness, and that will corrode every community, Christian or not.

Crystal Watson
2 months 2 weeks ago

I understand the priest is concerned that it will be thought he knowingly went against church teaching, and as he's young and probably hasn't taken his final vows as a Jesuit, maybe there's a worry about his reputation. It's depressing, though, that this is all about putting responsibility on the "bad faith" actions of the man who died, and nothing about the worth of the teaching itself. If life is truly a "gift from God" then the recipients should have the right to do with it as they please.

J Jones
2 months 2 weeks ago

Hi Crystal, I think you hit the nail on the head. When some one or ones (and it seems likely no one will ever know), bypassed Fr DuPont's equal right to fully informed decision making as an autonomous child of God, the focus of this story shifted to one of betrayals. I imagine everyone involved is heartsick over this outcome. It is surely not what anyone intended. In other words, I don't read "bad faith" in this story: I simply read the harm to relationships, trust, dignity and spirit that can result when we violate each other's autonomy.

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