Funerals for criminals and abusers

Carl WilliamsIn the last month Catholic funerals have led to controversy. Many Catholics complained that Carl Williams was allowed burial in a Catholic Church. And some victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church expressed anger that bishops and priests in robes glorified the funeral of a priest who had been charged with sexual abuse of minors, but who died before the case could be brought.

These negative responses to different funerals may reflect a changing understanding of funerals in the Catholic Church, aligning it more closely to the approach of the broader society.

A generation or so ago, Catholic funerals emphasised very strongly the relationship of the dead with God and their salvation in heaven. People prayed that God would forgive their sins and receive them into everlasting life. The funeral liturgy consoled the family by encouraging their hope that the dead person was with God, and by allowing them to experience the solidarity of friends united with them in prayer. The virtues and the human foibles of the dead person may have been mentioned, but not emphasised.

Central to Catholic funerals, too, was the reality of God's judgment. It was not taken for granted that all the dead went to heaven. Furthermore, those who were repentant, but whose lives were sinful, faced a painful spell in purgatory.

Catholic funerals continue to include prayer for the dead, whose relationship to God and life after death remain central. But the mourners pray less that they be forgiven their sins and enjoy eternal life. That is taken for granted. The celebrations focus more on remembering their life, thanking God for the quality of their lives, and consoling the living by recalling the dead person's life. These are important and good things to do.

These changes make Catholic funerals more like non-religious funerals. They also focus on the life of the dead, so reassuring those who grieve them. The central part of funerals is usually the eulogy by friends and family. Eulogies have become more numerous, representing the dead person from as many angles as possible. It is not uncommon for video and audio tapes of the dead person to be played, reminding and committing to memory.

The focus on the life of the dead person makes funerals of notorious malefactors problematic. When all involved in the funeral see themselves as sinners, brought together to pray for God's mercy upon another sinner, it will seem natural that public sinners should have a church funeral which is widely attended.

But if funerals are seen only to commemorate the life of the dead, to praise their virtues, and to commend them to shared memory, those who attend may be seen to endorse the quality of the dead person's life. They come, not just to bury the dead, but to praise them. If the funeral evokes the virtues of a scoundrel whose life was publicly scandalous, those who take part may seem to be complicit in a lie. Church officers who celebrate the funeral or make the church building available may also be seen as reprehensible.

From this perspective it can be even more problematic for bishops and priests to robe for the funeral of a priest charged with sexual abuse. They may already be seen as complicit in praising those whose lives have been scandalous. But in addition, bishops and priests can then be seen as officers of the company whose lax governance allowed the abusive priest to thrive. So if they attend in the regalia of their office, they may be seen to make a public statement that the company looks after its own, and that solidarity with officers of the company matters more than the suffering of those who have been abused within it.

These reflections on Catholic funerals suggest the need for conversation about funerals that addresses two different audiences, a Catholic and a public one. Within the Catholic Church it is important to communicate effectively the Christian understanding of death. Death is not the end, but a point of transition in the continuing relationship with God. Furthermore we die as sinners whom God loves and accepts as companions through Christ's death. These convictions form the canopy under which our affectionate remembering of the dead person's life and our consoling of one another are properly enacted.

From this viewpoint it is inconceivable to deny anyone burial within a Christian church on the grounds of unworthiness. Those who seek to do so confer an undeserved worthiness on themselves, and underestimate God's love for each human being irrespective of their actions.

Christian funerals, however, are also public events that are read in a public language. Christians need to reflect on how funerals for people who are known to have abused their office in the Church will be seen by those without faith, as well as by believers.

Within the Christian community splendid ceremonies with processions of robed bishops and priests may heighten the sense that the dead person is precious in God's eyes and may evoke God's mercy. But those whom a dead priest has abused and the wider society are as likely to see in the celebration an enactment of power and defiance.

In such funerals it may be better to draw on the resources of Catholic liturgy that allow people to gather to seek forgiveness, express grief and pray for conversion. Plain dress, an unornamented church, honest prayers and periods of silence can express respect for the dead person and our shared need of God's mercy. A one-style liturgy does not fit all circumstances.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, carl williams, funerals, child sex abuse, clergy, liturgy, mass, pergatory, heaven, hell



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First there was Peter Norden as the gangsters' chaplain now it is Andrew Hamilton (twice in ES) propagating the case of Carl Williams, photograph and all. These scumbags have sacred church property used as pulpits for other scumbags to eulogise them.

Once the church would allow only a graveside prayer by a priest for a divorced person. When has one seen these priests supporting the families of drug addicts who have been forced into horrific lives by the likes of the scumbags? Never. Peter has left the Jays and Andrew appears the new 'champion'. Just further nails in the Jesuit coffin.

philip | 27 May 2010  

Andrew, an insightful response to both issues. The funeral rites of the church have always been, and necessarily so, developed and celebrated in conjunction with the cultural understandings of death. Our own current rites reflect at least two such understandings (from Graeco/Roman and celtic Christianity), and contemporary Australia is in process of developing a third.

Your provision for the adaptation of forms is a valuable contribution. Its enactment needs to be one part of a piece that includes transparency regarding sexual abuse, a preferential option for the victims, and ongoing respect for sinners (as difficult and challenging as that may be).

Gerard | 27 May 2010  

Very unfair, Philip. This is a reasoned and logical analysis of a complex question. And as for picking on the poor Jays, they like many people in orders, give a great deal of their time and talent to the helpless and weak in society.

You may need to come down off your high horse or you'll fall and break your neck.

Frank | 27 May 2010  

Thank you for an article that can begin and inform much needed conversation between all who contribute to funeral rituals.l

Anne | 27 May 2010  

Thank God for people like Philip.
I used to believe that if only one could explain to a child what the good and right thing to do was then armed with that knowledge the child would do it. Over the years this belief has been sorely tested.

In his last paragraph Andrew suggests very clearly and precisely what might be a better way to draw on the resources of Catholic liturgy to accommodate the different life stories of deceased persons.
And what does Philip do? He misses the whole point of Andrew's article and describes Andrew of propagating the case of Carl Williams.

Just like a child who knows what is the good and right thing to do and yet does the opposite.

Uncle Pat | 27 May 2010  

Thank-you for your thoughtful article Andrew. When I conduct funeral liturgy I am often struck by the contemporary emphasis on the eulogy offered by family and friends. The way we do it in the Anglican Prayer Book service this contribution is followed by a brief reading from scripture and then some sort of homily by the priest.

What to say? One thing I have found is that even reprehensible people, those we know have made victims in this world, even these ones reflect something of the image of God to others. Its important for me to just point that up gently to the congregation. At the same time, as we pray the Our Father, we are reminded to ask forgiveness in the context of extending it.

Most Catholic priests I know will give space in a litugy for silence as some sort of prayer is offered for forgiveness to the deceased. It is a liturgical touch I have used. The best in our catholic liturgy and funeral rites can transcend both the world's judgementalism ( we all hurt others, some of us just do so on a scale that makes the papers), and the kind of sentimentalism at the eulogy which we all know to be cloying and fake, if not damaging. John Powell SJ once wrote "love without honesty is mere sentimentality, and honesty without love is only cruelty".
Thank-you for tackling this issue.

Dave | 27 May 2010  

Thank you to Father Andrew for an article that deals compassionately with difficult cases yet one from which we can all draw as we prepare the funerals of our loved ones, be they saints( rarely) or sinners( mostly).It is good to be reminded that our Rites have riches waiting to be explored and used as the circumstances call for.

Anna | 27 May 2010  

While the content of funerals is an important issue we need to re-think their length as well. A friend of mine went to a non-religious funeral the other day and it went for nearly 3 hours. Another friend went to a Methodist service which went for a similar time. Catholic funerals can often take two hours which to my mind is far too long. I suggest that we limit eulogies to one speaker for 10 minutes and that we focus on the Mass itself.

Paul | 27 May 2010  

When Robert Trimboli was buried from a Catholic church years ago the priest wore purple vestments and chose as the Gospel reading Luke 23:39-43, the account of the thieves who were crucified one each side of Jesus. The reporter who wrote up the funeral in the Sydney Morning Herald was liturgically literate enough to take the points the liturgy was making about sin and its role in the Jesus story. If the community from which the public sinner is buried is liturgically aware even the death of the notorious can be an evangelising moment.

Thanks again Andrew for another thoughtful column.

graham english | 27 May 2010  

Your criticism is understandable, Philip, one minute we are being warned that the end is nigh and we are going to burn for eternity in pools of lava and volcanic ash unless we change our ways, the next, we need more compassion and understanding. However, I think you'll find that despite the grimly comic nature-worshipping, man-hating, gay pride that constantly spews out of Eureka St like an angry volcano, Andrew Hamilton's is actually authentically Catholic in that we have no choice other than to accept man for what he is - a fallen creature - and live within that framework, rather than trying to change human nature for the better to produce a community of saints.

Nathan Socci | 27 May 2010  

Maybe my point is all means have a Christian blessing but not use the precincts of a Catholic Church which houses the blessed sacrament for a place in which other scumbags can get up in the pulpit to eulogise a scumbag who contributed to putting girls and boys on the street to provide for their drug habits.....and then be called good family men. Jesus drove money lenders out of the temple grounds; what would he have done to drug pushers ??

philip | 27 May 2010  

Philip, to call another person a 'scumbag' is to unfortunately condemn yourself. We all need to remember that we rely on God's mercy and compassion. Sometimes we forget that we all have this need. The more I condemn the sinner the more likely I am to fall into sin myself.

AJM | 27 May 2010  

This is a valuable article. Philip - who decides who's a scumbag? What about Tony Abbott with his "refugees can die fo all we care" policy?

Jim Jones | 27 May 2010  

A thought provoking and helpful article. As priests we battle with Funeral Directors who want to shape funerals to their design promoting unhelpful inclusions like powerpoint presentations, symbols of the world rather than faith, extravagance of coffin rather than simplicity, tributes which are endless etc.

Reclaiming funerals as faith expressions and experiences is so important. Funerals are not canonisations!

Maurice Shinnick | 27 May 2010  

Well said Jim.

Denise | 27 May 2010  

Is it any wonder that the public at large and members of the Laity should be outraged over a sumptuous funeral for an abusive priest? Shouldn't there be a presumed, minimal level of decency in protecting the abused from seeing their abuser glorified by priests and bishops in their high vestments? The "Smells and Bells" of the Church just don't cut it in such cases. It surely doesn't make those abused feel any better about their abuser nor the Church for that matter! It only serves to show that "Clericalism" is alive and well in the Holy(?) Roman Catholic Church, and that the high-hatted clerics take care of their own, right up to their standing before our Lord God Almighty. For some reason, I don't think that He'll be very impressed with a pompous funeral and an abusive priest, decked out in vestments, standing before Him. Nor do I think that God Almighty will be impressed with Plenary Indulgences, which members of the Hierarchy might issue with a flurry of a pen! I would love to hear God's laugh should a pedophile priest present one!

JeannieGuzman | 28 May 2010  

Maurice, it might help by doing the eulogies and picture show before the liturgy, and for the presider to sit with the grieving family at this time. You could call these formalities "the Tributes". Then after a quiet time of a minute or two, move into "The Liturgy".

In the homily there's scope to encourage those present to be hopeful and to embrace the sacred rite as being as much about them as the tributes were about the deceased.

Joe Duffy | 28 May 2010  

AJM....Who is to be called a scumbag ??? By their deeds they shall be known.

philip | 28 May 2010  

If anyone wants to eulogize the dead, the Vigil or, especially, the after-burial gathering are the times to do it; eulogies are not permitted at the traditional Requiem Mass. This seems to enrage many people because it's a very common thing in Protestant, secular America, and is, sadly, common at Novus Ordo Masses in some dioceses, but eulogies in a church can (and do) lead to serious problems. The very word, "eulogy," means "high praise" -- but what if the deceased wasn't so wonderful and not so repentant? Should we speak the Truth of the dead by speaking ill of him, or lie, in a church, for the sake of politeness and decorum, thereby endangering souls who hear typical words that intimate the person is most definitely, without a doubt in Heaven, right now, even though they know that he was a philanderer, a cheat, or a thief who may not have repented? Eulogizers are often theologically ignorant, saying things that are simply not consistent with Catholic doctrine or that that lead one to believe that Purgatory and Hell do not exist, etc. In addition, eulogies are often quite personal and quirky, with the deceased having requested in life that secular, sometimes vulgar, music be played to remember them by, and such things as that -- things that are best left for the intimacy of a wake or post-burial gathering, not the liturgy, which is always, by definition, for the public and an act of the Church. Most of all, how can we give "high praise" to an unglorified human being when, in a church, we are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament? Think about this and you will see the Church's wisdom.

trent | 28 May 2010  

Thanks for reminding us of the love and mercy of God. It calls for spiritual maturity to the love and mercy of God in this angle.The expectation of the society is the church to walk with those Christians found to be in need of love and church service, but you realize the cases of the priests whom people think they are condemned. The mercy and love of God has no favorites, the church should be the hand of God in many cases that we have labelled.

Njenga Patrick | 28 May 2010  

Reminds me of my former husbands reaction in the 1960s to funerals in New York for acknowledged Mafia members. He (Catholic) thought that hypocritical & gave it as reason for not attending mass. Obviously it is not a new problem.

kathleen anderson | 31 May 2010  

Kathleen, As a young boy in 1947, I recall seeing the front page photo in the 'Illustrated London News'. It was Al Capone's catafalque in a prominent US church/cathedral. What's new under the sun ?

philip | 31 May 2010  

Useful article here. The problem with the secular attitude to funerals is that it appears to think only the 'worthy' deserve a funeral. In my view this is the combination of a Protestant legacy and a dominant aggressive anti-faith agenda. The Catholic church should not be ashamed to proclaim its traditional values in this crucial area. Every departing soul stands in need of divine mercy and in this respect, the convicted criminal and the society icon are in the same position.

Ann | 01 June 2010  

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