The group of 500 Catholic laity from St. Isabel’s Parish on Sanibel Island was formed in 2016 to protest the bishop’s dismissal of their pastor, Father Christopher Senk,without cause or due process. Since then, they have raised over $250,000 to support Father Senk’s legal defense and to protest a growing number of questionable actions by Bishop Dewane.
The letter notes that while clerical sexual abuse and the Church’s failure to address it is “arguably the greatest scandal in the Church in our time,” there are other forms of abuse that can be equally harmful. Parishioners for Justice cites an alleged range of abuses of authority at St. Isabel Parish in the Diocese of Venice “that have shaken the faith of many and that continue to be ignored despite sincere and prayerful pleas for relief.”
According to Parishioners for Justice, the abuses include administrative, liturgical, canonical, financial, and personal elements. The letter sent to the attending bishops provides an overview of only some of the issues involved, supported by extensive documentation and references to parts of Canon Law that have been violated. Issues of concern include the following:
1. The pastor of St. Isabel was placed on administrative leave fully two years after the absentee family of an elderly parishioner filed an allegation with the Diocese of Venice, accusing the pastor of unethical financial interactions with their relative. In the intervening two years, the bishop gave no notice of the allegation. An investigation by the civil authorities, initiated by the absentee family, resulted in a declaration by the county sheriff that the pastor was innocent, that there was a lack of evidence even to issue an arrest warrant, much less prosecute. A full six months later, the pastor was placed on administrative leave by the bishop. He was given only a few hours to collect his things and leave his home and is forbidden to preach or say Mass publicly. The local press was notified of this action by the diocese even before parishioners were told, seemingly to maximize embarrassment to the pastor and harm to the parish community. Those shocked by the announcement at a Saturday evening Mass exited the church to encounter media cameras and microphones.
The Bishop commenced his investigation after placing the pastor on administrative leave. No parishioners were ever interviewed by the civil authorities in their investigation.Those parishioners interviewed by the Bishop's investigator were few, even though they knew the member of the absentee family well. Prior to completing his investigation, the Bishop informed the parishioners that the matter would be referred to Rome. If the bishop believed that unethical behavior had occurred, he had the obligation both to immediately protect the parishioners by placing the pastor on leave at the time he first learned of the accusation and then begin his own unbiased investigation. Neither obligation was honored.
The bishop or his delegates have taken a number of arbitrary and destructive actions against various diocesan employees. The health insurance of the parish nurse was terminated two days before a previously scheduled operation and prior to being notified that her contract was being terminated.
The bishop replaced a much-loved and effective pastor with a young, inexperienced priest who has made liturgical changes that are contradictory to the reforms of Vatican II.
Parishioners have been threatened from the altar that if they are unhappy with this new priest, they could go elsewhere and even stated that St. Isabel could be closed; their license plates are photographed in the church parking lot by staff; prayers for the pastor are no longer included in liturgical celebrations and are actively discouraged; lights are turned out, and the microphone is turned off in the middle of prayer gatherings; access to the facilities for church social gatherings and bereavement lunches has been restricted.
Membership on the financial council has been changed to exclude those who wish to monitor church expenditures in favor of parishioners specifically selected to do the bidding of the parish staff and parishioners otherwise inactive at the parish.
Parishioners for Justice has met twice with Bishop Dewane to discuss these issues – to no avail. Repeated pleas to Rome by Parishioners for Justice are seldom even acknowledged, much less answered.
"Abuse takes many forms and that abuse of power can be as detrimental to the Church and the Faithful, as sexual abuse.”
-Bob Kern, Parishioners for Justice
We are trying to show that abuse takes many forms and that abuse of power can be as detrimental to the Church and the Faithful, as sexual abuse,” says Bob Kern, one of the founders of Parishioners for Justice. Mr. Kern also notes that the list of issues is not comprehensive and that Bishop Dewane’s administration has been marked by numerous vendettas, disrespectful language and outbursts of uncontrolled rage directed to situations and persons other than those at St. Isabel.
Just as sexual abuse has devastated the Church, driving away thousands of Catholics worldwide from the Vatican, the abuses of Church law and of sincere and dedicated people carry the potential to also develop into a similar public scandal, according to Parishioners for Justice. “Such abuses must not be tolerated or ignored,’ Mr. Kern affirms.
The letter closes with a commitment to finding justice for the pastor and the parish and a plea to America’s Hierarchy to investigate the situation and to provide guidance to all concerned in seeking a peaceful resolution.
“We are convinced that abuse and injustice in all their forms infect the Church to its detriment. Although we would prefer to spend the funds raised on acts of charity, we profess solidarity with the victims of sexual abuse who would not back down in their search for truth, despite failure of the Church hierarchy to listen. We will not back down from exposing the abuse we have encountered and been subjected to. A committee of parishioners of St. Isabel has met with the Ordinary of the Diocese of Venice in Florida twice, seeking to restore integrity and to have the instances of abuse resolved. These efforts have been met with disinterest and inaction as the abuse metastasizes. We earnestly pray that we can rely on our bishops to eliminate all forms of abuse from the life of the Church."
To learn more about the situation at St. Isabel Parish,