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UPDATE ON CALL FOR REMOVAL OF FR. JOSEPH GATES AS BISHOP FRANK DEWANE REFUSES TO COMMENT OR TAKE ACTION ON CRIMINAL DUI CHARGES

As of 9 am on August 15, 2019, nearly two weeks after his arrest, Father Joseph Gates remains in his position as Parochial Vicar at St. Isabel’s Parish on Sanibel Island. Neither he nor Bishop Dewane have made any comment or apology, in public, on the parish or diocese’s websites or on social media. The bishop declined comment even when local media contacted the Diocese’s Communications Office for information for a story on the situation.

The resulting TV segment aired on Ft. Myers ABC and NBC affiliates, provided further details of Father Gates’ reckless behavior, poor judgement and clear violations of the Diocese’s Code for Pastoral Conduct. By refusing to acknowledge demands for Father Gates’ removal – many of which had been made prior to his arrest – Bishop Dewane has failed as a shepherd, compromised the reputation of the parish and the diocese and continued in his authoritarian and habitual disregard for the opinions and needs of the clergy and laity among his flock.

Parishioners at St. Isabel on Sanibel Island Renew Calls

To Bishop to Remove Priest Arrested on DUI Charges

Father Joseph Gates Remains as Parochial Vicar of Church

Despite Calls For His Removal Before Criminal Charges Were Brought

Frank Dewane, Bishop of Venice, Continues to Ignore Issues

Media Contact: Anne Sweeney

Anne Sweeney Public Relations

732-329-6629/732 274-2994

Sanibel Island, FL, August 12 — Members of Parishioners for Justice from St. Isabel Parish on Sanibel Island have renewed their calls to Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, to remove Fr. Joseph Gates from his assignment to the parish. Fr. Gates, 35, was arrested and jailed the night of August 4, 2019 after a breathalyzer test showed alcohol levels of 0.189 and 0.185. Florida’s legal limit is 0.08. He was accompanied by Khristy Scheer, the church’s business manager. The pair stated that they had been attending a “personal social engagement.”

 

Parishioners for Justice, a group of 500 concerned St. Isabel parishioners, issued this statement, noting that Bishop Dewane had ignored all previous requests to remove Father Gates. The bishop continues to evade responsibility for this situation, having taken no action to remove Fr. Gates or to even communicate with the Faithful regarding the criminal charges now pending against him.

“The arrest of Fr. Gates for drunk driving after midnight last Saturday/Sunday is the latest episode confirming his unfitness for the ministry he now holds as Parochial Vicar of St. Isabel’s Church. Local and statewide media report that the car was swerving and nearly hit a fire hydrant. He was driving unsafely and was arrested while pulling into the rectory parking lot, in the company of the woman who serves as his “business manager.” Ft. Myers Channel 2 News reported his highly impaired state, claims that he had only one drink and total failure to pass standard sobriety tests. For a parish priest, joined by a female companion, to engage in excessive drinking only hours before he was expected to celebrate Holy Mass, reflects extraordinarily poor judgment and gives scandal that has seriously shamed the parish and the Church. The bishop has inexcusably ignored prior requests from a large number of parishioners that Fr. Gates be removed. It is now time for Bishop Dewane to act decisively and to immediately remove Father Gates and Mrs. Scheer from their respective positions. Most important, Bishop Dewane must replace Fr. Gates with an experienced and mature priest with demonstrably sound judgment.”

In May, 300 members of St. Isabel’s Parish signed a petition asking Bishop Dewane to replace Father Gates with a more experienced, empathetic and less authoritarian Parochial Vicar. They noted that many parishioners were concerned about the changes in the liturgy instigated by Father Gates that were contrary to the reforms of Vatican II. Father Gates retaliated by removing several members of Parishioners for Justice from their lay ministries. In letters to Bishop Dewane, other parishioners complained of collusion by Father Gates and Ms. Scheer to discourage social gatherings, interfere with parish programs, limit use of parish facilities and even directing staff to photograph parishioners’ cars and license plates while owners were at prayer.

In previous statements PFJ has noted that Fr. Gates does not have the experience, maturity, and judgment to fulfill the challenge of rebuilding the parish community that has been fractured by the suspension of the pastor,Father Christopher Senk.

Several months ago, the leaders of the parish Women’s Guild filed a formal complaint accusing Fr. Gates of treating the women of the parish in a condescending and demeaning manner while constantly interfering in the running of their charitable efforts and refusing to promote their activities. In collusion with Mrs. Scheer, parish meeting facilities were locked when reservations had been made and use of these facilities was made difficult. These actions have resulted in a significant drop in funds raised for charity. The complaint also cited Father Gates’ immaturity and hostility to women. When this letter received no response from the bishop, and immediately after Fr. Gates’ arrest, the Guild again demanded his removal, given the seriousness of the charges and the additional scandal of Father Gates’ apparently inappropriate relationship with the parish office manager, Mrs. Khristy Scheer, who was with him in the car the night of his arrest.

On Friday, August 9, the Bishop issued a long-delayed reply that begged for more time to review the matter. A spokesperson for the Women’s Guild stated that this response was unacceptable, and that the seriousness of the civil charges and of violations of the Diocese’s Code for Pastoral Conduct, clearly demonstrated the urgent need to replace Father Gates.

 

About Parishioners for Justice

 

Parishioners for Justice, a group of 500 committed parishioners, was initially formed in 2016, when Bishop Frank Dewane placed St. Isabel’s pastor, Father Christopher Senk, a highly respected and well-liked priest, on leave from his office without due process or knowledge of the charges against him. The group maintains that Bishop Dewane’s manipulation, prevarication and evasion has been enabled by an indifferent hierarchy and the involvement of the Knott Family of Baltimore who have colluded with Bishop Dewane to falsely accuse Father Senk. In a letter to Father Senk, dated February 23, 2017, Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott wrote “In your case, our system of justice cleared you of all charges, thereby closing the door on all accusations made. It seems our system cleared you but the Church is exerting pressure as though you were found guilty.That is regrettable.”

 

Bishop Dewane subsequently made an effort to remove Father Senk from his ministry. The case is being appealed to the Vatican.

 

For more information please visit our website, http://www.parishionersforjustice.com

Or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/parishionersforjusticefightingforfrchris/.

OUR FIGHT FOR FATHER SENK

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St. Isabel Church on beautiful Sanibel Island has been fighting for the return of its beloved Father Christopher Senk since October 2016. He’s a priest who, after 40 years of devoted and uncontroversial service to the faith, has been accused of soliciting money from a parishioner contended to be of unsound mind.

The only evidence of her unsound mind came from unsupported suggestions of two relatives. We saw the parishioner as a bright and independent woman who was active in our parish and whose generosity extended to Father Senk and others.

The relatives have made many accusations, which have been proven wrong. The police investigation failed to find sufficient evidence against Father Senk and the state decided not to prosecute. In spite of all this, he now finds himself subject to a ruined reputation and unable to practice his faith as a priest.

We are a large group of St. Isabel parishioners who believe in the innocence of our priest and want him back. This site is dedicated to justice for Father Senk.

You can help Father Chris by contributing financially, large or small to the Parishioners for Justice. You can make a check out to the Bank of the Islands, with a memo note indicating Parishioners for Justice, and mail to PO Box 302 Sanibel FL 33957

A BIT OF BACKGROUND

Fr. Christopher Senk has been administrator/pastor of St. Isabel Catholic Church in Sanibel, Florida since April 2003.  In the course of his leadership, the parish experienced the destruction of the church building as a result of Hurricane Charley in 2004 and rebuilding that included a beautiful structure and campus.  Hurricane Charley was a disaster; but parishioners often comment that it was a gift because it led to the prayerful and serene space which serves as a central location for us to practice and express our faith.

During the time of Fr. Christopher’s pastoral leadership, the parish has grown in spirit.  It is a strong community of believers who care for and about each other.  Furthermore, the parish has made great effort in its outreach, supporting the Bishop’s Catholic Faith Appeal by exceeding its goal each year, by efforts by the Women’s Guild and Men’s Society to support various agencies and organizations in the Diocese of Venice who serve the less fortunate and those in need, and by rising to the occasion whenever needs were identified.

During this time, the Bishop of the Diocese of Venice in Florida, Frank Dewane, was a non-issue at St. Isabel.  People throughout the diocese heard of Bishop Dewane’s reputation as a bully and control freak based on incidents reported in the news and on the internet.  Yet none of this impacted St. Isabel parish directly.  The parish continued to grow in faith and in service.  The rare visits by the bishop to the parish to dedicate the rebuilt church or to celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation were greeted with excitement.  He was welcomed cordially as befits an outside dignitary coming to join the community.

During this period there was no animosity toward Bishop Dewane, no rejection of his leadership, and no expressions of lack of confidence in his actions by parishioners.  Fr. Christopher Senk referred to Bishop Dewane simply as the bishop.  He recognized that the bishop is in charge of the diocese, has the right to assess the parish for support, has the right to determine financial elements regarding building projects, has the right to oversee the plans for rebuilding and approving or rejecting elements of building projects as he sees fit.  Fr. Senk, as pastor of the people of St. Isabel Catholic Church, never hinted at a desire to disobey, disrespect, or otherwise undermine Bishop Dewane’s authority.  He always included the prayer for our bishop, mentioning him by name, at the appropriate place in the Canon of the Mass

As might be imagined, the parish was shocked on October 29, 2016 when it was announced at Mass that Fr. Christopher Senk had been placed on leave by Bishop Dewane.  Furthermore, Bishop Dewane had arranged for the media to “greet” the people as they left Mass.  The shaken faces, the tears, and the anger are obvious to anyone who has seen the video that was run on television.  It was a difficult event, a time of hurt, mourning, and disbelief.

In the two-plus years since, the situation has not gotten any better.  Bishop Dewane sent a young inexperienced priest to St. Isabel, a priest who was not even allowed to say Mass on Sunday at the parish where he was previously assigned.  For a spectrum of reasons, this priest is incapable of bringing healing.  At the same time, Bishop Dewane authorized the office staff to undermine all social activities at St. Isabel, denying access to the hall for donuts after Mass, locking the kitchen used for bereavement lunches and other gatherings, even trying to prevent parishioners from praying in the church for their pastor.  The actions of the office staff betray the fact that the desire to heal is absent.

As a consequence of Bishop Frank Dewane’s actions, of the actions of the substitute priest, and the actions of the office staff, a sense of abandonment, bewilderment, and anger has arisen and grown.  This is evident in the letters that have appeared in the Santiva Chronicle, in the Fort Myers News Press, and on this Parishioners for Justice web site.  The depth of this anger is sometimes shocking, but it is palpable.

From this destruction, Parishioners for Justice has arisen as a grass roots activity of over 500 parishioners and visitors to St. Isabel Church.  It has conducted its own investigation regarding the removal of Fr. Christopher and found no justification.  It has hired professionals to gather information and prepare a defense.  It has raised money to defend Fr. Senk on its own volition, recognizing that Fr. Senk is forbidden from participating in fund raising activity or from publicly defending himself.

The purpose of this message is quite simple.  Parishioners for Justice wishes to forestall Bishop Frank Dewane trying to imply that an attitude of hostility toward himself, as evidenced by the heartfelt and strong letters that denounce him, was created by Fr. Christopher Senk.  Such an implication is absolutely false.  We recognize that the letters and sentiments posted on our web site sometimes express raw emotion born from anger.  We do not necessarily share the views of all individuals, but we certainly recognize that in this tense situation people need an outlet.  We wish to clearly and unequivocally declare that the senseless disrespect of Fr. Christopher and of the people of St. Isabel parish by Bishop Dewane and his cast of hired functionaries have created the current and continuing unacceptable situation.  It has become abundantly clear that Bishop Dewane wants nothing less than elimination of Fr. Senk from the priesthood and will use diocesan funds, parish funds, untruths, half-truths, distortions and the simple power of his office to achieve this.  Parishioners for Justice recognizes the difficulty involved in demanding justice for Fr. Senk and for St. Isabel parish.  However, it also recognizes that if caring and Christian people do not stand up for justice and truth, the message of the Gospel is rather empty.