April 26, 2017
The letter from Susan Laielli to the Santiva Chronicle regarding the disagreement between Bishop Frank Dewane and the people of St. Isabel Catholic Church is, at best, misleading; but it is useful in that it provides us with an opportunity to address some of the facts of the situation. We note that Ms. Laielli is the Director of Communications for the Diocese of Venice in Florida. Thus, she has been hired to issue information about the diocese placing it in a favorable light. In her job, she serves as the bishop’s mouthpiece and provides his perspective. We observe that Ms. Laielli has provided her employment information in this letter, in contrast to a previous letter of hers that appeared in the Fort Myers News-Press where she failed to identify her responsibility to speak well of Bishop Dewane. On the other hand, we must surmise that Ms. Laielli’s letter is based on information or misinformation provided to her by Bishop Dewane. It thus lacks the credibility of a person directly knowledgeable of and impacted by the facts. Of course, this also provides an element of deniability for the bishop who can disassociate himself from any elements of the letter that he might choose. Unfortunately, Ms. Laielli’s letter is misleading at some points and is certifiably false at other points. Nevertheless, this is the missive the Diocese of Venice in Florida has provided. It is the letter that can be considered by those seeking to understand the facts of the situation at St. Isabel. Here we provide our assessment of the letter.
One overarching element of Ms. Laielli’s letter is the need for confidentiality in the face of an investigation into a serious matter. This situation has been grossly misrepresented. We agree that when an individual has been charged in a serious matter, he or she has a right to be treated with respect and dignity, and without prejudice, until the matter is resolved. This is essential to the welfare of the individual, especially in the face of false charges; and it places some limits on communication. Ms. Laielli states that a letter was written to parishioners when the administrative leave was initiated. This is true. Fr. Senk was notified of his leave on Friday, October 28, 2016. Letters to parishioners from Bishop Dewane arrived later the following week. However, on Saturday, October 29 at the weekend Mass, parishioners were first blindsided by the news that Fr. Senk had been placed on administrative leave. Bishop Dewane saw fit to inform the press of this fact via press release, clearly before the parish had been informed, so that the stunned parishioners were greeted on leaving Mass by microphones, cameras, and reporters trying to sensationalize a sad and difficult situation. Bishop Dewane saw fit to impose leave on Fr. Senk in a way calculated both to cause him maximum embarrassment and to maximize the hurt of the people, in a gross violation of what Ms. Laielli refers to as “the legitimate need to be cautious in public comments during an ongoing canonical process.” At the moment Fr. Senk was placed on leave, he was barred by Bishop Dewane from making any public comment himself or through an intermediary; he was banned from the grounds of the parish he had served; and he was separated from his possessions. Fr. Senk was deliberately placed in a position where his silence might be interpreted by a casual observer as tacit agreement with the reckless public comments released by Bishop Dewane to the court of public opinion at the onset of the canonical process. It is ironic that Ms. Laielli claims hesitancy to engage with parishioners through the media while Bishop Dewane has manipulated the media by his method of engagement. Even Ms. Laielli, without identifying herself as an agent of Bishop Dewane, engaged the media through her letter to the Fort Myers News-Press. The principle of careful communication is appropriate. Invoking this principle, then twisting it so that it is imposed on Fr. Senk by requiring his silence and manipulated by Bishop Dewane as he chooses is reprehensible. One must conclude that in claiming “some may never appreciate the legitimate need to be cautious in public comments during an ongoing canonical process,” she is including Bishop Frank Dewane.
We agree, at least to some degree, with Ms. Laielli that resolution of the current matter cannot be accomplished most effectively through the press. However, the total failure of Bishop Frank Dewane to engage in meaningful and sincere dialog, in public or private, leaves injured parties with few avenues for resolution of the situation. We contact the press to explain our suffering, to implore justice, and to seek relief from so many aspects of this dreadful situation. Our private letters directly to the bishop are ignored. We wonder if he can be moved by public outcry. Bishop Dewane could put an end to our use of the press by acting forthrightly with courage, honesty, compassion, and justice.
Ms. Laielli has listed eight bullet points claimed to support the notion that Bishop Dewane has acted pastorally. These deserve to be parsed and commented upon and are discussed here in order.
- The letter written to parishioners when the administrative leave for Fr. Senk was initiated was timed such that it would reach parishioners only after they had been shocked by the news at weekend Masses and only after the press had been previously and directly notified in a manner timed by Bishop Dewane to sensationalize coverage.
- The memorandum sent to the Finance Council was one-way communication, and it did not reach all members of the Council. Canon law requires that the pastor be present at Finance Council meetings. Because the pastor has been barred from the parish grounds, there have been no Finance Council meetings and the costs associated with Bishop Dewane’s actions that have been assessed to the parish as well as spending habits of the visiting priest are unknown and unchecked.
- Numerous responses from Bishop Dewane have been sent to those composing personal communications. Therefore, obviously, numerous personally composed letters and e-mails have been sent to Bishop Dewane. His responses have not dealt with issues but have been boiler plate responses that do not relieve any angst or concerns, do not directly address issues in the letters, and do not reveal that he has even read or considered the content of the letters.
- Bishop Frank Dewane indeed signed a letter to St. Isabel parish dated January 17, 2017. This letter correctly notes that Fr. Senk was found innocent in a criminal investigation. However, the letter incorrectly claims that Bishop Dewane undertook an investigation prior to suspending Fr. Christopher. Indeed, this letter of January 17 states that the matter will be sent to Rome; and yet, even now three months later, Bishop Dewane and his staff have not concluded their investigation. Thus this letter reveals that guilt has been imputed on Fr. Christopher without thorough investigation.
- The claim is made that the Diocese answered media requests when appropriate. Evidence indicates that Bishop Dewane initiated contact with the media on October 29, 2016 to inform the media of his actions. Bishop Dewane also apparently instructed Ms. Laielli to write a letter concerning the situation with Fr. Senk to the Fort Myers News-Press (surreptitiously, without disclosing her affiliation with the Diocese of Venice) and now to the Santiva Chronicle. Apparently these are deemed to be “appropriate.” Of course, the Diocese also contacts the media when appropriate in regard to other matters not of relevance to the current matter and even operates its own newspaper.
- As far as can be determined, by asking parishioners, Bishop Dewane has not made personal visits to the parish. He did make one unannounced visit and dropped in on a meeting of the temporary administrator with the two parishioners who lead the Women’s Guild and Men’s Society. There is no indication of a meeting of Bishop Dewane with any other parishioners. Bishop Dewane’s staff did meet with a slate of parish leaders whom they selected. Characterizing a single personal visit to the parish grounds and interviews with a handful of selected parishioners by his investigational staff as “personal visits” is disingenuous.
- Claiming communication of Bishop Dewane with the acting administrator and support staff of the parish is worth noting. Presumably, this mean that the bishop is claiming responsibility for, among other indignities:
- parishioners being threatened by the administrator from the altar with closure of the parish if he was not received warmly;
- parishioners being told by the administrator that if they did not like what was happening, they should go to other churches;
- parishioners being told that they could not hold prayer services for Fr. Senk in the church as prayer was “unnecessary” (parishioners refused to accept this dictum after holding one prayer service in the parking lot and have gathered in prayer despite the fact that the lights and sound system are turned off, sometimes in the middle of the services);
- the temporary administrator accusing those who have spoken in defense of Fr. Senk as dividing the parish;
- criticizing parishioners from the altar because of decreased contributions that are taxed by Bishop Dewane for his agenda;
- a policy being invoked that no parish groups could meet without the full agenda and indication of what would be said being approved beforehand;
- banning social time involving coffee and donuts in the church hall following Sunday Mass;
- parish staff interrupting meetings stating that the situation regarding Fr. Christopher could not be discussed;
- the parish staff denying access to the parish hall for social gatherings; and
- the parish staff denying access to the parish hall kitchen for preparation of food for bereavement luncheons, interfaith gatherings, and other social events;
These, and other degrading actions that have resulted from the communication of Bishop Dewane with the temporary administrator and the parish staff have served primarily to steel members of the parish community to resist the injustices being inflicted upon Fr. Senk and the people who have worked so hard with him to build a magnificent facility and strong community of faith.
- Indeed, Bishop Dewane sent Easter cards to some subset of the people who regularly attend St. Isabel. This card stated that Bishop Dewane would remember recipients and their loved ones at Easter Mass. This is a nice gesture and likely would have been received warmly under different circumstances. Similar cards were not sent to parishioners of other parishes in the Diocese of Venice. Rightly or wrongly, this raises suspicion as to whether this was a sincere gesture by Bishop Dewane or merely an attempt to manipulate the situation at St. Isabel. We most certainly appreciate being prayed for, but we are reminded of an insight by Michael Stark:
Prayer is action. And prayer needs to lead to further outward action with the focus on alleviating hurt and suppressing evil. I’m reminded of a recent quote from Pope Francis, who said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” In Matthew 25:35, Jesus says, “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in.” Prayer is accompanied by care, care for those who are hurting and oppressed, for those lost and weary. … The world is growing weary over our isolated prayers. … If we pray without action, we aren’t really praying.
As far as communications to parishioners other than cookie cutter responses to their letters and the Easter cards, we have been unable to identify “other communications” to parishioners other than appeals for financial contributions to the Bishop for the Diocese.
Despite the intransigence of Bishop Frank Dewane, we remain committed to seek justice for our beloved pastor, Father Christopher Senk by whatever means we hope will be successful. The letter from Ms. Laielli in support of her employer closes by commenting on the need for facts to be accurately conveyed to those who may not be privy to what is going on in the parish. With due respect, we wonder about her sources of information about the facts of this matter. In the meantime, the parishioners of St. Isabel and most importantly our pastor, Fr. Christopher Senk, continue to suffer at the hands of Bishop Frank Dewane who has blind-sided us by his actions and refuses to heed the calls of Pope Francis for mercy, compassion, and justice. We shall not be deterred in our quest for justice.
Parishioners for Justice