Today Thursday, September 28, it will be eleven months since Bishop Dewane made a decision to place Fr. Christopher on administrative leave, and place our parish, St Isabel parish , Sanibel FL, in a constant state of upset. The initial announcement was marked by confusion, not helped by the Diocesan invitation to the local press to display our pain and suffering on the evening news. With absolutely nothing but what the family of a former parishioner had fed them, the Diocese issued a press release suggesting it was necessary to let the public know what Fr. Christopher had allegedly done, even though they had no proof of any wrongdoing, and even though they were aware the civil case had been dismissed some six months before. Even the press release contained the lie that “it was decided not to prosecute at this time,” implying that they might at a future date. That was categorically not true.
Our confusion morphed into righteous anger when details began to surface. As a Church community, a great number of us knew the former parishioner, and knew her to be a strong-willed woman who would never have allowed herself to be taken advantage of, and who was as fully in control of her faculties as any eighty-year-old person. Many of us had traveled with her, socialized with her, and even visited her and her husband Dick on numerous occasions. She was a woman clearly not suffering from the alleged dementia; she was a woman who clearly had a profound affection for Fr. Christopher, like a mother’s love for her son. Adding to our confusion, the Bishop’s letter to the parish on October 29, 2016, misstated the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, speaking of their investigation in the present tense, as though it had not already ended. The tone of the letter implied guilt, and we who have walked with Fr. Christopher for some fourteen years knew that an egregious mistake was being made. It should have been a moment when the Diocese paused, assessed the potential damage to a priest’s reputation, and analyzed just how destructive this would be to the parish community. But that did not happen.
Several weeks went by before the Diocese finally embarked on its own so-called investigation, interviewing a limited number of parishioners and fabricating accusations against Fr. Christopher which were meant to frighten him into surrendering his priesthood, all the while never speaking to Fr. Christopher directly or seeking his side of the story. It is the assumption of many that the Diocese waited for people to come out of the woodwork, confirming that Fr. Senk had also taken advantage of them too, but that did not happen.
Furthermore, in the two years before October 28, 2016, when an investigation was taking place on the part of the County and the State, the Diocese was in frequent contact with the accusing family and was fully aware of the investigation that Fr. Christopher had no knowledge of. It might have been at this point that the Diocese should have paused, assessed the potential damage to a priest’s reputation, and analyzed just how destructive this would be to the parish community. But that did not happen.
On December 1, 2016, over 500 signed petitions were received by the Bishop’s Office in Venice. The petitions represented over 80% of the active parishioners at St. Isabel, and they politely requested that Fr. Christopher be returned to the parish as pastor, adding that if an investigation was necessary it be “conducted openly, fairly, and in a timely manner.” The broad support of Fr. Christopher by the parish should have given the Diocese pause, but it did not. A short time later over 300 letters were delivered to the Bishop’s Office, all pleading for justice, fairness, and openness in the most personal of ways. There is no evidence that the letters were ever read, but the sheer number of letters should have been a moment for the Diocese to pause, assess the potential damage to a priest’s reputation, and analyze just how destructive pursuing this would be to the parish community. But that did not happen.
The petitions, letters, and letters to the editor published in the local newspaper, unfortunately, had no effect on the Bishop. In fact, those communications unfortunately were received as indications of hostility and animosity toward the Bishop, rather than pleas for openness and fairness. This made Bishop Dewane conclude it was necessary to send his complaints and his request for dismissal of Fr. Christopher to Rome, believing it would be a too much of a hardship to try Fr. Christopher at home in the Diocese. A case was manufactured by the Diocese, using only the civil case, which civil authorities declined to prosecute, and the false information the
family of the former parishioner was so eager to provide. There were no further interviews of parishioners or of people who knew Fr. Christopher; there were no attempts at a resolution at the local level. There was no effort to ever sit with Fr. Christopher and seek the truth. This might have been the moment for the Diocese to pause, assess the potential damage to a priest’s reputation, and analyze just how destructive pursuing this would be to the parish community. But that did not happen.
As members of Parishioners for Justice we are saddened by what has transpired over the last eleven months. We are sad for Fr. Christopher who has suffered much during this time. We are sad for the community of St. Isabel which has been unnecessarily thrust into what can only be described as a state of perpetual upset.
We are sad for the greater Church whose leadership has not only allowed this suffering to happen, but who, in fact, are the actual source of all this suffering. We are proud to be part of PFJ, and while those most threatened by our existence make every effort to portray us as dissidents and trouble-makers, we remain committed to doing what all Christians are called to do – standing up to and confronting injustice. As was stated when PFJ was formed, our purpose “has not been to intimidate or promote hostility toward anyone. We seek to support Fr. Christopher in his defense and, most importantly, in the pursuit of the truth and the justice that will flow from that truth. We also seek to restore the parish community we have supported and loved for so many years.”.
Consistent with our support of Father Christopher, we have send a well-documented dossier that is now in the hands of the Congregation for Clergy in Rome. Our ongoing efforts include personal, prayerful and financial support on Father Chris’s behalf and on behalf of the parish. Should you choose to financially support our efforts seeking the vindication of our pastor your contribution to “Parishioners for Justice”, our mailing address is: P.O.Box 302 , Sanibel FL 33957. Your full support is needed and appreciated! Our efforts are happening, will continue to happen and you will be informed as they happen!
PARISHIONERS FOR JUSTICE
September 28, 2017