This is a copy of a letter that PFJ sent to inform over 400 attendees at the Spring Meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ft. Lauderdale of the abuses being perpetrated by Bishop Dewane and the Diocese of Venice on St. Isabel Parish and its pastor Fr. Christopher
June 8, 2018
In recent decades, the issue of abuse in the Church emerged from the shadows and been recognized publicly as a major failure of not only those individuals directly involved but of Church leadership. The harm caused by inaction to stem abuse is arguably the greatest scandal in the Church in our time. Last week, Pope Francis expressed shame for the Church’s failure to listen to and defend survivors of abuse at the hands of the clergy. He lauded the abuse survivors who, against all hope or painted as discredited, did not retreat from seeking the truth and justice. Pope Francis acknowledged the Church’s shortcomings in not listening to the survivors of abuse.
Pope Francis’ shame in this instance is specifically related to sexual abuse. Indeed, within the Church, the single word “abuse” is colloquially understood to imply “sexual abuse.” This is both appropriate, because that is the form of abuse that is being actively dealt with, but also regrettable, because other forms of abuse exist in the Church. In many cases, the Church seems to be following a similar path in dealing with these other types of abuse as was followed in addressing sexual abuse. Victims of other types of abuse are being ignored, neglected, and/or ridiculed. If this situation is not rectified, Pope Francis or his successor will one day have to proclaim again his shame for the Church’s failure to listen.
With the fervent hope of averting further failure in the Church’s dealings with abuse, we are writing to you with a sense of foreboding to report instances of abuse that may also be developing elsewhere in the Church. Specifically, although anecdotally, we wish to alert you to a range of abuses at St. Isabel Parish in the Diocese of Venice in Florida that have shaken the faith of many and that continue to be ignored despite sincere and prayerful pleas for relief. The abuses span the spectrum of possibilities and include administrative, liturgical, canonical, financial, and personal elements. We briefly enumerate several of these here.
- The pastor of St. Isabel was placed on administrative leave fully two years after an allegation filed with the Ordinary of the Diocese of Venice of unethical financial interaction with a parishioner by the parishioner’s absentee family. In the intervening two years, the Ordinary gave no notice of the allegation to anyone except the civil authorities, not even to the pastor. The investigation by the civil authorities resulted in a declaration by the county sheriff that the pastor was innocent. At that point, the pastor was placed on administrative leave by the Ordinary. The local press was notified of this action even before parishioners were notified, 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. Only after the two-year period, the dismissal of all charges, and his placement of the pastor on administrative leave did the Ordinary begin his own investigation. Even then, prior to investigation, the Ordinary informed the parishioners that the matter would be referred to Rome. If the Ordinary believed that unethical behavior had occurred, he had the obligation both immediately to protect the parishioners by placing the pastor on leave and then begin his own unbiased investigation. Neither obligation was honored. The procedure employed violates Book VII, Part III, Title III of the Code of Canon Law; and it was abusive to both the pastor and to St. Isabel parishioners.
- In violation of GIRM 357, the texts chosen for Sunday Mass at St. Isabel do not always follow the Common Lectionary. Sunday Solemnities have been replaced by texts reflecting the substitute priest’s personal piety. Some individuals who are not in full union with the Church and are required to refrain from receiving Holy Communion themselves not only receive Communion but are assigned to serve as extraordinary ministers of the Sacrament.
- The parish musician was placed in a position by church administration wherein he had no recourse but to resign. At the time of this event, the substitute priest suggested from the altar that the musician’s resignation was a complete surprise. 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.
- Parishioners have been threatened from the altar that if they are unhappy with the priest temporarily assigned to the parish, St. Isabel could be closed. They were told that if they do not like the assigned priest, they should go to churches of other denominations. They have come to the church to pray at time when the church is purported to be open only to find it locked; their license plates are photographed in the church parking lot by staff; prayers for the pastor are not 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 denied.
- Membership on the financial council has been changed to exclude those who wish to monitor church expenditures in favor of weakly associated parishioners specifically selected to do the bidding of the parish staff.
The abuses enumerated here vary in severity, and the list is not comprehensive. However, just as the sexual abuse of individuals may have begun with inappropriate but less severe actions, the unfettered growth of those actions resulted in the greatest Church scandal of our time. Similarly, the abuses of Church law and of sincere and dedicated people enumerated here carry the potential to also develop into a mutated but similar public scandal. Such abuses must not be tolerated or ignored.
To counter the above abuses, over 500 St. Isabel parishioners have joined together in “Parishioners for Justice.” This organization sponsors weekly prayer services for our pastor, draws parishioners together for social events, and strives to inform and interact with the Ordinary about the pressing matters of abuse. Parishioners for Justice has raised over $150K to provide defense for the pastor of St. Isabel and to promote justice. 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 ask that you learn more about the situation at St. Isabel Parish by visiting https://parishionersforjustice.com/ or contacting us at email@example.com. We earnestly pray that we can rely on your interest and support to eliminate all forms of abuse from the life of the Church.
Please remember St. Isabel parish and it parishioners in your prayers.
Respectfully yours in Christ,
Parishioners for Justice