The Case

“Wolves in Shepherd’s Clothing”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

“Wolves in Shepherd’s Clothing” 

At least ten pastors in the Diocese of Venice have written a joint letter to the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, complaining of the maladministration of Bishop Frank Dewane.  According to the allegations raised by his priests Dewane has refused any oversight or transparence of Diocesan finances in violation of Canon Law that requires both a finance board and the consent of the board of Diocesan Consultors on expenses over a given amount.  Even more serious, however, are the charges that Dewane has been verbally abusive to clergy and employees and that he has  “repeatedly ruled those under his authority with intimidation, the use of fear, shaming, bullying and other non-Christian behaviors.” The letter goes on to say that Dewane’s “mean-spirited demeanor with clergy make him impossible to work with.”  The bishop has a reputation among staff and clergy of being a “rageaholic” who intimidates by uncontrollable outbursts of anger.  This may of have worked for him in the corporate world in the days before he was “called” to the priesthood.  (The Bishop worked for NBC and for a subsidiarity of Pepsi in his early 30’s.)  It is not becoming a successor of the Apostles.
One particular case is that of a retired priest from a religious order who lives in a retirement home in the Diocese of Venice.  When the bishop received a letter of complaint that Father had an Obama bumper sticker on his car during the 2012 election, Bishop Dewane called the priest in and demanded that he remove the bumper sticker even though the bishop had no authority over the priest whose membership in a religious order exempts him from the authority of the diocesan bishop.  There are frequent stories of the Bishop’s high-handed and arbitrary use of power.
Bishop Dewane, for his part, dismisses the accusations as non-credible since the authors of the letter refuse to come forward.  A copy of the letter released to the press did not include the names of the authors and when the Papal Nuncio sent Dewane a copy of the letter, the Nuncio also deleted the names of its signers.  The official response from the diocese states
“Bishop Frank J. Dewane and the Diocese of Venice in Florida take seriously all letters of inquiry. However, anonymous letters or unsigned correspondences, as such, in professional circles lack all credibility… This is a clear attempt to maliciously and publicly damage the reputation of Bishop Dewane and the Diocese of Venice.”
Of course the letter was not anonymous or unsigned but the signers asked the Nuncio not to give the bishops their names for fear of retaliation—a fear that, according to several sources in the Diocese of Venice, is well founded.  “The bishop is known to be a frightened and insecure man, even on the edge of paranoia” one priest said.  “Many more priests would have signed the letter but they did not trust that their signatures would remain confidential and Bishop Dewane always gets his pound of flesh.”
One of Dewane’s idiosyncrasies is his instruction that when he comes to a parish, no altar server is to be taller than he.  As he is not a tall man this can be a challenge for a pastor trying to organize a liturgy.  He also does not like women in the sanctuary or participating in an active way as readers or other liturgical ministers.
Dewane was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to be Bishop of Venice in 2006. Along with Robert Finn of Kansas City MO, Robert Morlino of Madison WI, David O’Connell of Trenton NJ, Thomas Paprocki of Springfield IL, Michael Sheridan of Colorado Spring CO, Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix AZ, and Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco CA, Dewane is considered to be among the “old school” bishops who pretty much ignore the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council and rule as petty princes in their own kingdoms.  Unfortunately, about the worst thing that happens to bishops guilty of ineptitude or even the abuse of authority is that they don’t get promoted, leaving a Bishop like Dewane in place for many years to come—many years in which he can hunt down and move in for the kill on those whose complaints have thwarted his rising through the ranks.  Meanwhile clergy morale plummets and the energy of the Church is drained for the lack of effective leadership.
This is not the first time that priests have written the Holy See about the bad leadership being given by their bishop.  A much larger group of clergy appealed to Pope John Paul II about the maladministration of Cardinal Edward Egan, the Archbishop of New York.  The appeal went unanswered.  There is need in the Church today for a serious system of review for bishops to make sure that they have the confidence of their clergy and faithful.  Bishops do not serve at the will of the faithful entrusted to them, but neither should they have some automatic tenure when so many abuse the power entrusted to them.  Of course, we can pray and hope that Pope Francis will give us bishops who embrace his understanding of the Church and share in his openness to the faithful, but it will take several years for him to appoint sufficient bishops to alter the direction of the Church in a sounder ecclesiology.  In the meantime, the bishops who do not “get” Francis’s direction need to be held accountable for their responsibility to be wise and loving shepherds for the flocks entrusted to their care.
We Catholics make much—perhaps too much—of the Apostolic Succession of our bishops: the claim that through the unbroken chain of the laying on of hands, the office of bishop (and by extension, that of priest) can be traced back to the apostles.  But what good is the “Apostolic Succession” if the Gospel the clergy preach is not the same Gospel as the Apostles handed down and if the live they lead are so openly contrary to the Apostolic life.  No, we need better bishops than many of those we have been given these last thirty years or so.

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