What Should Bishop Frank Dewane Do?
The activities and actions of Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice in Florida need to be closely examined in the context of the current scandals rocking the Church. Bishop Dewane has had a regrettable eleven-year term as bishop with accusations of intimidation, the use of fear, bullying, and improper management of funds. These charges have come throughout his time in Venice from the people he is meant to serve and, extraordinarily, more than four years ago, from ten priests of his diocese who called the situation “intolerable.”
Over the last couple of weeks, revelations have come out, first, about criminal sexual misconduct involving Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington, and, second, in a report about sexual misconduct of over 300 priests in the state of Pennsylvania. Many bishops, including Bishop Dewane, have issued statements deploring the actions of the depraved offenders. Despite the fact that the statements are filled with cliches and boilerplate denunciations, some of their authors are undoubtedly sincere. The motives of others are questionable, perhaps providing responses to the crisis like looters after an earthquake seeking only their own advantage. For example, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, currently the Archbishop of Washington, was cited in the Pennsylvania report for covering up abuse and protecting accused priests while he was the Bishop of Pittsburgh. He had published a letter after the McCarrick revelations expressing shock and sadness at the indiscretions of his predecessor as Archbishop of Washington and asking for prayer. After the Pennsylvania report, Cardinal Wuerl posted a document professing his own innocence on the internet. This document was quickly removed as a backlash developed. The Attorney General of Pennsylvania, in response to the cardinal’s denial, has stated bluntly, “Cardinal Wuerl is not telling the truth… Offering misleading statements now only furthers the cover up.” It is not possible to identify the motives of Cardinal Wuerl that led to his posting, to determine if he was trying to be a force for recovery or was merely a “looter” trying to exploit the situation for his own benefit. On the other hand, it is possible to consider what actions Cardinal Wuerl should take for the well-being of the Church. Voices calling for quick acceptance of his resignation are growing in volume. It seems unlikely that they will be easily quieted.
Bishop Frank Dewane has issued his own letter commenting on the sexual abuse revelations. Here, we would like to consider his comments and, more importantly, suggest what actions Bishop Dewane might take to promote healing in the Church at large and in his diocese.
In the letter he issued following the Pennsylvania report, Bishop Frank Dewane expressed his sorrow over the sexual abuse situation. However, his collection of words requires examination in light of his present actions and his history of actions as a bishop. Bishop Dewane’s record raises questions as to the motivation behind the words in his letter. Bishop Dewane must be held accountable. He can no longer be allowed to preside over the Diocese of Venice behind a wall of silence where he shuns his obligation to be responsive to people who raise legitimate concerns about his actions and the actions of his operatives in the diocese. We can identify a small sampling of reasons for concern about Bishop Dewane and his motives.
- Bishop Dewane has worked closely on two small committees with former-Cardinal McCarrick. When the McCarrick story broke, the National Catholic Reporter published a picture of the Cardinal with Bishop Dewane. That picture was subsequently posted on the Diocese of Venice website. However, a few hours later the picture had been replaced by one of Cardinal McCarrick by himself. One might assume that the change was quickly made because of concerns of Bishop Dewane that he might be painted with the same brush as McCarrick. Maybe Bishop Dewane was worried that insights he may have gained in his work with McCarrick, but kept to himself, might be identified as part of the reason McCarrick was able to carry on his predatory ways, In any event, it is clear that swift action was taken to scrub a juxtaposed picture of Frank Dewane with Cardinal McCarrick.
- In 2011, a priest of the Diocese of Venice was accused of asking inappropriate sexual questions of ninth and tenth grade girls, but not boys, during confession. Bishop Dewane quickly used his “power and position” to have the teacher who made the accusations fired and summarily dismissed the charges. The priest in question was Bishop Dewane’s diocesan director of vocations, responsible for presenting the priesthood to impressionable young men interested in religious life. There is no indication that the charges against the priest were examined diligently and objectively. In a similar case in Nebraska, the priest in question was suspended from ministry. Subsequent to Bishop Dewane’s questionable handling of the confessional case, the teacher who sounded the alarm and was fired sued Bishop Dewane and the Diocese. The case languished in the courts for almost four years. Records of the Florida Second District Court of Appeals show that the case was “destroyed” on February 20, 2015; the records were sealed. No information can be obtained as to how the case was settled or the cost to the Diocese of Venice. Bishop Dewane has stonewalled the facts. This is unacceptable.
- A priest of the Diocese of St. Petersburg was heavily criticized by parents for questioning their 7th and 8th grade children in 2010 about sexual matters under the secrecy of the confessional. The priest in question had previously run afoul of the law having been accused of aggressively shaking a seminarian, been arrested for DUI, and been charged with unpaid taxes by the IRS. This very same priest, with claims against him similar to those against the priest of the Diocese of Venice, was “imported” by Bishop Dewane to serve as his judicial vicar and advisor on canon law matters. It is surprising and confusing that Bishop Dewane would make use of an individual with a personal sketchy past to advise him on important matters of abuse and canon law.
- Bishop Frank Dewane has settled many legal claims against the Diocese of Venice and him personally by making use of non-disclosure agreements to silence claimants. He has also used non-disclosure agreements while ridding himself of individuals who had the temerity to hold opinions differing from his. All non-disclosure agreements should be rescinded, as was done in the Diocese of Newark in regard to Cardinal McCarrick. Non-disclosure agreements crafted to avoid transparency and to hide the actions of Bishop Dewane from public scrutiny do not serve the people of the Diocese of Venice who deserve factual information about the actions of their bishop and about how funds they have contributed to the Church are being dissipated.
- The financial dealings of the Diocese of Venice proceed under a cloud of obfuscation. Bishop Dewane has an annual appeal. He does not disclose the goals of this appeal. He does not disclose how much is raised in the appeal or how the funds raised are spent. He does not disclose the expenditures for his land holdings, including the 17 acre estate in Sarasota where he chooses to reside. He does not disclose the amount of money he spends each year on legal advice and on actions against those he prefers to marginalize or silence. For trust in the dealings of the Diocese of Venice to be developed, Bishop Dewane should account for all his financial dealings and his use of the resources provided to him by the faithful.
Very few believe that the disclosures about former-Cardinal McCarrick and the events that took place in Pennsylvania constitute the total story of abuse in the Church. There will be digging. The states of Missouri and Illinois have already launched investigations. Questions such as those raised above concerning Bishop Dewane may not receive attention as long as the press is titillated by sexual abuse. But the questions will come. In fact the questions have previously been asked by the people of the Diocese of Venice. The response to these questions by Bishop Dewane has been a deafening silence.
Bishop Dewane suggests in his letter that he will do personal penance in reparation for the grave sins of others, those named in the Pennsylvania scandal. He does not state that he will do penance in reparation for his own sins. He does not indicate what his penance will be. It seems it will be done in private, which is the place where abuses occur. Bishop Dewane might instead do personal and public penance. He can forego the trappings of his office, the chauffeured car, his public relations people, his virtually unlimited entertainment budget, his use of resources to suppress those who challenge his ways, his ability to surround himself by those who do his bidding because he has power and money. Bishop Dewane can act. He can do what is right. He can put behind him the absolute authoritarianism, outbursts of rage, use of blasphemous language, and despotic demands based not on reason or logic. He can do personal and public penance for his own failings as well as for the public revelations of the failings of the Church hierarchy to care for the most vulnerable. Bishop Frank Dewane can do one thing for the well-being of the Diocese of Venice and for the Roman Catholic Church that will make his claims of sorrow and pain be seen as more than words. Bishop Frank Dewane can resign.
In his letter of reaction to the Pennsylvania revelations, Bishop Dewane offers a prayer to Mary, Mother of the Church. One line from that prayer is, “Make us more attentive to the cries of those who suffer abuse and help us show true contrition for our failures.” The call for all people to be more attentive to the abused and to all forms of abuse that we may inflict on others is needed at this time. We all must show true contrition for our failures. Bishop Dewane can be a leader in demonstrating contrition. Bishop Frank Dewane can demonstrate true contrition for his failures. Bishop Frank Dewane must resign.