THE SERIOUS PROBLEM OF EPISCOPAL ACCOUNTABILITY
It was impossible to read the reports that came out of Rome during the unprecedented Summit for the protection of minors without hoping that the Church will come to the broader understanding that abuses of power of any kind are evil, and need to be confronted as seriously as we confront the abuse that harms children and young adults. Regrettably, bishops can behave as kings (or worse, as tyrants) in their own territory, and the lack of any real oversight can allow poorly chosen bishops to rule like an autocrat, dictator, or despot. Without a proper understanding of his role as Shepherd, a bishop is free to structure his diocese in such a way that there are no checks or balances on his authority, and he is capable of surrounding himself with only the people who tell him what he wants to hear.
The Church’s Canon Law tells us that candidates for bishop “must enjoy a good reputation; that is, the candidate must be outstanding in faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, prudence, wisdom and virtue. Lastly, he must possess a doctorate or licentiate in scripture, theology or canon law” (Can. 378). As would be expected, Canon Law also declares that “the bishop is to show special solicitude for his priests and deacons and listen to them as counselors” (Can. 384), while still promoting “the holiness of the faithful not only through teaching but by the charitable and simple humility of their personal lives” (Can. 387). It is, sadly, safe to say that there are many who possess the title of bishop who would not easily be identified in Canon Law’s description. Many bishops seem to be the result of an unhealthy system of patronage in the Church, a system that elevated some to the episcopacy as a sign of gratitude for a ‘job well done,’ or as a confirmation that one’s thinking matched the thinking of other members of the ‘club.’
One of the most regrettable aspects of the Theodore McCarrick case was that we were able to view a high-ranking prelate’s persistent and deeply immoral behavior pose no obstacle to his work as bishop. In spite of countless “rumors” during his decades long career as a prominent churchman, McCarrick was not only allowed to function as a priest, but he was promoted to bishop, archbishop, and cardinal, something that Canon Law would have us believe is only possible for those of outstanding “faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, prudence, wisdom and virtue” (Can. 378). It is certainly fair to ask how this could happen, and the simplest answer to a not-so-simple question just might be found in the lack of any real oversight for bishops.
The problem of a lack of episcopal oversight was addressed by Cardinal Blase Cupich from Chicago at the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and spoken of again at the February Summit in Rome. Although most of the discussions about this problem were specifically connected to the central issue of sexual abuse of minors, it was clear to all that the fundamental lack of any oversight of bishops is a grave problem for the church. At the Leadership Roundtable’s Catholic Partnership Summit which preceded the Vatican Summit, many of the prominent clergy and lay people assembled believed that clericalism and a lack of transparency, accountability, and co-responsible governance are among the root causes of the Church’s current plight. At the Summit, Cardinal Cupich called for a new structure for investigating bishops who are themselves abusers, and we would contend that it should apply to abuses of all kinds.
The Cardinal’s plan, sometimes referred to in the press as the Metropolitan Plan, would empower the regional metropolitan archbishops (most influential senior bishop in a particular geographic area) to take charge of abuse investigations of other bishops. “As it stands now,” writes Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J. in a recent issue of NCR, “investigating bishops is normally the responsibility of the Congregation for Bishops, which is neither staffed nor equipped to do serious investigations. In addition, this is the same body that is responsible for the appointment of bishops, meaning that any finding of guilt against a bishop would be an admission that it made a mistake in appointing him in the first place. Thus, there is a built-in conflict of interest in any investigation.”
The possible conflict of interest is precisely why the metropolitan archbishop must be joined with “broad lay participation,” other competent lay men and women who would be capable of fairly assessing any allegations made against a bishop. In his address at the Roman summit, Cupich stated that “this past year has taught us that the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible are due in large measure to flaws in the way we interact and communicate with each other in the college of bishops in union with the successor of Peter.” Dealing with bishops’ abuse or negligence of any kind is one of the most serious issues facing the Church.
An example of episcopal abuse is clearly seen in the actions of Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice in Florida. Although the abuse of Bishop Dewane is not sexual in nature, it is, nevertheless, serious. It would be wrong to make any odious comparisons of the situation at St. Isabel Parish in Sanibel with that of those who have suffered sexual abuse by clerics or religious persons of any kind. The shame and pain they have endured is without equal. But it is fair to say that the pain and suffering endured by Fr. Christopher and so many of the parishioners of St. Isabel is the result of an extraordinary abuse of power by the local bishop, an abuse that, sadly is not unprecedented. Little that has been done over the last thirty months has been necessary, fair, just, or according to the law of the church. The following points are made as evidence of an outrageous abuse of authority by Bishop Dewane.
~ For two years Bishop Dewane was aware of and cooperating with a civil investigation that was initiated by the family of Marion Knott McIntyre, and yet he never once spoke to Fr. Christopher with the intention of discerning the truth about their false accusations. Bishop Dewane ignored the “special solicitude” that Canon Law (384) suggests bishops should show toward their priests.
~ During the nearly two years of a civil investigation, Bishop Dewane ignored Canon Law by failing to initiate a private investigation into Fr. Christopher’s ministry to determine the truth or falsehood of the Knott family’s accusations.
~ By not speaking to Fr. Christopher, while speaking with the members of the Knott family numerous times, Bishop Dewane can justifiably be accused of undue influence.
~ The damage to Fr. Christopher’s reputation and the destruction of the parish community would never have happened if Bishop Dewane had done due diligence by simply having an honest conversation with Fr. Christopher and Marion McIntyre. There were numerous opportunities for such a meeting to happen in the two years before October 28, 2016.
~ If truly convinced that Fr. Christopher was guilty, Bishop Dewane was derelict in his duty to protect the faithful by not immediately removing Fr. Christopher from his role as pastor as soon as he arrived at that conclusion.
~ Bishop Dewane clearly ignored Canon Law (Can. 1717) when he refused to “carefully inquire personally or through another suitable person about the facts, circumstances, and imputability” about the allegations leveled against Fr. Christopher.
~ With no Diocesan investigation at all, Bishop Dewane excluded Fr. Christopher from his “sacred ministry,” his office of “pastor,” his “ecclesiastical function,” and forbade him “residence” in the Church’s rectory (Can. 1722), separating him from the bulk of his worldly possessions. There was never any “special solicitude” shown to Fr. Christopher.
~ Bishop Dewane took no care to “protect the good name” (Can. 1717:2) of Fr. Christopher when he coordinated the release of negative information to the press less than twenty-four hours after Fr. Christopher first learned of the investigation, even though the civil investigation had ended six months before, finding Fr. Christopher not guilty of exploiting a vulnerable adult.
~ Bishop Dewane has suggested that Fr. Christopher enjoyed a “presumption of innocence.” Yet the paperwork for Fr. Christopher to renounce his priesthood was prepared in advance of the October 28th meeting, and Fr. Christopher was asked to sign the paperwork only moments after learning of the civil investigation and its allegations. From the very start, with no investigation of his own, Bishop Dewane sought the most serious punishment possible for a Catholic priest. Fr. Christopher never enjoyed a “presumption of innocence.”
~ Bishop Dewane and his Judicial Vicar disseminated false information on numerous occasions in a blatant attempt to bully Fr. Christopher into surrendering. Indeed, the bishop’s letter of January 17, 2017, to the St. Isabel congregation, a letter that unnecesssarily continues to greet visitors to the parish website, continues to state and say things that are categorically not true.
~ Bishop Dewane frequently hides behind a feigned concern for Fr. Christopher’s privacy, stating numerous times that he possesses information others don’t. Bishop Dewane’s frequent and harmful references to “other things” and “serious matters” is unconscionable, especially in a climate when it is easy for people to imagine the most heinous of crimes.
~ A recent letter sent by the diocesan civil attorney to members of the church’s Finance Council restating unsubstantiated and false accusations appears to be another attempt by Bishop Dewane to destroy Fr. Christopher’s reputation and weaken the support of Fr. Christopher’s parish family. That letter from the Diocesan civil attorney was never solicited, and yet pretended to be answering a request for information. The letter was a malicious attempt by the Diocese to further destroy Fr. Christopher’s reputation.
~ In spite of an empty pledge of transparency at the beginning of this lengthy process, Bishop Dewane refused the requests of Fr. Christopher’s advocate to review the details of the case sent to Rome, something that is customarily done. Furthermore, the Bishop refused to comply with a request from the Vatican Congregation for Clergy demanding that the bishop share the details of the case with Fr. Christopher and his advocate. To date, Fr. Christopher and his advocate have never had the details of the case that was sent to Rome shared with them.
~ Canon 383 states that “in exercising the function of a pastor, a diocesan bishop is to show himself concerned for all the Christian faithful entrusted to his care, of whatever age, condition, or nationality they are.” Bishop Dewane has shown no concern for the faithful of St. Isabel Church, many of whom asked countless times for the Bishop to come and meet with them. The bishop’s management decisions with regards St. Isabel Church have caused great harm to a significant portion of the parish population. Not only has he made no effort to heal the parish, but he seems thoroughly unconcerned that a significant number of the Catholic population of Sanibel are leaving the faith on account of his actions.
Because of the abusive behavior of Bishop Frank Dewane, it is important that the Church exercise its responsibilities as outlined in Canon Law to protect the well-being of the people and clergy of the
Diocese of Venice in Florida. As a step in demonstrating that the Church is serious in accepting its responsibility to curb all forms of abuse, an Apostolic Visit from Rome to the Diocese of Venice in Florida should occur in order to assess the great harm done to so many. Without due cause, Bishop Dewane has stolen three years of a good priest’s life, and has sat idle while the once thriving parish of St. Isabel fractures and disintegrates. His callous decision to place an unseasoned and insensitive priest to act as the temporary administrator of a church in pain, and his enabling of that priest to make substantive changes to the church of St. Isabel while Fr. Christopher Senk remains the pastor, also dramatically demonstrates his lack of concern “for the faithful entrusted to his care.” While there are numerous problems facing the Church today, good Catholics sincerely hope that Holy Mother Church will act as a tender mother of all, caring for all the faithful by creating structures within the Church which will hold bishops accountable for abuses of all kinds.