Parishioners at St. Isabel on Sanibel Island Renew Calls
To Bishop Dewane to Remove Priest Arrested on DUI Charges
Father Joseph Gates Remains as Parochial Vicar of Church
Despite Calls For His Removal Before Criminal Charges Were Brought
Frank Dewane, Bishop of Venice, Continues to Ignore Issues
Media Contact: Anne Sweeney
Anne Sweeney Public Relations
Sanibel Island, FL, August 12 — Members of Parishioners for Justice from St. Isabel Parish on Sanibel Island have renewed their calls to Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, to remove Fr. Joseph Gates from his assignment to the parish. Fr. Gates, 35, was arrested and jailed the night of August 4, 2019 after a breathalyzer test showed alcohol levels of 0.189 and 0.185. Florida’s legal limit is 0.08. He was accompanied by Khristy Scheer, the church’s business manager. The pair stated that they had been attending a “personal social engagement.”
Parishioners for Justice, a group of 500 concerned St. Isabel parishioners. issued this statement, noting that Bishop Dewane had ignored all previous requests to remove Father Gates. The bishop continues to evade responsibility for this situation, having taken no action to remove Fr. Gates or to even communicate with the Faithful regarding the criminal charges now pending against him.
“The arrest of Fr. Gates for drunk driving after midnight last Saturday/Sunday is the latest episode confirming his unfitness for the ministry he now holds as Parochial Vicar of St. Isabel’s Church. Local and statewide media report that the car was swerving and nearly hit a fire hydrant. He was driving unsafely and was arrested while pulling into the rectory parking lot, in the company of the woman who serves as his “business manager.” Ft. Myers Channel 2 News reported his highly impaired state, claims that he had only one drink and total failure to pass standard sobriety tests. For a parish priest, joined by a female companion, to engage in excessive drinking only hours before he was expected to celebrate Holy Mass, reflects extraordinarily poor judgment and gives scandal that has seriously shamed the parish and the Church. The bishop has inexcusably ignored prior requests from a large number of parishioners that Fr. Gates be removed. It is now time for Bishop Dewane to act decisively and to immediately remove Father Gates and Mrs. Scheer from their respective positions. Most important, Bishop Dewane must replace Fr. Gates with an experienced and mature priest with demonstrably sound judgment.”
In May, 300 members of St. Isabel’s Parish signed a petition asking Bishop Dewane to replace Father Gates with a more experienced, empathetic and less authoritarian Parochial Vicar. They noted that many parishioners were concerned about the changes in the liturgy instigated by Father Gates that were contrary to the reforms of Vatican II. Father Gates retaliated by removing several members of Parishioners for Justice from their lay ministries. In letters to Bishop Dewane, other parishioners complained of collusion by Father Gates and Mrs. Scheer to discourage social gatherings, interfere with parish programs, limit use of parish facilities and even directing staff to photograph parishioners’ cars and license plates while owners were at prayer.
In previous statements PFJ has noted that Fr. Gates does not have the experience, maturity, and judgment to fulfill the challenge of rebuilding the parish community that has been fractured by the suspension of the pastor, Father Christopher Senk.
Several months ago, the leaders of the parish Women’s Guild filed a formal complaint accusing Fr. Gates of treating the women of the parish in a condescending and demeaning manner while constantly interfering in the running of their charitable efforts and refusing to promote their activities. In collusion with Mrs. Scheer, parish meeting facilities were locked when reservations had been made and use of these facilities was made difficult. These actions have resulted in a significant drop in funds raised for charity. The complaint also cited Father Gates’ immaturity and hostility to women. When this letter received no response from the bishop, and immediately after Fr. Gates’ arrest, the Guild again demanded his removal, given the seriousness of the charges and the additional scandal of Father Gates’ apparently inappropriate relationship with the parish office manager, Khristy Scheer who was with him in the car the night of his arrest.
On Friday, August 9, the Bishop issued a long-delayed reply that begged for more time to review the matter. A spokesperson for the Women’s Guild stated that this response was unacceptable, and that the seriousness of the civil charges and of violations of the Diocese’s code for Pastoral Conduct, clearly demonstrated the urgent need to replace Father Gates.
About Parishioners for Justice
Parishioners for Justice, a group of 500 committed parishioners, was initially formed in 2016, when Bishop Frank Dewane placed St. Isabel’s pastor, Father Christopher Senk, a highly respected and well-liked priest, on leave from his office without due process or knowledge of the charges against him. The group maintains that Bishop Dewane’s manipulation, prevarication and evasion has been enabled by an indifferent hierarchy and the involvement of the Knott Family of Baltimore who have colluded with Bishop Dewane to falsely accuse Father Senk. In a letter to Father Senk, dated February 23, 2017, Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott wrote “In your case, our system of justice cleared you of all charges, thereby closing the door on all accusations made. It seems our system cleared you but the Church is exerting pressure as though you were found guilty. That is regrettable.”
Bishop Dewane subsequently made an effort to remove Father Senk from his ministry. The case is being appealed to the Vatican.