The Forgotten Case of Fr. Joseph Gates
Our readers will remember that ten minutes before midnight on August 3, 2019, Fr. Joseph Gates and the St. Isabel parish office manager, Mrs. Khristy Scheer, were stopped by the Sanibel Police in the rectory garage, the place where Fr. Gates fled while ignoring the flashing police car lights behind him. Inevitably, the police arrested Fr. Gates, having “observed a strong odor of alcohol beverage” in the car, and failing the majority of the sobriety tests administered. Fr. Gates was detained until Sunday afternoon, eventually being released on $1000 bail after missing his Sunday ministerial assignments. Mrs. Scheer was apparently free to go home. If Mrs. Scheer were sober and observed Fr. Gates’ lack of sobriety, why wasn’t she driving? If she were too impaired to drive, then the responsible thing would have been to call a taxi (or a husband)? In most cases, a male employer out drinking with his married, female employee into the wee hours of the night, would have seriously put their jobs in jeopardy. In the Diocese of Venice such behavior seems to be permissible.
The case was followed closely by members of PFJ, who attended every scheduled court appearance, only to find those appearances postponed. Fifty court documents are posted on the Lee County Clerk of Courts website relating to the arrest of Fr. Gates. These documents relate, not just to the arrest, but also to the efforts of the Naples Law Firm hired by Fr. Gates regarding postponement, efforts to suppress evidence, motions that allowed Fr. Gates not to be present in court, and efforts to just delay the case. On Thursday, January 2, the Gates case was finally called, and within thirty seconds, the Judge declared “case dismissed.” According to the posted information, the reason for dismissal was listed as “nolle pros,” which means that the prosecutor declined to press charges. One can only speculate why the charges were dismissed. Did the prosecutor tire of the lawyers attempts to postpone and delay? Did the prosecutor decide there was no value in wasting his time and the tax payers’ money? We will never know.
What is clear is what was learned from witnessing the legal system actually functioning. The people before the bench in other cases, who did not have the privilege of not appearing physically in court were overwhelmingly poor, and their public defender and prosecutor would most often come to an agreement where the accused would pay court costs and were fined something in the realm of $250. The individuals were told to go to an office where they could work out a payment plan, for the fees were clearly making a big dent in their available resources.
It goes without saying that people of means are typically able to hire good legal assistance that reduces fines and sentences. What needs to be asked, however, is why Fr. Gates should be in the company of the privileged, and not be forced into the courtroom where he might have learned some lessons about ordinary justice. Further, should the former head of the USCCB committee on Domestic Justice, Bishop Dewane, not have imposed some penalties on Fr. Gates, if not Mrs. Scheer, in an acknowledgement that their behavior was, at the very least, inappropriate? In contrast to what is normally done in similar cases, Fr. Gates was taken out of the County and from St. Isabel by Bishop Dewane (the removal he promised would never happen), and Fr. Gates was promoted to full Administrator of a parish – no down time, no alcohol school, no assessment. A party was thrown for Fr. Gates at the parish as though what was covered so fully by the press with gory detail never happened. Was any of this justice? As for Mrs. Scheer, it appears she too, has enjoyed somewhat of a promotion, enjoying the privilege of banning very sober and elderly women from access to Mass and the sacraments, something that has yet to be withdrawn in print, even though diocesan lawyers have allegedly stated that Mrs. Scheer did not have the authority to ban anyone from St. Isabel Church for any reason. Further, Mrs. Scheer seems to be running the parish single-handedly, with little or no pastoral oversight from what appears to be a mere figurehead as Administrator, the person who claims responsibility for dissolving the 43-year-old Women’s Guild.
Perhaps what motivated the press in covering the Gates/Scheer debacle, was the same motivation that energized the press three years ago when the Diocese called the press to fully embarrass Fr. Christopher – the mere possibility of taking a shot at a Catholic priest, an easy target, sadly. What is curiously absent, however, is any interest by the press in covering the dismissal of Fr. Gates’ case without any real resolution. It would seem to point to the fact that neither the press nor the Diocese of Venice are truly interested in justice.
It is interesting to compare Fr. Gates with Fr. Christopher. Fr. Christopher was never charged, had no mug shot taken or distributed in the press or on the internet, and never spent a night in jail. Yet Bishop Dewane, without doing any investigation of his own, rushed to judgement in Fr. Christopher’s case, declaring him guilty, even after the Lee County Sheriff determined that there were no grounds for prosecution. Fr. Gates seems to have enjoyed the benefits that come to those favored by the Bishop, affording him a “no comment” at the time of his arrest, no declaration of guilt, and Diocesan efforts seem to have helped the case of Fr. Gates quickly disappear and be forgotten. But we have not forgotten!