AN OPEN LETTER TO BISHOP DEWANE ON THE OCCASION OF WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN FR. CHRISTOPHER’S SEVENTEENTH ANNIVERSARY
Dear Bishop Dewane,
We take this opportunity to wish you all the blessings of this glorious Easter season, and as always, we pray for your good health and safety.
On April 23, 2003, Fr. Christopher Senk began his service to St. Isabel Church, Sanibel Island, Florida, as a result of an unexpected request by good Bishop John Nevins, whose pastoral affection for his priests is well documented. We are well aware, Bishop Dewane, that you would prefer that most of us forget Fr. Christopher and move on, but for most of us that is impossible. We suspect that you jealously understand that to be true, but you have never cared about the opinions of those who knew Fr. Christopher best: his parishioners, his family, his friends. You ordered that Fr, Christopher be removed from the church property of St. Isabel on October 28, 2016, with little to no knowledge about who Fr. Christopher truly is. Using the absolute falsehoods provided by the Knott family of Baltimore, and likely using some malicious vindictiveness of the parish lay staff, you forged ahead with your pre-arranged plan to remove Fr. Christopher from the priesthood, presenting Fr. Christopher with paperwork to voluntarily surrender his priesthood, paperwork drawn up in advance. This calculated move of yours happened at the very first of the only three meetings that you have ever had with Fr. Christopher concerning this matter, and you did so only after calling the local press to cover the weekend’s Masses to further humiliate Fr. Christopher, something you at first denied doing.
Bishop Dewane, you must have been profoundly disappointed when parishioners did not come out of the woodwork as a result of the extensive local news coverage, initiated by the Diocese, accusing Fr. Christopher of fleecing his parishioners for money – but none came forward, for Fr. Christopher never would, and never has done what he has been accused of. And when the parishioners did not come out of the woodwork, the natural response might have been for a Bishop to meet with a large cross section of the parish, that he might come to know just who Fr. Christopher is, and perhaps begin to grasp why the parish was, in large part, so positively disposed towards him. But you refused to meet with parishioners. It was because of what Fr. Christopher did for the parish during the time of the post-Hurricane Charley years during an overly lengthy rebuild; it was because of what Fr. Christopher said on the five days of every week when he would preach and say Mass; it’s because of his accessibility to the parish, regardless of who you were; it was because he shared his rectory, especially at holiday times, when so many felt privileged to share a meal with him; it was because parishioners felt they were more than Fr. Christopher’s parishioners, they were his friends; it was because Fr. Christopher’s personal losses during his time at St. Isabel were so many, and yet he kept functioning; it was because of an overall pleasantness, even in the face of considerable health challenges, that so many parishioners were properly disposed towards Fr. Christopher and were willing to stand at his side when it became so blatantly obvious how unjust your actions truly were against him.
Not only did you never speak to those parishioners, but you shielded yourself from them, refusing to speak to them, hiding behind feigned and empty claims of the need for Fr. Christopher’s privacy, all the while attacking him with your specious claims that you “knew a lot about which you could not speak.” In spite of you making every effort to imply that you knew some mysterious and egregious wrong-doing that would explain why you were doing what you did, hundreds of parishioners were steadfast, and skeptical, and continue to be steadfast in their support of Fr. Christopher.
It might be difficult to remember that this entire nightmare all began with accusations of elder abuse, in spite of the Knott family urging Lee County to prosecute for elder abuse; the prosecution county authorities dropped for lack of evidence, six months before Fr. Christopher even found out about the investigation against him. For two years prior to October 2016, you, Bishop Dewane, colluded with the Knott family in Baltimore, and with members of the parish staff whose mysteriously vindictive nature soon became obvious. While your determination to have Fr. Christopher prosecuted for elder abuse failed, you were still determined to succeed – to remove Fr. Christopher from the priesthood. When it became clear that Fr. Christopher would not voluntarily surrender his priesthood, in spite of numerous attempts by the Diocese to get him to do so, you increased your attacks on him, attacks which became more numerous and erratic – he lived a “lavish lifestyle,” he “traveled too much,” he was “inattentive to the parish,” he put the “youth of the parish at risk,” he was “married,” “insubordinate,” and “disobedient!” Instead of solving the problem locally, Bishop, with cowardly claims that no one would accept your “decisions as fair,” you decided to send the case to Rome, who you were sure would strip Fr. Christopher of his priesthood, and where the case would languish long enough for the parishioners to lose interest.
As we all know, that did not happen, and even when Rome finally decided that they were unable to remove Fr. Christopher’s priesthood based on the case sent to them by you, Bishop, and your Judicial Vicar, you deviously used your power and influence to confect a group of sanctions and penalties which you were pretty sure would be just as painful, all without the knowledge of Fr. Christopher or his canon lawyer. As if those sanctions and penalties were not enough, they were all made under the mysterious umbrella of the Pope’s blessing (in forma specifica), making them without recourse or appeal.
We would love to know why, Bishop Dewane, when Rome decided not to take Fr. Christopher’s priesthood away, you didn’t just admit defeat? There was enough upset in the local community to suggest that you were wrong in your assessment of Fr. Christopher, why didn’t you just drop it, and reinstate Fr. Christopher? Was your pride bruised too severely to do that? Instead, in total secret, you maliciously worked out a plan of other punishments, with people who didn’t know Fr. Christopher, just like the Knotts and civil authorities, the Roman bureaucracy. Surely, you must have thought they could be convinced that the local upset at St. Isabel was due to Fr. Christopher, for you were, and are, unwilling to take any responsibility for it. After nearly four years you will not rest until Fr. Christopher is seriously punished for crimes that are ill-defined or non-existent.
Fr. Christopher only just learned last week that he is no longer the pastor of St. Isabel. He was invited several times to voluntarily resign his position as pastor, but concerned about the possible repercussions of such a move, he had hoped to be protected by the recommendations of Canon Law, where a specific protocol is suggested for those who will not voluntarily resign. True to form, Bishop Dewane, you are unconcerned about following protocol, and so you let Fr. Christopher, just shy of his seventeenth anniversary of arriving at St. Isabel, know that you drafted a Decree of Removal last fall, making it effective the week before Christmas, and never sharing that information with Fr. Deibel or Fr. Christopher, making the provisions of canon law for an appeal moot. To date, neither Fr. Christopher or Fr. Deibel have seen that Decree. Does that give you particular joy Bishop Dewane? Isn’t it enough that you have caused untold suffering for four years? Isn’t it enough to know that you destroyed one of your priests’ life, and unfairly robbed him of the legacy that should be his? Is there no ounce of mercy in your obviously hardened heart?
On numerous occasions, Fr. Christopher has volunteered to retire with the faculties to practice his priesthood, but you have shown no appetite for anything other than the punishments which are designed to extend until the end of Fr. Christopher’s life. No persistent prayers, no dramatic movement of the Spirit, no amount of upset, appears to have softened the heart of Bishop Dewane.
We could only hope that the spirit of this Easter season, so evident in the prayers of the Church, and in the prayers of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, might have had some positive effect on you, Bishop Dewane. In his 2013 Easter prayer, Pope Francis encouraged all, and we encourage you Bishop, to “accept the grace of Christ’s Resurrection! Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of His love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish.” And so we ask the risen Jesus, who turns death into life, to change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace. Yes, Christ is our peace, and through him we implore peace for all the world, and we implore you Bishop Dewane for the peace which St. Isabel Church deserves.
Finally, Pope Francis prayed this year that “this is not a time for forgetfulness,” and the coronavirus pandemic “should not make us forget the many other crises that bring suffering to so many people,” like the crisis you have caused Bishop Dewane on Sanibel. Pope Francis has emphasized that “this is not a time for division,” and you have sewn division, Bishop Dewane, amidst the once united parish of St. Isabel. With Pope Francis we call on you Bishop, and on all those responsible for conflicts everywhere, “to have the courage to end those conflicts.” Pope Francis concluded his (2020) powerful message praying that the Risen Christ, “who has already defeated death and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, may dispel the darkness of our suffering humanity and lead us into the light of his glorious day, a day that knows no end.”
Happy Easter, Bishop Dewane.
With great sincerity,
Parishioners For Justice