PFJ’s Take on Sundays Gospel Readings
From the mouth of Jesus comes the best advice as to how the pathetically reprehensible case against Fr. Christopher should have unfolded. Indeed, the advice seems so fundamental that it might cause one to wonder just how familiar Bishop Dewane and his Judicial Vicar are with the gospels which are at the very center of what it means to be Christian. The gospel passage peculiar to Matthew, 18:15-20, was proclaimed for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. If you are unfamiliar with the gospel, we quote a pertinent section here:
“Jesus said to His disciples: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”Imagine, if you will, the possibility that these words were written in the heart of Bishop Dewane and his Judicial Vicar. Would they have progressed with their painful and lengthy case against Fr. Christopher, and subsequent punishment of the Church of St. Isabel? Could the simple, yet profound, advice of Jesus have provided them with a model on how to proceed with confronting any allegedly errant brother or sister, people entrusted to their care?
What Jesus speaks of is, or should be, the preferential practice in monasteries and convents everywhere, what is called “fraternal (or sisterly) correction,” the kind of correction that happens before ‘things get blown out of proportion.’ It is usually about things that are modest in size and nature; it doesn’t need immediate or extravagant measures to contain something that is already out of control. Nobody shot up half the monastery with an AK-47; no one ran off with more than half of the convent’s wealth. Indeed, it starts with the acknowledgement that whatever you are dealing with could, in fact, be a misunderstanding, and that it is entirely possible that you do not possess all of the needed information to make an informed judgement. That’s what fraternal/sisterly correction is all about, and that is why Jesus suggests that the place to start is “if your brother [or sister] sins against you, go and tell him [her] their fault, between you and him alone.” The person Jesus is talking about is meant to go to the source, and calmly sit with that person and discuss the supposed wrongdoing. Incidentally, this same practice is enshrined in the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church.
Not only was the advice of Jesus not followed on October 28, 2016, in Bishop Dewane’s dealings with Fr. Christopher, but a deliberate choice was made to burn and destroy everything about Fr. Christopher’s life, short of what could, and can still, be found in the memories of those who knew Fr. Christopher best, his parishioners. What happened on October 28 is all the more criminal when one realizes that Bishop Dewane’s complaints against Fr. Christopher had been simmering for nearly two years without Fr. Christopher’s knowledge, and numerous opportunities to “go and tell him his fault” were passed up, apparently with no regrets. No attempt was ever made by Bishop Dewane to sit Fr. Christopher down and get to the truth about the false allegations made against him by the distant and malicious Baltimore family. One can accurately say that Bishop Dewane skipped this part completely, and to this very day he has never sat down with Fr. Christopher to get at the truth of what had happened.
Instead, without knowing the truth about that which he was speaking, and long before the meeting on October 28th, he brought the matter quietly to the “two or three witnesses” of the Bishop’s Presbyteral Council, alienating Fr. Christopher from his brother priests, and never affording Fr. Christopher the presumption of innocence that every person deserves. Indeed, Fr. Christopher was treated as a “Gentile or a tax collector” at the time of Jesus, as someone who stood outside the boundaries of Mother Church, undeserving of the care and concern that Jesus suggests should be given to everyone. On the 28th, Bishop Dewane promised that everything that would be done would be accomplished with the utmost transparency, and his last volley that day was aimed at Fr. Christopher’s advocate, Fr. David Deibel, ordering him and warning him to not make any effort to start a fund for Fr. Christopher’s defense.
Remember, it was at the initial meeting, when Fr. Christopher was first informed of the case that had been built against him for nearly two years, that he was given the opportunity to sign his priesthood away with papers that had already been drawn up, something he would be encouraged to do by the Diocese several times over the course of that day. Fr. Christopher did not even have an opportunity to familiarize himself with the thousand-plus pages of so-called evidence against him that sat in a box in the middle of a conference room table. While he was frightened about what was to come, and the shouted falsehood by the Bishop that there was a “warrant out for his arrest” buried somewhere in that stack of papers, he was not so frightened, or overcome with guilt about doing anything wrong, that he would choose on that day or any day to sign his priesthood away. By the time Fr. Christopher returned to the rectory to pack up his things, a letter had already been printed to be stuffed in the weekend’s bulletins, alleging “elder abused” and other “things” that could not be mentioned.
On the following day, October 29, 2016, Fr. Christopher had packed up all that his car could carry. Bishop Dewane, lacking any compassion whatsoever, did not allow him to celebrate the funeral planned on a woman’s death bed for Saturday morning, even though it would only have delayed his departure from the property for a few short hours.
Fr. Christopher shared with us something he had written only days after the October 28th meeting, while the meeting was still fresh in his mind. He could not have imagined at that time, that now in 2020 we would be coming up on the fourth anniversary of that meeting. He wrote: “By the next day I realized what was happening, had tried to calm myself a bit, and then the Bishop released a press statement which vilified me in the press and unleashed overwhelming embarrassment. This was done even though the Bishop knew the [County’s] case had been closed some six months before. I cannot conceive of a reason to release that press release except to embarrass me and give me the opportunity to be convicted by the court of public opinion. No decent Bishop of Pope Francis would have thrown me under the bus with so little reason. Indeed, Bishop Dewane in his letter to my parishioners had the gaul to quote Pope Francis suggesting that priests are called to live simply, this from a man who lives on a gated estate while the two houses the Diocese owns for the bishop sit empty in Venice. How dare he quote Francis, who has called for Bishops to be Shepherds, shepherds who are concerned about the welfare of their sheep, their priests. Nothing that Bishop Dewane has done in this case has been done with my welfare in mind. Indeed, he has upset an entire parish, cost the Diocese and the parish thousands of dollars on a witch hunt, and ruined my name and reputation in the process causing great emotional harm. How proud he must be.”
Before Bishop Dewane’s October 2016 confrontation, the Diocese had conducted no investigation of its own, relying totally on what the County Sheriff’s office had done in their case that had already been dismissed. Within several weeks they opened there own cursory investigation, only meeting with people they thought might turn against Fr. Christopher, with people who they paid to conduct the investigation, who were unfamiliar with Church matters, and knew nothing about what it meant to be Catholic. In spite of their assumption that people would come out of the woodwork to accuse Fr. Christopher of wrongdoing, no one came, and so they hired a so-called former FBI person who did her best to lead those interviewed into abandoning their support for Fr. Christopher and saying something damning about him, something that also did not happen. Accusations would furiously flow for several weeks from the Diocese, all of which remain totally unsubstantiated. They were like the blind chicken, who, if he keeps pecking, hopes to land on a kernel of corn.
Within a very short time, Bishop Dewane would pass the buck to Rome, something Fr. Christopher and his Advocate were told at a meeting. Because the climate of the parish was such that Bishop Dewane ‘supposedly’ felt he couldn’t make any decision that would be judged to be fair, he, with great cowardice, was sending the case off to Rome with a request that they remove Fr. Christopher from the priesthood. The accusations of the Knott family were taken to be truthful, and they formed the larger part of his case against Fr. Christopher. It is the other parts of the case that Fr. Christopher and his Advocate would never get to see, in spite of Bishop Dewane’s assurance of transparency. Indeed, even the Congregation For Clergy instructed Bishop Dewane to share the Acts of their case with Fr. Christopher and his Advocate, which Bishop Dewane refused to do, and which the Congregation refused to demand.
The lack of transparency was again obvious when the Bishop was told that Rome would not remove me from the priesthood, something that was never shared with Fr. Christopher and his Advocate. Nor was Fr. Christopher informed that the Diocese, after a visit to Rome, had shifted their attack to seek “penalties and remediation” for the “Ecclesiastical upset” that Fr. Christopher had caused. For months, Fr. Christopher and his Advocate were still fighting to retain his priesthood, never having been told that things had shifted, a shift which surely should have been communicated to Fr. Christopher and Fr. Deibel.
The same lack of transparency happened with Fr. Christopher’s official removal as pastor, something he assumed he would have input on, something Canon Law suggests he should have input on. Instead, that too was done in the middle of an unknown night, and Fr. Christopher and Fr. Deibel were informed that “it had happened,” and that the time for recourse had expired, so there was nothing for us to say. Once again, it was clear that there was no transparency whatsoever.
All of this is to say, there is no resemblance between the actions of the Bishop to anything suggested by last weekend’s gospel, or for that matter, in this weekend’s gospel. This weekend we will be treated to readings that are all about mercy and forgiveness, and Jesus reminds us that we are to “forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” To illustrate His point He tells His disciples a parable about a king who wishes to settle accounts with his servants. We quote the pertinent passage here:
“When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’”We dare our readers to find in the above account of Bishop Dewane’s dealings with Fr. Christopher any semblance to the teachings of Jesus? That is precisely the point of this entire discourse. Are the Scriptures, and the very words of Jesus, taken into consideration when dealing with priests who are considered to be a problem? We have been close to this case for nearly four years now, and the case and the actions of the Bishop bear little resemblance to the words of Scripture. The psalm for this weekend reminds us that the Lord “pardons all our iniquities, heals all our ills. He redeems our lives from destruction, He crowned us with kindness and compassion.” With attendance dwindling at Saint Isabel Church, and likewise in most Catholic churches (even pre-pandemic), there might be more people in the pews if the Church was more interested in the words of Jesus, than in making a Bishop happy, or making a problem just go away!
The recently deceased Honorable John Lewis, famously said, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”