Investigation, removal of Florida priest divides parish

This article appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

A Florida pastor in ecclesial limbo, even after being cleared by a state attorney's investigation into taking financial advantage of an elderly parishioner, is being supported by parishioners who want him reinstated.

Fr. Christopher Senk, 67, pastor of St. Isabel Parish on Sanibel Island in the Diocese of Venice, Florida, was put on paid administrative leave Oct. 28 of last year by Bishop Frank Dewane until a church investigation is completed. Senk's case is being examined by the Vatican.

A sister of Marion McIntyre accused Senk of taking advantage of a friendship which included donations of thousands of dollars through which he personally benefitted. The case was investigated by the Lee County Sheriff's office and the state attorney for two years. In April 2016 the state attorney decided not to press charges in the case.

"We had such a wonderful parish," Shirley Bohnert, a St. Isabel parishioner for the past 20 years and supporter of Senk, pastor for the past 14 years, told NCR. "There's just no joy now. Now it's just like a pall over the parish, like someone has died," she said.

Parishioners marked their support of Senk via demonstrations in the church parking lot, gatherings that have been subsequently banned by the acting pastor. Senk supporters say that McIntrye is a wealthy, generous, aware woman who willingly gave away money to needy causes and friends. Her sister claimed that McIntyre was incompetent to handle her own affairs and suffered from dementia.

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"We were her family," said Bohnert. McIntyre is reportedly now living in Maryland.

The ongoing dispute has divided the parish. Senk supporters say that the church, the spiritual home for retirees and permanent residents of Sanibel Island, a wealthy enclave, has cancelled many social activities. Groups outwardly supportive of Senk have been prohibited from gathering on parish grounds, including a regular outdoor prayer meeting.

Senk is now residing in Venice. Fr. David Deibel, Senk's canon lawyer, said he is unable to comment until his Vatican case is resolved. Deibel and others involved in the case offered no timetable on when that might happen.

The Sanibel Island parish controversy comes after a flurry of events that have raised objections among some of Dewane's flock. Senk is said to be one of 10 priests to sign a petition in 2014 accusing the bishop of bullying priests and failing to observe canonical rules regarding consulting advisory bodies on the sale of church property and other diocesan business. The petition was sent to then-Vatican nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and while the signers requested anonymity, at least some of the names became known.

"There is no financial transparency in the bishop's office," the petition said, adding that Dewane leads the diocese via "intimidation, use of fear, shaming, bullying and other non-Christian behaviors." The petition said that the bishop, who was named to Venice in 2006, is prone to outbursts of rage and "blasphemous language."

"It's pure vindictive behavior," said Marcia Leslie, another parish Senk supporter, commenting on what she described as Dewane's response to the petition directed against her pastor.

At least one of the priest signers has been expelled from the diocese by Dewane. Others have retired. Signers contacted by NCR all declined to comment on their cases. Some expressed fear that displeasing Dewane could have a negative impact on their pensions and future assignments.

Clergy and laypeople in the diocese say that Dewane has targeted the 10, accusing at least two, including Senk, of financial irregularities. Both were expelled from their rectories and their personal computers and other items were appropriated by diocesan authorities. In response, Dewane said via a diocesan statement that he doesn't know the names of any of the 10 signers.

That statement, issued by the diocese in response to questions from NCR, said Dewane was forced to move against Senk out of his concern for the alleged victim.

The diocesan statement noted that even if Senk was cleared by civil authorities, his receipt of gifts from McIntyre were a violation of diocesan rules regulating financial gifts from parishioners.

"The diocese would be negligent if it did not respond to a credible allegation that Fr. Senk took advantage of an elderly widow suffering from dementia," the statement said.

It added, "Any conduct which is unbecoming for a cleric or alleged to be pastoral malfeasance cannot be addressed by the civil authorities alone."

[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR's Field Hospital series on parish life and is a professor of journalism at St. John's University, New York.]

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