Do Priests Fear Their Bishops?

I pose this question as a result of a series of emails I received concerning an incident at a Catholic high school in Florida. The stories state the facts. My question continues to be: “Why don’t good priests stand up and challenge the clerical system”? Once again, I’d like to hear from you and especially our priests. Dr.Nick

Teacher says he was fired after seeking priest inquiry
By Matthew Doig
Published: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 2:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 2:28 p.m.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday by a former Catholic high school teacher claims he was fired because he pushed for an investigation into a priest who pressured teenage girls to tell him about sexual details during confession held at the school.

Former Bishop Verot High School teacher Chris Wilson is seeking damages in excess of $15,000 after he says he was fired for seeking an inquiry into the behavior of a priest. (Photo provided by Chris Wilson)

Former Bishop Verot High School teacher Chris Wilson is seeking damages in excess of $15,000 against the school, the Diocese of Venice and Bishop Frank Dewane, who oversees the priest in question.

According to the suit, Dewane used his “power and position” to have Wilson fired as “punishment, retaliation and a lesson to others similarly situated within the Venice Diocese.”

Wilson’s suit claims that Bishop Verot’s principal fired him days after learning Wilson complained to the Department of Children and Families about Father Cory Mayer, who visited the Lee County Catholic school in April to take confession from students.

The suit states Wilson reported Mayer — first to school officials and later to DCF — after learning Mayer instructed at least five teenage girls to give him details about whether they had masturbated or had sex. If they refused, Mayer told them, he would not grant them absolution, the suit claims.

Mayer, director of vocations for the diocese, did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

A Venice Diocese spokesman said that he had not seen the lawsuit, filed in Lee County’s 20th Judicial Circuit, and would be unable to comment until he had.

In an interview Monday, Wilson said that while his students were not “permanently scarred” by their encounter with Mayer, they were troubled enough that he felt compelled to press the issue with authorities.

In my mind I kept thinking, ‘What if this was my kid?'” said Wilson, who has two young daughters. “It was so wrong, I just couldn’t understand why he would even ask.”

When he reported the incident to school officials, Wilson was told such questions were appropriate during confession, the lawsuit states.

According to the suit, Dewane told the principal Mayer’s questions were not out of line and that the school had no authority to intervene.

According to a story in the St. Petersburg Times, a similar situation flared up in January at the Cathedral School of St. Jude, which is located in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Parents reportedly became upset when they learned Father Joseph Waters pointedly asked 7th- and 8th-grade students during confession whether they looked at pornography and masturbated.

Waters defended his actions and Bishop Robert Lynch, who leads the St. Petersburg Diocese, cited the seal of confession as he refused to meet with parents who wanted to discuss the issue.

Father Thomas Williams, a professor of Catholic Studies at the University of South Florida, said while a confessor might gently help an individual struggling to broach a difficult subject, confession is “not an interrogation.”

“The confessors I know think it’s at least a dicey practice to ask about specific sins the penitent hasn’t brought forward him or herself,” said Williams, who is also an Episcopalian priest.

Wilson said his students told him Mayer’s questions came “out of the blue” and that one girl had to repeatedly tell Mayer “it’s none of your business.” Wilson also found it odd that it appears Mayer only asked the questions of female students.

“I did not hear of any male students getting asked the question,” he said.

A father of one of the female students questioned by Mayer said in an interview Tuesday he is furious with Dewane and Cavell because they never informed parents of the allegations. He said while his daughter was not physically harmed, she was “harmed emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.”

“A 15-year old girl doesn’t need to be asked those questions,” said the father, who asked that his name not be used to spare his daughter further humiliation. “It’s not the priest’s damn business.”

The father, who said he was born and raised in the Catholic church, said he is also upset that Wilson was fired for trying to do the right thing.

Wilson said Monday that as a teacher, he believed state law required that he notify DCF. Wilson said a DCF supervisor informed him later that the agency could not act because it is only allowed to handle allegations of abuse, neglect and abandonment.

In what Wilson considered a last chance to bring closure to his concerns, on May 14 he phoned Barbara DiCocco, the Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Venice. He explained Mayer’s comments and the steps he had taken, including his complaint with DCF.

Wilson said two days later Cavell called him into the principal’s office and told him he had “stepped over the line” by reporting Mayer to DCF. The only reason he was not fired that day, Wilson said, is because he happened to have his 2-year-old daughter with him at the time. The next morning, Wilson said Cavell fired him for insubordination.

Cavell did not return calls seeking comment.

Wilson said he has no regrets.

“I followed my conscience,” he said. “I was trying to protect the church. I was trying to protect the kids. I thought that’s why all of this is in place — to prevent the possibility that anything might happen to the kids.”

In a related story reported in Sarasota press, is actually quite a bit more complicated. This story is summarized by a resident in the area who wrote me. Let me share his concerns:

The “offending” priest is actually the bishop’s driver, master of ceremonies, and diocesan vocation director. The two apparently live together, are always together “on the road”–and several anonymous priests in the diocese harbor suspicions (and have informed others about their suspicions) about their sexual practices. And so, once again, the bishop (Frank Dewane) appears at the edge of the controversy and again appears to be the puppet master.
Without further proof, the press could not touch this. However, I am aware that a wealthy parishioner who was unhappy with the bishop’s handling of a pastor removal has hired a private investigator who is “on the case.” He (the parishioner, not the investigator) reported that discovering something current is very difficult–the bishop purchased and renovated a former convent as his “palace”–it has about 35 rooms and is located on 40 fenced and gated acres. The reported cost of purchase and renovation exceeded the original (generous) budget by more than $1 million. (We learned the latter from a “deep throat” in the chancery who was asked to change the minutes of the finance council to reflect the higher amount ex post facto.

This man is so disliked and so feared by the priests and deacons, it is a wonder that he has survived.


5 Responses to Do Priests Fear Their Bishops?

  1. survivor's wife says:

    This is the way the hierarchy can keep people in line.

    Fire the guy for being protective of children? That teacher went outside the chain of command and he got punished. Speaks volumes about the management in the RCC.

    Of course priests are afraid of their bishops…it’s like having a tyrant for a boss…they can make your life a living hell. Except, you can always find another job when the tyrant gets bad enough…with priests…you’re stuck with them. They learn early to go along to get along. Reminds me of hostage syndrome.

  2. Speaking-Up says:

    Clerical elitism” corrupts many within the RCC hierarchy, as it trickles down the clerical ranks, to the superiors of the secular-orders and finally infects the leaders of parish-ministries. The upper ranks operate within their feudal pockets of power and control, without accountability or transparency. This develops into a sophisticated system of endemic and systemic abuse, perfected over time, under the rules of spiritual/catholic formation, which include absolute obedience to one’s superiors, humility, poverty of spirit etc. No virtues are accredited to the courageous, who speak up for social justice and against criminal activities. Superiors ‘play God’ as they expel dissenters on the grounds that the later have lost their ‘faith or their vocations’, while the ‘group-think’ mentality fosters fear, intimidation, hypocracy, secrecy, corruption and abuse. It would take a miracle to change this kind of mind-set.

  3. Paul in DELaware says:

    To my seminary brothers:
    To Nick Mazza, my brother,

    I might as well say it.
    After many years of listening to priests deliver their own messages, and I was not retaining a message for the week, I questioned why I was there.

    TWO years ago, the local Baptist church, allowed an outreach program to be held in their building.
    Imagine that, helping people who are in the middle, working class getting help.
    Imagine, helping people NOT on DRUGS or Welfare, being recognized as having needs.
    Imagine a church, with open doors, NOT charging for the use of their facilities.
    Imagine a church that allows a program WITHOUT any religion being preached.

    After A year, I decided to drop in on Sunday to listen. I have been listening for over a year.
    I have learned more about Christianity and the Bible than in my previous 60 years.
    And i am not being pressured. I am welcome there, without becoming a member and without
    paying DUES. Imagine that.
    And i attend some extra study groups, and they allow ME to help understand what is being read.
    OH, and what is being read is not just ONE verse, but whole sections. SO, there is no cut and paste to prove a point that
    was so narrowly crafted as to be dangerously contrary to the original story. Imagine that.

    From older priests, I have heard too many times that I need to accept that the Catholic Church is an ORGANIZATION, a BUSINESS.

    No wonder why in Wilmington Delaware, instead of doing the right thing according to our beliefs, the diocese LAWYER-ED UP.
    Who suffered? How about all the teachers and workers for the diocese who are in danger of losing their pensions?
    Because the Law suit takes precedence over the funds for pensions, because of the structure of those funds.

    We live in some very interesting economic times. Both the RICH and the POOR have figured out how to use the system. BOTH got huge loans.
    Both filed bankruptcy. Both got bailed out or left stock holders with near nothing.
    Look up Wilmington Trust. Once had 1.5 Billion is assets. Extended 2/3 in bad loans, minimally secured.
    The stock was valued at 10% of what it was for over ten years. Then look at those who bought bigger houses than they could afford.
    They get bailed out, and their loans renegotiated.
    WHERE is the reward for those of us who were cautious and frugal? We got USED, DUPED and tricked.
    NOW I hear my Catholic Church reneging on it’s original rules.
    Hijacked by PROGRESSIVES who disavow the old rules.
    The Church makes excuses for those who lie, steal, cheat and misdirect under the premise that they had to do it to survive.

    Last thing I need to hear is any support for LIBERATION THEOLOGY. NOT even enough to listen to it.

    I believe this country was Special. I remember my history classes.
    I am upset that the Constitution and the BIBLE are both being retranslated, misread, and altered. To meet someone’s new agenda.
    Sure I know that the Church is NOT its Bishops and Priests. BUT these are the people who we rely on to deliver the message.
    For too long, these pastors have been duplicitous and deceiving. they supported the Business of business.
    They turned a blind eye to local abuses, when those who did the misdeeds were major contributors to the local parish and diocese.

    To my Priest and deacon brothers, I ask you to stop being pompous, reflect on your message.
    Do not be afraid to speak to abuses of power, even if he is your BISHOP, Your State Representative, Your US Senator, Your Mayor,
    or your local Councilman. Your parishioners can see the veracity of your message compared to your example.

    AS a Priest or Deacon, when your actions are suspect, when you neglect to stand up for what is right, then rest assured, your message is also suspect.

    When you have lost your moral ground, you have nothing left to stand on.


    Nick and I were in HS Seminary school together.

  4. Bev says:

    Priests are fearful re the loss of health care and pension benefits, particularly those who are middle-aged and for whom it would not be an option to begin a new profession outside the Church.

  5. Paul in DELaware says:

    If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make any noise?
    If someone makes a comment, and there is no response,
    what does that mean?

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