A letter and petition accusing Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, Florida, of authoritarian leadership will soon be on its way to Rome, asking Pope Francis to intervene.
The campaign has been orchestrated by two liberal groups agitating for a more lay-directed Church. The Southwest Florida chapter of Call to Action wrote the letter, together with the support of the local chapter of Voice of the Faithful.
Call to Action, a group pushing for radical reform such as the ordination of women and a relaxing of sexual ethics, has accused Bishop Dewane of employing scare tactics including bullying and intimidation in his dealing with lay people. It also accuses him of dismissing several pastors and firing more than 20 workers without reason or hearing.
The letter calls Bishop Dewane “a man who operates more like the CEO of a large corporation than the shepherd of his community.”
Call to Action, though a Catholic dissident group, apparently thinks it can harness Pope Francis for its cause. “While Pope Francis values openness, dialogue, and consultation,” their letter states, “our bishop suppresses the open exchange of ideas.”
Though dated Aug. 28, the letter is only now being sent on to Rome after garnering 1,296 signatures, about 65% of the signatures that the group had hoped for.
The letter states that morale in the diocese “has never been so low” as it is now, but no evidence is adduced to back up that claim. The Diocese of Venice comprises some 70 parishes and missions and represents 223,605 Catholics, so it may be wondered how 1,296 signatures could signify a representative sample.
To put the petition and its 1,296 signatures in perspective, an online petition asking that Michelle Obama not speak at the Topeka High School graduation ceremony last April drew some 1,200 signatures. An online petition organized against the South Carolina Lay Midwife Act, which sought greater regulation of the activities of midwives, drew more than 6,000 signatures in March 2013. And last February, a petition demanding an investigation into the judging of the Olympic women’s figure skating competition drew more than 1 million signatures.
This past Friday the diocese issued a response in the form of a 2-page statement signed by Benedict Nguyen, chief spokesman for the diocese.
The statement roundly denies the accusations, and claims that Call to Action is promoting divisiveness within the diocese. It also questions the validity of the petition, noting that many of the signatures could be from people outside the area who have a personal grudge with the Catholic Church, “and likely have never met or even heard of Bishop Dewane.”