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Diocese of Venice defends priest, dismissal

Role of confessor in Catholic Church at heart of argument that led to teacher's firing.

May 7, 2012


Canon law, the internal law of the Catholic Church, says this about the priest’s role in the sacrament of confession:

“In posing questions, the priest is to proceed with prudence and discretion, attentive to the condition and age of the penitent, and is to refrain from asking the name of an accomplice.”

Which raises the question: Is it prudent or discreet to ask teenage girls in the confessional if they’ve had sex or if they masturbate?

Fired Bishop Verot High School teacher Chris Wilson claims in a lawsuit the Rev. Cory Mayer asked those questions of at least five female students while hearing their confessions April 14, 2011. In at least one instance, Mayer said he would refuse absolution unless the questions were answered, Wilson said.

The priest was not charged with sexual abuse or any other crime. Neither were there repercussions against Mayer from the Diocese of Venice, which oversees more than 250,000 Catholics in a nine-county area, including Lee and Collier counties.

Mayer, diocese vocations director, did nothing inappropriate, said Billy Atwell, diocese spokesman. The diocese position is the priest was merely leading students through an examination of conscience about the Ten Commandments.

Requests were made by The News-Press to interview Bishop Frank Dewane, head of the diocese, and Mayer. Atwell said he is the only one speaking on behalf of the diocese and Dewane; Bishop Verot; its principal, John Cavell; and Mayer.

Wilson said he learned about the confession incident when he overheard some of his female students talking and queried them.

“Their stories were very consistent,” he said. “It was out of the blue.”

Wilson reported the incident first to school officials, then the Department of Children and Families, then the diocese victim assistance coordinator, then the Fort Myers police. He claims in the lawsuit, under appeal, he was fired May 17, 2011, in retribution. Wilson claims in the lawsuit the day before he was fired, Cavell told him when he called DCF, Wilson “crossed the line” as a teacher.

(Page 2 of 3)

Not so, Atwell said. “Contacting DCF when one believes abuse to have occurred is diocesan policy, and therefore the cause of his dismissal was evidently for other reasons,” Atwell wrote in an email. Wilson was fired “after demonstrating a history of unprofessional behavior which was officially documented.”

Atwell declined to provide official documentation to The News-Press.

The police report concluded “nothing criminal at this time.” Erin Gillespie, press secretary for the DCF, said investigators looked into the case but it did not fall under their jurisdiction. While the DCF can investigate child abuse allegations anywhere, whether it involves a religious institution or not, Gillespie said the Bishop Verot case did not meet the law’s criteria that it “must involve abuse, neglect or abandonment of a child by a caregiver.”

Diocesan code

The diocese’s Code of Pastoral Conduct states:

“Church personnel are generally prohibited from engaging in any sexual oriented conversations/discussions with minors, except that age appropriate religious education curriculum and lessons for youth and young adults, may address human sexuality issues, or it may be necessary to address such issues in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The lesson or cleric will convey Church views on the topic in response to specific questions. Additional questions should be referred to parents or guardians for clarification.”

The high school denied Wilson unemployment. He appealed to the Agency for Workforce Innovation. The decision of the hearing examiner was, that amid conflicting testimony, Wilson’s was found “to be more credible.” Unemployment was reinstated.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest and canon lawyer, said Mayer should have been investigated by the diocese.

“It’s not a sex abuse case,” he said, “it’s a pastoral abuse case.”

In a 1985 report he co-authored while working at the Vatican’s embassy, Doyle warned church officials of an approaching firestorm from growing sex abuse allegations. He now works as a consultant and expert witness in clergy sex abuse cases around the world, most recently testifying at the child-endangerment case of Msgr. William Lynn in Philadelphia in late April.

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“This guy went way over the line,” Doyle said of Mayer. “His actions, as reported by those girls, lead to a suspicion that he could well have used the sacrament of confession in a way that violated canon law, in the sense that it was a form of solicitation. It was using the questioning as possibly gaining some form of sexual gratification.”

In a letter to Dewane after the incident, Doyle wrote that cases of solicitation go back to the Inquisition. Many canonical commentators agree “that detailed and unnecessary questions about sexual matters can constitute the substance of solicitation. Some have referred to it as a species of oral voyeurism,” he wrote.

“All of this is not to say that any detailed questioning about sexual matters constitutes a form of solicitation or grooming,” Doyle wrote. “Nevertheless there is reason to have pursued an investigation rather than dismiss the reports outright.”

At the very least, Mayer should have been suspended, Doyle said.

Dewane describes the action that was taken in his response to a letter from church member Gladys Verplanke, who protested Wilson’s firing.

Dewane wrote: “Many of your other stated concerns stem from inaccuracies or deficiencies in what much of the media has reported or what is contained in the lawsuit. Please know that immediately following word that some students felt uncomfortable with questions asked of them during confession, both male and female students who went to Father for Confession were interviewed by the principal. Not one of them reports feeling anything ‘inappropriate’ happened, but only that some were ‘uncomfortable.’ Feeling uncomfortable in Confession is not entirely unexpected; this is because any time we sin against God and must humbly ask for his forgiveness we are put in an uncomfortable situation. This situation — humbly confessing our sin — is also what liberates from evil and brings us closer to the life to which Christ calls us.”

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Mayer betrayed the students by misusing his status. SNAP is a 23-year-old support group that tracks abuse cases across the country.

“What matters is not the act, but the violation of a sacred trust by a powerful adult, especially with a religious title. Then it’s not just a teacher or scoutmaster, it’s a so-called man of God,” he said.

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