In February 2019 the sexual abuse scandal that has bedeviled the Roman Catholic Church landed in Martinsville when the Diocese of Richmond named two former priests at St. Joseph Catholic Church among 42 across central and Southwest Virginia who it said had been sex abusers.
The diocese, in its statement identifying John Joseph Munley, who was pastor between 1971 and 1975 and died in 1995, and Harris Markam Findlay (1955-59), did not say how many accusers the men faced, simply releasing a statement from Bishop Barry Knestout: “To those who experienced abuse from clergy, I am truly, deeply sorry.”
That announcement, though, was only a byproduct of a much more troubling announcement that same month that has started a process that could threaten the appointment of a third priest in Martinsville, one whose only contribution to the sex scandal were his widely consumed comments about how badly he thought the church was handling it.
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That February, former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick had been dismissed from the clergy about eight months after his resignation in July 2018 from the College of Cardinals and was accepted by Pope Francis. A church investigation and trial had found him guilty of sexual crimes against adults and minors and abuse of power.
The Catholic News Agency reported three weeks ago that McCarrick voluntarily had left the St. Fidelis Friary in Victoria, Kan., and would only describe his new residence as “a community for those removed from the ministry.” And a much-anticipated report from the Vatican concerning McCarrick has remained sealed. Both of those facts have outraged many Catholics.
Among those critics was Father Mark White, priest of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsville and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Rocky Mount.
But now he speaks no more.
The Diocese in Richmond late last year ordered White to silence and possibly could dismiss him from the priesthood for the disgust he has expressed about how the church has responded to the sexual abuse scandal and McCarrick’s involvement in it in both a widely read blog and from the pulpit.
White’s comments about McCarrick and other issues related to sexual abuse in the church not only are based in his understanding of how the church works but also from a deep and very personal angst: He was ordained by McCarrick, who was once one of the most recognized Cardinals in American history.
“I’m from D.C.,” White said. “I served in the Archdiocese of Washington from 2003 to 2010. I was in Montgomery County, Rockville, Maryland, for a period of time. I was in Prince George County for a period of time."
McCarrick became a cardinal in February 2001 and served as the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., from 2001 to 2006. Considered to be a power broker and connected to prominent politicians, he wielded an incredible amount of influence in the nation’s capital.
“He ordained me as a priest in 2003,” White said. "I was in D.C. for a good number of years in the city itself, and then I was transferred down here in the spring of 2011 by my own volunteering to do so because the diocese of Richmond is much more in need of priests than the Archdiocese of Washington is."
McCarrick’s alleged sexual abuse of adult seminarians was reportedly known to bishops as early as 1993, and word had reached the Vatican by 2016.
"In the summer of 2018 it was publicly made known that someone had accused him [McCarrick] of sexual abuse of a victim while he was a minor,” White said.
"It was a great blow to me and to my brother priests of the same generation that were ordained by him.
"Later that summer, as often does happen in cases like this, additional victims let the world know that they also had been victimized by him.
"Then an archbishop of the church who had retired released information about how authorities in the church had in fact known about all of this for decades without it ever being acknowledged publicly, and that gave me an impetus – a psychological need in order to preserve my own faith to study the whole thing as carefully as I possibly could."
White said he was not one of McCarrick’s victims, but he observed signs that later would become clear to him he was among seminarians who were being abused.
“He [McCarrick] wanted some of the men to wear certain shirts or clothes because he liked the way they looked. He built a trust that this was the way they could show their love for him.”
When the allegations of sexual abuse against underage males were made public in 2018, White said he was shocked at the realization that in the infancy of his new life as a Catholic priest, he had been living in a cesspool of deceit, lies and manipulation.
‘Father Mark Blog’
White began a personal blog called “Father Mark Blog” in August 2008. In the beginning he used it primarily for posting his homilies online for the benefit of the parishioners.
But as time passed and more of the egregious actions of McCarrick came to light, White began using his blog as a means of expressing his personal frustration with specific people in the Catholic Church and the apathetic attitude of the church hierarchy in general.
St. Joseph Eucharist Minister Barbara Kurtz says this is more than a story of a local priest being silenced.
"This is not just Father Mark or people in this diocese, this is across the board in the United States,” Kurtz said.
"People are very impatient about the fact that one Theodore McCarrick, who was a cardinal and is the cardinal that ordained Father Mark.
“He [Father Mark] knew him as somebody he looked up to. He [McCarrick] was a mentor of sort.
"I was listening to the conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States about two weeks ago. What I heard was more than one bishop say was that the people of their respective diocese anywhere in the United States are inpatient about this issue [sexual abuse] not being resolved and the issue is that Theodore McCarrick climbed the ranks … priest, probably monsignor, bishop, cardinal – it’s a very high position – and how did he do that because everybody – or many, many people seem to know that this man had been abusing children, young adults.
"How and why did he get to be so high in the church with a history like his, and the questions are not being answered and people are inpatient.
"Father [White] has been very vocal about his impatience.”
The popularity of the “Father Mark White Blog” began to grow, and on Nov. 7 White posted that he had received his “one millionth visit.”
“For good or ill, I find that a respectable number of visits,” White wrote. “Sharing this ride with you makes me a happy man. Let’s do another million together.”
Two weeks later, though, the blog of Father Mark White disappeared. He was silenced by the Richmond Diocese from communicating to the public online.
He is scheduled to meet Wednesday in Richmond with Bishop Barry Knestout. There is some thought – by White and his parishioners – that this could be his final moment as the priest of St. Joseph and St. Francis of Assisi.
How it began
In September 2018 White began posting some of his correspondence with Bishop Knestout from Richmond. Knestout has accused White of demanding that Pope Francis resign.
“You write that, in my open letter, I ‘demanded' that the Holy Father resign,” White shared with his blog readers. "That is not true. I begged him to resign. I explicitly acknowledged that he alone has a right to make such a decision.
"You could easily check what I wrote on my weblog – except you censored the post. I never demanded anything. I humbly begged. ‘Beg’ was my exact word.
"Did I disrespect you, or Pope Francis, by begging? Did I act with anything less than courtesy towards you [Knestout], or Pope Francis, by begging? Did I damage ecclesial communion by begging?
"You asked me to apologize to Pope Francis. For what? For loving him enough to point out that we have reached a dangerous impasse? If the full truth about McCarrick does not come out, then how will any of us who have been touched by his ministry recover?
"But, at the same time, how can any of us have confidence that the Holy Father will see to the full disclosure of all the facts? He has had ample time and opportunity to disclose them. But he studiously has refused to do so.
"You write that I have done you wrong by ‘addressing issues that directly affect’ you. Have you yourself suffered reprisals from the Holy See because of what I, one of your priests, has written? If so, I am sorry. But you can hardly identify me as the villain in that scenario.”
Bishop confronts White
On Nov. 21, parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount were in awe at the sight of Bishop Knestout and Vicar General Michael Boehling waiting for White and the conclusion of their noon Mass.
Both men had traveled from Richmond to meet Father White unannounced.
“Mark, I need to spend 15 minutes with you, after we greet the people,” Knestout was overheard by parishioners saying.
After that meeting in White’s office at the church, which lasted about 20 minutes, White’s blog was removed, and he was to abide by a new directive that limited his ability to communicate with the public only in person or from the pulpit.
Until Friday, there had been no public explanation from Knestout despite the outcry from local parishioners and followers of White’s blog.
“It is not the practice of the diocese to speak to any one individual’s blog or webpage, nor to personnel matters that are between Bishop Knestout and his priests,” Diocese Communications Director Deborah Cox said in response to the Bulletin's request for comment from Knestout.
The parishioners speak
With their priest under a mandate of silence, members of the book club at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsville sat at a table together recently and spoke openly about the situation and their extreme displeasure in the action taken by the Richmond Diocese against their Father Mark.
Jim Reaghard is the coordinator for the Reach Out program and on Parish Council at St. Joseph.
"He [Bishop Knestout] had a conference with him in his office,” Reaghard said. “I asked Father when I heard about it. … I said, ‘Was that an order?’ -- being military, you know, I’m a retired Naval officer -- and he says, 'Oh I guess so.’
"I don’t know the full story, but I do know that Father has a blog, and a lot of people have read it.
"I don’t follow blogs. I don’t follow things on social media or anything like that myself, but I heard the bishop kind of censured him and told him not to do this anymore, and I just went – why – and I was just kind of curious – and I don’t know, it must of struck a note with the bishop or maybe someone above him.
“Other people have read this blog, and it has helped them heal through some of the abusiveness that has occurred in the church.
"I’m really surprised that bishop is muffling his speech because one of the best things we can do is speak out and be honest and open with people and talk about what’s hurting us and he’s putting the pinch on him and telling him not to do that. I don’t think that’s fair.
"In America we have the right to free speech.”
Irma Harrison is the sacristan at St. Joseph.
"I think Father Mark’s blogs hit a nerve with the diocese because in those blogs he expresses concern, caring, he expresses frustration that things just aren’t moving fast enough – that the diocese isn’t doing everything it can and I think it strikes a chord with the hierarchy and the diocese that – ‘we don’t want to hear this.’
"I think that’s why he was asked to remove his blog. So he has no blog anymore. Since all this has broken loose, all this abuse in the church – Father has been very vocal about it.
"He’s been hurt because he’s a priest, it’s his church, so that hurts him.
"I think people reading the blogs who have experienced sexual abuse especially in the church – it gave them a sense that somebody’s speaking for them.”
Systemic lack of transparency
Said Eucharist Minister Kurtz: "So somehow what we have here with our bishop forbidding Father from continuing a blog and also demanding that he erase and remove any blog that he’s ever done in the past – obliterate all of it. One can’t help but think he’s protecting something.
"Why is he coming down so hard on Father’s questions and issues which are held by so many, many people. That’s questionable. And our bishop also was in Washington D.C., for many, many, many years. He worked as secretary to the last cardinal, the last archbishop of the diocese of Washington and he also worked for a brief time for the then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
"So part of Father Mark’s anger has to do with our current bishop saying right up at the front when he first became bishop he wrote in our newspaper ‘I know nothing about all of this.’ And Father Mark is skeptical – I’m putting it mildly – that he doesn’t know anything about it.
“It comes down to being a scapegoat.
"Two things that are the problem – lack of transparency. It seems to be systemic in the church. What you hear in the dark doesn’t get spoken in the light. You’re out there – people know what you’re thinking and what you’re saying. That isn’t happening. There is no transparency because none of the higher ups in the church, at least a great number of them, are not willing to say anything and so this drags out and drags out and drags out.
"The second is clericalism – which is a strange thing. It sounds like kind of a vague term but what it comes down to is like the old boys club. You take my back and I’ll take your back. So, if this priest or bishop knows that someone is being abusive – they don’t talk about it. Shoved under the rug.
"So each one protecting the other, it’s almost as though it’s a code."
Many of the followers of White’s blog offered opinions like Mike Keyser:
"Apparently, the 'good old boys club' in Virginia is closing ranks and trying to keep others silent on the issue of sexual abuse of children for their own self-preservation.
"Any attempt by the hierarchy to squelch this evil deed will eventually prove them to be on the losing side of His Story.
"Thank you, Father White, for not sweeping this under the carpet like it has been for so long.
"You are close to the cross.”
Richard Long is a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi.
“I am angered that this has happened,” he said. “His [Father Mark's] blog created healthy dialogue among Catholics and the public. Yes, he wrote about difficult topics. Like the sex abuse scandal in the church.
"It was meaningful enough to actually keep me in the church, when I considered leaving the church, because of the abuse crisis.
“The desire of many bishops to silence people, especially a Priest like Father Mark, is part of what led to such an abomination within the Catholic Church.
"Sweeping any of it under the rug will lead to future abuses. Conversation is necessary for healing within the church to occur.”
On Jan. 12 at Sunday Mass, Father Mark told his parishioners from the pulpit of St. Joseph in Martinsville that the bishop had threatened to remove him as their priest:
"In this church, we agree on faith and morals. We share the faith of the Apostles, which they and their successors have handed down to us, through the ages. And we govern our lives by the Christian rule of conduct. That does not mean, however, that we agree on everything.
"In the Catholic Church, we must respect each other’s right, and each other’s need, to study, to reflect, to form opinions, and to express ourselves.
"From the very beginning of our church’s pilgrimage on earth, open and honest debate has made up an essential part of the Christian life. The original Apostles argued about circumcising non-Jewish converts to Christianity.
"Different apostles had different opinions about it. It took some intense arguing before they found the path forward, and went down it together. And the uncircumcised men of the ancient world all breathed a sigh of relief.
"I dislike talking about myself up here. But I find myself in a difficult situation. And it’s a difficult situation for us all.
"The holy Catholic Church faced a profound crisis in the summer of 2018, as many of us remember. I began writing on my weblog about it, trying to understand the problem myself, and offering the reader whatever insight I had.
"I did 18 months' worth of writing on the subject—hopefully in the service of our Catholic faith, not against it. I don’t claim never to have made any mistakes. I’m sure I did.
"Until this past November, our bishop, Barry Knestout, tolerated my writing on my blog. Then he made a surprise visit to Rocky Mount, a week before Thanksgiving. He ordered me, in no uncertain terms, to keep silent. To remove my blog from circulation entirely, and to publish nothing further--not even my Sunday homilies.
"The bishop has every right to correct me, even to censor my writing, if he judges it necessary. We Catholic priests do not enjoy an absolute right to free speech.
"From the sacramental point-of-view, my ministry as parish priest here depends completely on his ministry as diocesan bishop. If the bishop identifies as unorthodox something a priest of his has written, the bishop has the duty to insist on a public correction.
"That said, bishops have to operate according to law and order, just like everyone else. He does not have the right, I don’t think, to silence someone completely.
"He doesn’t have the right to cut off an appropriate means of self-expression. Especially when there’s actually no question of unorthodox teaching here.
"I know I often bore you. But I don’t think that I have belabored my points about the sex-abuse crisis here at Mass. I have spoken about it a few times in my homilies, when it seemed like circumstances called for it.
"But mainly I have expressed my opinions on the subject just on my blog - for people to read as they might choose, or ignore as they might choose.
"I don’t remember ever insisting that you had to read my world-famous blog. To the contrary, my blog seemed like just the kind of freewill forum for me to express myself, without fear of reprisals.
"All kinds of cranks publish all kinds of blogs, after all. If I’m just another nut-job with a laptop—so be it. At least, that’s how I saw it, until this past Nov. 21.
"A month ago, I wrote the bishop asking him to reconsider his decision. He answered, expressing his willingness to meet with me next month, in February.
"If I don’t have a nervous breakdown before then, I will try to persuade the bishop at that meeting that he shows the strongest and most admirable leadership by tolerating the free expression of opinions. Especially opinions regarding the sex-abuse crisis in the Church.
"In the Middle East, cool heads are looking for an “off-ramp” from war between Iran and the United States. If I might, let me ask you to pray for an off-ramp from this controversy between the bishop and myself.
"In November, he sternly threatened to remove me as pastor here if I did not silence myself.
"I, for one, do not want to be removed as pastor here.”
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt
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