Catholic bishop suspends priest and issues trespass order over blog about clergy sex abuse

Because of content on his blog, the Rev. Mark White of Martinsville was suspended by his bishop as pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsville and St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount, Va.

By Michelle Boorstein

A months-long standoff between a Catholic bishop in Virginia and a priest who blogs frequent, strident criticism of the church’s handling of clergy sexual abuse has boiled over, with the diocese suspending the priest from ministry and changing parish and residence locks where he was assigned, the priest said Saturday.

The Rev. Mark White, who has been assigned to two southwest Virginia parishes, had refused to leave the church properties despite a trespass order, saying Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout is the one violating canon law by not giving more details about what Knestout considers White’s wrongdoing and by not waiting for an appeal to the Vatican to play out.

White Saturday blogged that the diocese changed the locks on the two parishes — St. Joseph in Martinsville and St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount — and on one of the residences. The two parishes are half-English, half-Spanish and have about 400 families each, he said. White was pastor to the two parishes from 2011 until April 13, when Knestout ordered him transferred to prison ministry in the midst of their conflict. White told The Post he is waiting for the appeal and is not leaving.

The diocese’s spokeswoman couldn’t be reached immediately for comment Sunday.

The dispute between the two men has been watched by the hundreds and sometimes thousands who read White’s blog, which is a mix of homilies and spiritual musings and frequent lambasting of church officials from Knestout to Pope Francis to disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who ordained White in May 2003.

While a priest being removed by a bishop isn’t unusual, the White-Knestout standoff taps into remaining deep mistrust and anger over the McCarrick scandal and how few bishops and cardinals have been held accountable for his long rise — particularly those who have worked along the New York-New Jersey-Washington, D.C. corridor where rumors of McCarrick’s sexual misbehavior percolated for decades.

The case also reflects the challenge posed to the world’s largest church — one accustomed to tight, top-down control — by the power of social media. The Vatican is increasingly calling social media an essential part of ministry and evangelization, but metrics of what is effective vs. what is divisive are growing more subjective. White had paused his blog last fall at Knestout’s order but restarted it in March because of the coronavirus shutdown, saying online ministering is crucial while parishes and Mass are shut off.

“I can’t recall a case when a pastor was removed because he was blogging,” said Kurt Martens, a canon law expert at Catholic University. “Blogging is a new way of ministry, so how do you stop a priest?”

At the time of White’s ordination, Knestout was priest-secretary to McCarrick. White argues that Catholic Church leaders haven’t come fully clean on what they knew about McCarrick, a former D.C. archbishop and towering leader in the U.S. church until 2018, when he was accused of sexual misconduct with young boys, seminarians and young priests. McCarrick was later defrocked, and it’s become clear that top leaders at least knew of the misconduct and abuse-of-power allegations involving adults who worked under McCarrick. A Vatican report into McCarrick’s career and how he rose to the top amid such complaints is pending.

White’s blog includes items on the role of redemption, St. Paul’s writings and the importance of keeping up spiritual training during quarantine, as well as many posts focused on the hierarchy’s actions as it pertains to clergy sexual abuse. He calls Knestout’s office “opaque” and says on the topic of sexual abuse it puts out “morale-sapping groupthink propaganda.” Bishops who don’t demand details about McCarrick from the Vatican are “feminized cowards.” His home archdiocese — of Washington — is an “edifice of lies.”

Knestout, offering a rare public explanation by a bishop, wrote a letter to parishioners in March that was published in the Martinsville Bulletin newspaper. In it he said White “has worked against the unity of the Church, promoted disrespect for the Holy Father, the Church hierarchy, his bishop, and has demonstrated a will adverse to obedience to the bishop of his diocese, which he took an oath to uphold at his ordination.”

But White, his church lawyer and some parishioners say White is the one promoting unity by pressing for justice and transparency and that Knestout is the one being divisive.

Priests are obliged to work for the “building up of the body of Christ,” concurs a March 27 letter from canon lawyer Michael Podhajsky to Knestout. “In fact, the very blog posts Your Excellency will later criticize were written with this very purpose in mind.”

The Wednesday suspension from ministry and Thursday trespass order are the apex of tension for two men who crossed paths uneventfully in D.C. nearly two decades ago.

White, who grew up in Northwest D.C., began his blog in 2008 and posted apparently without controversy until 2018, after the McCarrick scandal broke.

The revelations “completely threw me and changed my point of view on everything,” White told The Post. “All the outstanding cases, that victims weren’t accommodated, cases were shelved and treated as statistics — it all started to dawn on me.”

In a letter to the Richmond Diocese in July 2018, Knestout laid out the time the two men worked together and wrote that while he was in D.C., “I can tell you I was not approached by anyone with any allegations or evidence of sexual harassment or abuse involving the Cardinal.”

In the fall of 2019, Knestout ordered White to stop blogging or he would be suspended. In late November, White shut down the site.

The two men met twice about the conflict, White says — in November and February — but no agreement was reached. White says the bishop would not be specific about what posts were problematic and in what way. Knestout responded through his spokeswoman, Deborah Cox, who pointed The Post to some of White’s posts most confrontational and critical of church leadership.

Once the coronavirus shutdown began, White appealed to reopen his blog as a way to communicate with the parishioners he could no longer see. He says Knestout was unresponsive, and the bishop says his efforts to communicate with White were rebuffed. Without explicit permission, White restarted the blog.

Tensions continued, and in March the bishop wrote the letter to parishioners explaining his displeasure with his priest.

“From the beginning it has been my desire that Father White’s ministry in the diocese would be fruitful and effective, and that he provide that ministry as a happy and healthy priest. … This ministry is needed even more during a time of distress for so many of our people.”

In April, Knestout announced he was transferring White to prison ministry, but White has refused to leave.

Last week Knestout announced he was suspending the priest’s permission to operate his ministry in the diocese and sent White a trespass warning. Cox would not say explicitly why, calling it a personnel issue, but Podhajsky said it was because White had not moved to his new assignment.

Irma Harrison, second vice chair of the parish council at St. Joseph, said the parishes are strongly behind White. With the pandemic keeping them apart and Mass suspended, the removal of the priest to the communities is “devastating,” she said.

“Father Mark is a good pastor, a good man, and the bishop is not being adult about this,” she said. Of the pastor’s blog posts, she said he “was just speaking truth about the lack of transparency about sexual abuse, and he stepped on a few toes.”

Complete Article HERE!

I lost my faith trying to ‘pray myself straight’

The author was 13 years-old the first time he tried to “pray the gay away”. Lying in bed one night, he started talking to God, and begged him to make him straight.

by Patrick Kelleher

I had a number of theories about my sexuality in my early years. At one point, I believed that God had made me gay as a challenge to see if I could overcome my same-sex desire. Later, about a year and a half into my efforts to pray myself straight, I thought that he might have just made some horrendous mistake. But even believing that was difficult, because I knew that God didn’t make mistakes. So, the theory I ultimately settled on was that my attraction to other boys was actually just a phase – it would pass in time and then, finally, I would be just like everybody else.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Today, I am 26 years-old and I am openly and confidently gay. But I still look back on that teenager who so desperately wanted to change who he was and wonder: how did it get to that point? There were many reasons, of course; homophobic bullying, a hostile society – but my intense Catholic faith also played a big part in making me hate myself.

Many of us in Ireland talk about being “raised Catholic”, but this means different things for different people. Some people have intense religious childhoods where any deviation from their faith is met with punishment and shame. For others, it means stepping into a church for the odd communion or confirmation, but little else.

My childhood fell somewhere in the middle of these extremes. My parents, while not exactly devout Catholics themselves, brought us to mass most weekends. We were cultural Catholics, but religion was also a big part of our lives. It was how we came together and it allowed us to connect to something bigger than ourselves.

I lapped it all up. I was a voracious reader, and while I never successfully managed to read the Bible (I tried), I adored the stories I heard in mass. When I was a child, religion seemed exciting, thrilling, and – at its core – obvious. Why wouldn’t I believe in God? He loved me unconditionally. It was a glorious safety net for a child who was, from an early age, prone to anxiety.

I started praying to God every night early on in childhood. Prayer was part of my daily ritual and I looked forward to it. When I think back on that time, I remember feeling so close to God – I felt innately connected with something important. It was a comforting feeling, and I still miss it sometimes.

I didn’t yet know I was gay, but there were plenty of signs indicating that I was different from other children. When I was nine years old, in the playground, another child referred to something as “gay”. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew by the way he said it that it was a bad thing. When I asked, he explained that it was when two boys liked each other. I distinctly remember how I squirmed and thought to myself: “I hope that isn’t me.”

At 11 years-old, when most boys my age started having crushes on girls, I started having crushes on boys. By the time I was 12, my sexuality was in full swing – and I despised myself for it. I ventured onto Google and quickly established that being gay was not only socially unacceptable, but my church – the religion I cared so passionately about – strictly forbade it. I became increasingly aware of just how hated gay people were within Catholicism. It was an incredibly isolating and alienating feeling, to feel rejected from a place in which I had always felt so at home. I was too young to see the Catholic church’s anti-LGBT+ views for what they are: bigoted, normative, hateful. Instead, I told myself that I was the problem – that I needed to be fixed.

It was in that context that I started asking God to help me, to try to pray myself straight. My efforts were not without their complications; by that point, my faith was starting to crumble around me. I had backed myself into a theological corner, and it was patently clear that there was no easy way out of it. If God never makes mistakes, and makes us in his image, how could he have gone so far wrong with me? Why would he voluntarily create somebody who was intrinsically disordered when he makes everybody in his image? And if he truly loved me, as I had always been told he did, then why would he put me through this unbearable suffering? These questions did not have easy answers, and even while I continued to pray myself straight, they pushed me gently towards the exit door of atheism.

But I held out some hope. I took to crying myself to sleep, forgoing my nightly prayer routine for songs that made me feel less alone. When I was 13, I finally came up with a plan of action – I decided I would ask God to take this burden from me. To my dismay, my efforts to pray myself straight only made me more miserable. I felt utterly hopeless, and started to wonder if I would be better off dead. I contemplated suicide on numerous occasions as a teenager; whether to die or stay alive became a constant grappling point. I often wondered which would hurt my parents more: me dying or me coming out as gay.

Just before my 15th birthday, as I yet again tried to pray myself straight, I told God it would be the last time I would ask him to fix me. I told him I had had enough – I had tried hard enough to rid myself of these feelings. I asked him to rescue me – and he didn’t. That finally put an end to my belief in a higher power.

I’m sure that I will never fully understand the extent of the damage growing up Catholic and gay had on me. Like many queer people, I still, on occasion, feel a deep, internalised shame about my sexuality, and I still feel hatred, anger and betrayal wash over me every time I step inside a church. It is like visiting a childhood home and learning that things are not the same as they were. It is an intensely alienating feeling, standing in a beautiful Catholic church, remembering all the times I tried to pray myself straight, all the times I asked God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary to rescue me.

Today, I am firmly an atheist and the only masses I attend are the odd Catholic wedding. I’m not necessarily happy I’m an atheist, but I am happy that I’m no longer part of an organisation that is not just intolerant, but is actively hostile to LGBT+ people. I now understand that I, like all queer people, deserve so much better than what the Catholic church is prepared to offer us. I still hold out hope that one day, the church will change its teachings on LGBT+ issues, but that hope dims by the day. Every time it looks like Pope Francis is starting to move towards greater acceptance, he imminently throws more discrimination our way.

While my hope has dimmed, it has not died completely. I don’t keep that flame alive for my own benefit – I no longer care what the Catholic church thinks of me. I keep my hope alive for all the other children growing up in that institution. It breaks my heart that they have to learn that they are not loved unconditionally like their straight and cisgender peers. I hope that one day, young queer people will no longer contemplate suicide because the church that was supposed to love them rejected them. I hope that they will be able to go to mass and won’t feel alienated in the way so many queer people do.

But right now, change looks a long way off. The Catholic church of today is an intensely backwards organisation that endeavours to keep people inside tiny boxes. But queer people cannot – and will not – thrive inside boxes.

If you have been affected by this story, you can contact any of the following by clicking on the link:

LGBT Helpline
Aware 
Pieta House 
Mental Health Ireland

Complete Article HERE!

As A Survivor Of Clergy Sex Abuse,

The Pell Decision Makes Me Feel Numb

George Pell leaves prison on Tuesday, April 7.

By Andrew Collins

George Pell walks free.

That wasn’t what I expected to hear yesterday. Sure, I knew that there was a possibility that it might happen, but I didn’t expect it.

The only word I can think of to explain how I feel is numb. I’m not angry, upset, happy… just numb.

I have already been contacted by other survivors, and they are shocked and upset. I understand this. They were abused by people with status and power. The abuses were covered up by the Church, and then we had a Royal Commission during which complainants bared their souls.

But nothing changed for them. Yes, some laws were put into place to protect children today and in the future, but nothing changed for complainants. They wanted offenders to be held accountable. They wanted the institutions that covered up transgressions and allowed them to continue to be punished. They wanted justice.

When Pell was first charged, things changed in my hometown of Ballarat, where he was a priest. Half of the people were angry and wanted to see him imprisoned. Many had heard stories and were glad that something was being done. The other half were upset that he had been charged, and blamed complainants, calling them liars.

This was a tough time. It was funny to see the supposedly religious people hurling abuse at us. I was abused at the supermarket, from the windows of cars driving by, in anonymous notes left in the letterbox, and by email and on Facebook. I had to go to the police — they investigated Facebook posts and pages set up to defame me and others. In town, ribbons showing support for survivors were regularly cut down. And as the trial went further on these things did not stop, and still haven’t.

I can assure you that I did not venture outside yesterday.

Yesterday, the High Court said that the jury, judge and appeal judges all “failed to engage with whether… it was reasonably possible that [the complainant’s] account was not correct, such that there was a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt”.

When it’s one person’s word against another, there will always be the possibility that the incident didn’t happen. That’s why it’s in court. While we cannot be certain, I am fairly sure that the jury would have considered that the abuse may not have happened — but obviously they must have thought the evidence of the victim was more likely.

But Pell walks free.

The court is not about justice. It’s about legal procedure. Innocence and guilt are not the end objective — only what can be proven to the standard demanded by the court: beyond reasonable doubt. In cases of sexual abuse without a confession or physical evidence, this standard is nearly impossible to meet.

And this case will make it even harder. There will be fewer cases that make it to court — let alone ones that result in convictions.

All this decision means is that the prosecution couldn’t prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. There are still lots of questions around what Pell knew while children were being abused in Ballarat and when he knew it — matters that were investigated by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Because of his pending criminal trial at the time, the Royal Commission redacted anything to do with Pell in its 2017 report.

Pell claimed he didn’t know why Gerald Ridsdale, one of the most notorious paedophiles in the country, was moved from parish to parish by Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, the head of the Diocese of Ballarat in the 80s. The Royal Commission rejected that claim, insisting that Pell had to have known — he was one of Mulkearns’ consultors. But there was no evidence to prove it.

Complete Article HERE!

Pope Creates New Expert Commission to Study Women Deacons

A female priest on an ancient reliquary box

The Vatican said Wednesday that Pope Francis has created a new commission of experts to examine whether women can be deacons, an ordained role in the Catholic Church currently reserved for men.

The 10-member commission, the second of Francis’ pontificate to study the fraught issue, includes equal numbers of men and women representing the United States and six European countries.

Deacons are ordained ministers who perform many of the same functions as priests. They preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals, and they can preach. They cannot celebrate Mass.

Married men can be ordained as deacons. Women cannot, though historians say women served as deacons in the early Christian church.

In response to women demanding to be given greater roles in the 21st century, Francis established a commission in 2016 to study female deacons in the early Christian church. But the members failed to reach a consensus and the group effectively ended its work.

The issue was revived during Francis’ 2019 summit on the Amazon. The region’s bishops called for the question of women deacons to be revisited given the shortage or priests in the vast territory. Francis agreed at the time, and the new commission appears to be his follow-up.

Significantly, the scope of the commission’s mandate does not appear to be limited to the early church, as was the 2016 commission. Amazonian bishops had called for the real-life experiences of their region’s Catholic faithful to be taken into consideration in any new evaluation.

Advocates for expanding the ministry to include women say doing so would give women greater say in the ministry and governance of the church, while also helping address priest shortages in several parts of the world.

Opponents say allowing women to be deacons would become a slippery slope toward ordaining women to the priesthood. The Catholic Church reserves the priesthood for men, saying Christ chose only men as his 12 apostles. Francis has repeatedly reaffirmed the teaching.

The new commission has as its president the archbishop of the central Italian city of L’Aquila, Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi. An official from the Holy See’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was named to serve as No. 2.