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.”
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