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.”
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.
A well-known County Mayo priest who is an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage and labelled himself as a “beholder of all moral virtues” has been arrested due to the inappropriate contents of his laptop hard drive.
Police confirmed today to Meanwhile in Ireland that Father Doyle (63) was caught by peers watching illicit content on his laptop, who then informed the police of the priest’s questionable conduct.
Father Doyle remains in police custody and is facing charges of holding, viewing and distributing illegal content. State prosecutors remain confident of securing a conviction, with the judge presiding over the case said to have an aversion “for them slimy b***ards”.
Opposition to same-sex marriage
Father Doyle first shot to national prominence during the 2015 referendum on whether or not to legalise same-sex marriage in Ireland. The Mayo man had signalled from the start his opposition to the move.
Father Doyle labelled the idea of same-sex marriage as an “affront to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ” and that it would be “the most immoral sin our nation has committed since we legalised divorce”.
He campaigned vigorously across the country, moving from parish to parish, and spouting homophobic after homophobic comments after another. He could be heard hissing “Those gays” when in the presence of a homosexual couple.
Directions to his clergy
Speaking to his clergy in a speech that was aired live on social media, the priest rolled back the centuries with his homophobic rhetoric. In no uncertain terms, Father Doyle forbade his clergy vote in favour of the move.
“Do not dare any one of you vote “Yes” to ‘marriage equality’. Saying the term makes my skin wrinkle. What right-thinking Christian would think they deserve equality in our churches? We are only men and women of a strong moral compass.
“As good Christians, we have a duty to live by the Bible and its teachings. Now, it doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that gay people cannot marry. But you can ignore that part, cause I said so.”
Father Doyle was close to quitting the priesthood after Ireland voted overwhelmingly to legalise same-sex marriage, in a vote that was widely accepted across society. Ireland had “lost all moral right of speech” Father Doyle proclaimed after the results.
Father Doyle exposed
However, in a radical turn of events, Father Doyle soon hit the national screens again, but this time he was in handcuffs en route to the Gardaí police station after his phone, laptop and other personal belongings were seized for inspection.
Child pornography, amongst a range of other disturbing content, was found by police on his phone and laptop. It is not worth putting into words what else was found on the devices, but it is believed messages of support to disgraced fellow priests were saved on his documents.
Not so moral anymore
Meanwhile in Ireland have since learned that Father Doyle no longer claims to be “holier than thou” and has admitted that all of his moral rhetoric was a false pretence to cover up his actions. It may not be the last time we report this.
The cardinal’s response was not what Yolanda Martínez had expected — or could abide.
Her son had been sexually abused by a priest of the Legion of Christ, a disgraced religious order. And now she was calling Cardinal Valasio De Paolis — the Vatican official appointed by the pope to lead the Legion and to clean it up — to report the settlement the group was offering, and to express her outrage.
The terms: Martínez’s family would receive 15,000 euros ($16,300) from the order. But in return, her son would have to recant the testimony he gave to Milan prosecutors that the priest had repeatedly assaulted him when he was a 12-year-old student at the order’s youth seminary in northern Italy. He would have to lie.
The cardinal did not seem shocked. He did not share her indignation.
Instead, he chuckled. He said she shouldn’t sign the deal, but should try to work out another agreement without attorneys: “Lawyers complicate things. Even Scripture says that among Christians we should find agreement.”
The conversation between the aggrieved mother and Pope Benedict XVI’s personal envoy was wiretapped. The tape — as well as the six-page settlement proposal — are key pieces of evidence in a criminal trial opening next month in Milan. Prosecutors allege that Legion lawyers and priests tried to obstruct justice, and extort Martínez’s family by offering them money to recant testimony to prosecutors in hopes of quashing a criminal investigation into the abusive priest, Vladimir Reséndiz Gutiérrez.
Lawyers for the five suspects declined to comment. The Legion says they have professed innocence. A spokesman said that at the time, the Legion didn’t have in place the uniform child protection policies and guidelines that are now mandatory across the order.
De Paolis is beyond earthly justice — he died in 2017 and there is no evidence he knew of, or approved, the settlement offer before it was made. But the tape and documents seized when police raided the Legion’s headquarters in 2014 show that he had turned a blind eye to superiors who protected pedophiles.
In addition, the evidence shows that when De Paolis first learned about Reséndiz’s crimes in 2011, he approved an in-house canonical investigation but didn’t report the priest to police. And when he learned two years later that other Legion priests were apparently trying to impede the criminal investigation into his crimes, the pope’s delegate didn’t report that either.
And a few hours after he spoke with Martínez, De Paolis opened the Legion’s 2014 assembly where he formally ended the mandate given to him by Benedict to reform and purify the religious order. The Legion had been “cured and cleaned,” he said.
In fact, his mission hadn’t really been accomplished.
Benedict had entrusted De Paolis, one of the Vatican’s most respected canon lawyers, to turn the Legion around in 2010, after revelations that its founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, had raped his seminarians, fathered three children and built a cult-like order to hide his crimes.
There had been calls for the Vatican to suppress the Legion. But Benedict decided against it, apparently determining in part that the order was too big and too rich to fail. Instead, he opted for a process of reform, giving De Paolis the broadest possible powers to rebuild the Legion from the ground up and saying it must undergo a profound process of “purification” and “renewal.”
But De Paolis refused from the start to remove any of Maciel’s old guard, who remain in power today. He refused to investigate the cover-up of Maciel’s crimes. He refused to reopen old allegations of abuse by other priests, even when serial rapists remained in the Legion’s ranks, unpunished.
More generally, he did not come to grips with the order’s deep-seated culture of sexual abuse, cover-up and secrecy — and its long record of avoiding law enforcement and dismissing, discrediting and silencing victims. As a result, even onetime Legion supporters now openly question his reform, which was dismissed as ineffective by the Legion’s longtime critics.
“They always try to control victims, minimize them, defame them, accuse them of exaggerating things,” said Alberto Athié, a former Mexican priest who has campaigned for more than 20 years on behalf of clergy sexual abuse victims, including victims of the Legion.
“Then, if they don’t achieve that level of control, they go to the next level, looking for their parents, trying to minimize them or buy them off, silence them. And if that doesn’t work, they go to trial and try to do what they can to win the case,” he said.
Now, victims of these other Legion priests are coming forward in droves with stories of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse, and how the Legion’s culture of secrecy and cover-up has remained intact.
“They say they’re close to the victims and help their families,” Martínez told The Associated Press at her home in Milan. “My testimony is this didn’t happen.”
Martínez, a 54-year-old mother of three, chokes up when she recalls the day she received the phone call from her son’s psychologist. It was March of 2013, and her eldest son had been receiving therapy on the advice of his high school girlfriend. Martínez thought she was about to learn that she would be a grandmother; she thought her boy had gotten the girl pregnant.
Instead, Dr. Gian Piero Guidetti told Martínez and her husband that during therapy, their son had revealed that he had been repeatedly sexually molested by Reséndiz starting in 2008, when he was a middle schooler at the Legion’s youth seminary in Gozzano, near Italy’s border with Switzerland. Guidetti, himself a priest, told them he was required by his medical profession to report the crime to prosecutors.
His complaint, and the testimony of Martínez’s son, sparked a criminal investigation that resulted in Reséndiz’s 2019 conviction, which was upheld on appeal in January. Resendiz, 43, who was convicted in absentia and is believed to be living in his native Mexico, has until the end of March to appeal the conviction and 6 1/2-year prison sentence to Italy’s highest court. His lawyer, Natalia Curro, said an appeal is being considered, and said her client denied having abused Martinez’s son, though he admitted to abusing another boy.
The investigation, however, netted evidence that went far beyond Reséndiz’s own wrongdoing. Documents seized by police and seen by AP in the court file showed a pattern of cover-up by the Legion and the pope’s envoy that stretched from Milan to Mexico, the Vatican to Venezuela and points in between.
Personnel files, for example, made clear Resendiz was known to the Legion as a risk even when he was a teenage seminarian in the 1990s, yet he was ordained a priest anyway in 2006 and immediately sent to oversee young boys at the Gozzano youth seminary.
“He’s a boy with strong sexual impulses and low capacity to control them,” Reséndiz’s novice director, the Rev. Antonio León Santacruz, wrote in an internal assessment on Jan. 9, 1994. “Given his psychological character, he’s inclined to not respect rules without great difficulty and the psychologist thinks it will be difficult for him to undertake consecrated life given he has little respect for rules. He follows them as long as he’s being watched, but as soon as he can, he breaks them and has no remorse.”
A year later, on Reséndiz’s 19th birthday, the seminarian wrote a letter to Maciel — addressing it as all Legionaries addressed the man they regarded as a living saint: “Nuestro Padre,” “Our Father.”
“I’m having various problems in the field of purity and the truth is I’m having a hard time, because temptations are coming to me,” he wrote. “I’m praying to the Holy Virgin every day for grace and asking her for strength to not offend again; I say again because I have had the disgrace of falling, but with the help of God I will fight to form that pure, priestly heart.”
When Martínez saw such letters in the court file, her heart fell.
“My son wasn’t even born yet,” she said. “How can you put someone like that in charge of a seminary?”
A Legion spokesman, the Rev. Aaron Smith, said the Legion has overhauled its training process for seminarians since Reséndiz’s era, applying more scrutiny before ordination.
“Things are different today,” he said in emailed response to questions.
While Milan prosecutors first heard about Reséndiz’s pedophilia in March 2013 when the therapist reported it, the crimes were old news to both the Vatican and the Legion.
The Legion has admitted it received a first report of abuse by Resendiz on March 6, 2011, from another boy who had been a student at Gozzano. The Legion says that boy, an Austrian, had first told a Legion priest of Reséndiz’s abuse. That priest recommended he report it to a church ombudsman’s office in Austria that receives abuse complaints, which he did, Smith said.
Separately, the Legion got wind of another possible victim in Venezuela, where Reséndiz had been sent from Gozzano in 2008, after he abused Martínez’s son.
Italian police were never informed by the Legion or the Vatican. Neither the Vatican nor Italy requires clergy to report suspected child sex abuse.
When police finally did get wind of the case in March 2013, they uncovered elaborate efforts to keep Reséndiz’s crimes quiet. According to one email seized by Italian police — written March 16, 2011, or 10 days after the Austrian claim was first received by the order — a Legion lawyer recommended to one of the Legion’s senior behind-the-scenes bureaucrats, the Rev. Gabriel Sotres, that a Legion priest visit with the victim in Austria.
The aim of the visit, prosecutors wrote in summarizing the email exchanges, “was to speak to the (victim’s) older brother and convince him to not tell their parents and not go to police because this could cause serious problems not only for the Legion but also Father Vladimir, all the other priests involved and the victim and his family.”
Smith, the Legion spokesman, didn’t deny the prosecutors’ account but said that “encouraging a child to keep something from their parents or guardians is contrary to our code of conduct.”
Later in 2011, the Legion arranged for Reséndiz to be transferred from Venezuela to Colombia, and prepared a legal strategy to limit the possible damage if the Venezuelan case escalated. The emails were sent to several Legion leaders, including Sotres, who remain in top positions today. In fact, in the Legion’s current leadership assembly under way in Rome to choose new superiors and priorities, at least 13 of the 89 participating priests or their substitutes were involved in some way in dealing with the Reséndiz scandal, fallout and cover-up, including two priests who are defendants in the upcoming Milan trial.
According to the seized emails, the plan proposed by a Legion lawyer involved reporting only Reséndiz’s name to Venezuelan police to comply with local reporting laws, leaving out that he was a priest, that he was accused of a sex crime against a child, and the name of the Legion, prosecutors said in summarizing the emails. The report would also note that he no longer lived in Venezuela.
The Legion has said Reséndiz was removed from priestly ministry and from his work with young people in Venezuela within days of receiving the initial Austrian report.
But the emails seized indicate that the restrictions weren’t necessarily enforced: One from Dec. 20, 2012, suggests that Reséndiz was hearing confessions in schools and celebrating Mass in Colombia, news that prompted the leadership to ultimately recommend he be sent for psychological counseling in Mexico and later assigned to an administrative position “where they don’t know his situation.”
Eventually, as part of the church’s in-house investigation, Reséndiz confessed — but only to the Legion and Vatican authorities, and only about other boys he abused, not Martínez’s son.
“I sincerely recognize my terrible behavior as a priest,” he wrote the Vatican official in charge of the sex crimes office in 2012, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller. “Truly I lived in hell when these sad facts occurred. I recognize the gravity of the acts that I committed and I humbly ask the church for forgiveness for these sad and painful facts. I can’t understand how it could have happened, and I recognize that I lacked the courage to admit to the problem and advise my superiors of the danger.”
The Vatican defrocked him on April 5, 2013 — just a few weeks after Italian prosecutors first heard about Martínez’s son.
By October of that year, the Legion was nearing the end of De Paolis’ mandate and clearly wanted to avoid the possibility that the Reséndiz case could explode publicly and jeopardize the plan to resume their independence from the Vatican.
Martínez and her family, for their part, were coping with the trauma of her son’s abuse.
“He would have nightmares. He wouldn’t let me touch him …,” Martínez said. “He couldn’t stand anyone being close to him.”
Once, he was even prevented from throwing himself in front of a subway train.
Martínez had been in regular touch with the Legion priest closest to the family, the Rev. Luca Gallizia, her husband’s spiritual director. He was serving as the family’s contact with the Legion, after all other priests and members of Martínez’s Regnum Christi social circle severed contact — apparently on orders from the leadership.
Gallizia traveled to Milan to meet with Martínez on Oct. 18, 2013, bringing a proposed settlement to compensate the family. They met in a room off the parish playground of the Sant’Eustorgio basilica where Martínez worked.
When Martínez read it later that night with her husband, she was shocked.
“It was a second violation, because for all intents and purposes in that letter, they asked us to deny the facts. And for us it was a stab in the back because it was brought to us by our spiritual father. … He knew everything about us, because my husband confided in him. And that made it even more painful.”
The Legion declined to comment on the proposed settlement, citing the upcoming trial.
The document the Legion wanted Martínez’s family to sign states that her son ruled out having been sexually abused by Reséndiz and regardless didn’t remember. It said he denied having any phone or text message contact with him, and that his ensuing problems were due to the fact that he left the seminary and was having trouble integrating socially into his new public high school.
The document set out payments for the son’s continuing education and therapy and required “absolute” secrecy. If the family were called to testify, they were to make the same declarations as contained in the settlement — denying the abuse.
A few months later, the Legion realized it had erred in leaving the proposal with Martínez and proposed a revised settlement acknowledging the abuse occurred. Now, though, it required the family to pay back double the 15,000 euro ($16,300) settlement offer if they violated the confidentiality agreement.
It was then that Martínez called De Paolis.
“Both my lawyer and I, our jaws dropped,” she told the Vatican cardinal.
The pope’s envoy said he was surprised as well.
“Yes, but this, this is how it’s done in Italy,” he said.
The mother would have none of it. “It’s not a very nice agreement, signing a lie,” Martínez told the cardinal. “Aside from the fact that I don’t want any money, I’m not signing the letter.”
Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone resigned in December 2019 after intense public criticism for his handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York.
His departure came three months after the Vatican announced what’s called an “apostolic visitation” – a religious investigation that allows the pope to swiftly audit, punish or sanction virtually any wing of the Roman Catholic Church – into Malone’s diocese, or region.
In my research on clergy sexual abuse, I’ve learned that these investigations are still shrouded in secrecy.
Visitations for clergy sexual abuse
When clergy abuse cases first emerged in the 1980s, the Vatican used apostolic visitations to punish Catholic institutions who had attracted negative press for their role in the scandal.
After lawmakers in Ireland, Canada and the U.S. suggested that seminary training was a potential cause of the clergy sex abuse crisis, for example, the Vatican ordered visitations to investigate the entire network of seminaries in those countries.
Though the full results of these investigations are rarely made public, resignations of troublesome clergy typically follow.
Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, for example, refused to leave office even after he was convicted in 2012, by the circuit court of Jackson County, Missouri, for his failure to report child sexual abuse. After awaiting his resignation for two years, the Vatican pressured Finn by opening a visitation in 2014. He promptly resigned after the Vatican’s investigation.
In the ancient church, popes used apostolic visitations to govern far-flung regions. But since the creation of separate political delegates in the 16th century, visitations have been used more for emergency situations.
A biblical approach to managing scandals
The theology underpinning apostolic visitations comes from the Christian Bible, particularly passages from the Gospel of Mark and St. Paul’s Letters, which urged early Christians to supervise one another.
The medieval Catholic empire was so diffuse that bishops had to travel long distances to “visit” their communities. Those yearly visits are still called “canonical visitations” because they are described in canon law, the regulations that govern clergy.
Unlike mundane canonical audits, apostolic visitations are special investigations ordered by the pope, who chooses a delegate, or “visitor,” to lead the inquiry. The Vatican has sole discretion over the purpose, scale and duration of the investigation.
In theory, apostolic visitations need not be punitive. They could instead serve as a constructive way for the pope to delegate bishops to work as internal consultants or executive coaches for struggling units within the church, which oversees an estimated 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide.
However, Catholic laws define visitations in explicitly judicial terms, and scholars have concluded that the investigations are nearly always a form of discipline.
Visitations are highly secretive. Even when the Vatican acknowledges that an visitation is underway, it seldom discloses the pope’s reasoning for opening the inquiry, let alone the full findings of the investigation.
This lack of transparency has been condemned by some Catholics who expect the modern church to hold fair and open trials.
The Vatican was widely criticized, for example, for its inability to articulate why it investigated all 60,000 nuns in the United States. Pope Benedict initiated that controversial visitation in 2008, only to have it quietly closed in 2014 by his successor, Pope Francis, who did not impose any changes on American nuns.
Resigning in a more dignified way
In the case of Bufallo’s Bishop Malone, none of the visitation’s findings have been shared publicly. In his official statement, Malone defended his handling of clergy abuses before explaining that “prayer and discernment” had led him to resign.
Malone admitted that the apostolic visitation was “a factor” in his decision, but he was also adamant that the pope had not forced him to retire.
The authoritarian and top-secret nature of apostolic visitations makes it impossible to know whether the Vatican discovered any new allegations of child sexual abuse in Buffalo. The integrity of the visitation has also been called into question, because the inquiry was led by a bishop who is himself now under investigation for allegations of child sexual abuse.
As a result of all this secrecy, the public cannot know whether Pope Francis is being proactive in his outreach to survivors, especially to victims from dioceses where the bishop is suspected of having concealed the church’s crimes.