RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Father Mark White, a Catholic priest with the Diocese of Richmond, gets to keep his robe but he’s lost his voice. He’s been ordered into silence by the Richmond Diocese Bishop Barry Knestout after he expressed criticism online of the church’s handling of sexual abuse cases.
“Being a silenced priest is a painful thing to be. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” says Father Mark White.
8News caught up with Father White this week as he celebrated mass with his congregation at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Martinsville. Just last week it was unclear if the pastor would ever stand on the church altar again or lead mass at his other parish, St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount.
“About a year and half ago is when I started writing about the sex abuse scandal in the church trying to deal with it and live in the truth,” Father White explained.
White ran a popular blog and at times his writings expressed frustration and disappointment over the church hierarchy’s decisions and sometimes apathetic attitude in handling its sex abuse cases.
“We need to, I think, to confront the cover-ups that have occurred and the pain that the victims of sexual abuse have endured at the hand of people they trusted,” said White.
For instance, White took to his blog to make it clear he had serious concerns with the church’s response to the sex abuse scandals involving Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the very man who ordained White as a priest. While McCarrick has since resigned, his file remains sealed at the Vatican.
In his blog, White pressed church leaders asking, “Why not release all the documents?” White told 8News, “When it was revealed that he had ruined the lives of a good number of men, I took that to heart.”
By November of 2019, interest in White’s blog had taken off. He shared on social media the blog was “heading for 2,000,000 visits.” But soon after that the blog disappeared.
White had been censored by the Richmond Diocese’s Bishop, Barry Knestout. He was given an ultimatum: take the blog down or lose his job.
“It was a stunner when he brought that to an end,” White told 8News.
Parishioners at St. Joseph’s were stunned too. Sebastian Lopez and Gerry Lawicki both welcomed the Pastor’s writings.
“This controversy over the blog and trying to suppress it came as bit of a shock to me,” said Lopez.
“I thought his blog, although at sometimes to a little but irritating to the hierarchy, was right one. I applaud him for the stand he took,” Lawicki, a member of the congregation for more than 25 years, said.
Hoping the Bishop would reconsider, Father White asked to meet with Knestout in Richmond last week.
“I was hoping we could have a good solid pastor to pastor conversation about how to achieve credibility as preachers of the good news of Jesus Christ,” he explained.
However, White told 8News the Bishop wouldn’t reconsider and he wouldn’t talk about any of the issues he raised in his blog. The pastor got to keep his robe but now his blog is gone.
“I am not a rebel. I love being a priest. I am going to obey the order,” White said. In a statement, The Diocese of Richmond told 8News in part:
Diocesan Response to Father Mark White’s Status in the Diocese of Richmond
Father Mark White remains pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsville and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Rocky Mount.
Bishop Barry C. Knestout has supported and continues to support the priests of our diocese in speaking about the impact of the sexual abuse crisis with their parishioners to help heal the Body of Christ. All communications should be expressed with charity, further the Gospel message and respect the dignity of all individuals. Bishop Knestout expects all clergy to express themselves in a manner that is respectful through their preaching, teaching, catechesis, and counseling within their parish communities.
For priests who may be struggling themselves with the deep pain of the crisis or who are still trying to come to terms with it and with the pain it has brought survivors, the faithful and them personally, Bishop Knestout’s door is open to provide assistance to help them and to accompany them along the way.”
Parishioners are disappointed in their Bishop. Lawicki says, “I think the Bishop has been extremely severe.” Another parishioner, Iris Lopez said, “He’s being overbearing. I think the Bishop needs to accept that he needs to change.”
The Richmond Diocese also told 8News in that statement, “The Catholic Diocese of Richmond has and continues to address and offer accountability and transparency about the abuse crisis.”
We asked if Father White saw it that way too. He said, “I wish I could say that I do. We haven’t reached the kind of openness I don’t think that can really give people peace and trust in the institution.”
8News requested an interview with the Bishop for this story and he refused. Since The Diocese released its clergy abuse list, about a year ago, 8News has on multiple occasions requested to talk with the Bishop, who has refused every single time.
The Diocese says for more information about how Bishop Knestout and the diocese have responded to the crisis in our local Church, visit their site.
SNAP, The Survivors Network Of Those Abused By Priests, urged the Bishop to reverse his decision and calls on other parishioners to voice their concerns. SNAP issued this statement:
Despite speaking publicly about the need for transparency and honesty with the public, church officials have silenced a Virginia priest for running a blog in which he was critical of church decisions and their strategy to handle abuse cases. We call on this decision to be reversed and hope that parishioners in Virginia will add their voice to ours.
The church needs more priests like Fr. Mark White, a priest from the Diocese of Richmond who, until late last year, ran a blog in his spare time. Diocesan officials ordered Fr. White to stop blogging in late 2019, silencing the voice of one priest who was sticking his neck out by standing up for survivors and not being afraid to call out the inaction of church leadership. In a place where Fr. White’s leadership and example was sorely needed, church officials have again chosen the wrong position.
If anyone knows about the problems within the church, it’s someone like Fr. White who works within the church and was ordained by one of its most notorious figures, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Fr. White should be looked to by church leaders for ideas, not punished for speaking out. To us, this decision only shows that church officials care more about their reputations than they do transparency or dialogue.
It’s hard to imagine why this decision was made and what PR advice church officials received before making it. By silencing Fr. White, they have brought more attention to his writing. By threatening his job, they have galvanized his supporters. We hope that members of the public and parishioners at Fr. White’s church will write to Richmond church officials, expressing their disdain and dismay at this decision, and urging it to be reversed.