In Oct. 2008, Father Mark White started a blog under his name in the hopes that his preaching would reach those who don’t go to church. Ever since, he’s written about God, Kobe Bryant, and being pro-life, as well as sharing his homilies.
But he’s also been critical of the way some within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church addressed the clerical sex abuse crisis. The targets of his criticism have included Pope Francis and his own Diocese of Richmond in Virginia, which he’s called “opaque.”
White closed his blog in November 2019, after his bishop ordered him to do so. But after the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of Masses with the faithful, he decided to resume blogging, as a way to stay in communication with his parishioners.
His decision to challenge his bishop’s order, however, meant that on Monday he lost his job as pastor of two parishes in Martinsville and Rocky Mount: Bishop Barry C. Knestout sent a letter to White’s parishioners communicating the decision, and then the priest received an email himself.
White shared the “medium-length” answer of what happened with Crux during a phone conversation on Thursday: “in November he visited me unexpectedly to discuss with me my weblog. ‘Discuss’ is a euphemism, he visited me to order me to remove it from the internet effective immediately.”
As a footnote, according to a Nov. 13, 2019 post in White’s blog, the bishop had called him to ask for the meeting, and followed the telephone conversation with a letter giving three possible dates and times for the two to meet.
“I did comply with that order [to take the blog down],” the priest said. “I did some research on the documents of the Church on cases like this, and I initiated what those documents suggest in order to try to work out a compromise, trying to get more information about what exactly he objected to because he had given me nothing in writing. I didn’t really know what he was objecting to at the time.”
White then wrote the bishop “a couple of times,” asking for more information and proposing “7 or 8” possible mediators in the course of the past five months. Knestout and White met again Feb. 5, with the presence of some parishioners who read the blog regularly and the diocesan vicar general. Again, no compromise was reached.
Working with a canon lawyer, White penned a letter that he planned on sending to the bishop “when such time occurred that it would seem to me that resuming the blog was the right thing to do.” The letter recounted what the priest had gone through to try to reach a compromise and highlighted his point of view on the way the Church’s law touched on the situation. He thought months or years could go by before he used it, because he wanted to “see what God had in store for me.”
“But then this virus came, and I thought, Lord, you can hardly be any clearer,” White said. “Because if there ever was a time for a priest to be able to communicate with his people, this is obviously it.”
The priest sent the letter to Knestout. When he received no answer, he decided to get the blog back up to share his homilies. Moreover, he also decided to share several posts that he had written since shutting the blog down in November. These posts touched on many things: From Bryant’s death earlier this year to a detailed post on a suit lodged in Dec. against the Archdiocese of New Jersey and the Holy See by one of the victims of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, removed from the priesthood by Pope Francis after he was found guilty of having sexually abused minors and adults.
A week later, Knestout sent a letter to the faithful who attend the parishes of St. Joseph and St. Francis of Assisi where White is working. In the letter, available online, the bishop accused the priest of being divisive.
Upon Crux’ request for comments, the spokesperson for Knestout provided links to the statements the bishop had already made regarding this matter, including the letter to parishioners, dated March 19. A statement from April 13 says the bishop will not be further commenting on the issue at this time.
“For months, you may have read his written public communications or his words within the secular media,” Knestout starts referring to White. “For months, I have chosen to remain silent in the hopes of remedying the situation internally. But, relying on the Holy Spirit, I feel a pressing need to address my concerns with you as members of this diocese entrusted to my care.”
“For more than a year, in fact since the fall of 2018, in my judgment Father Mark 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,” the bishop wrote in his letter to White’s parishioners.
“This has occurred on his website through a series of blog posts under the general heading of ‘the McCarrick case, the PA Grand Jury Report, the February 2019 Vatican Meeting, and the Scandal in general’ beginning (according to Father White’s own index) from Nov. 17, 2018 to Oct. 3, 2019,” Knestout continues.
According to the bishop, each time he urged White to refrain from inflammatory comments on his blogs, the priest answered by publicly ridiculing or embarrassing him on his blog.
“As members of this local faith community, I reach out to you, so you understand and hear from me the importance of this matter,” the bishop wrote. “My hope is that Father White might be encouraged to follow a more productive path of serving his parish community, without the use of language that is damaging, divisive and detrimental to the communion of the Church and the good names of those who serve her.”
According to White, there are “a couple of factual points” in the bishop’s note that are wrong, including the assertion that the two didn’t discuss the matter in person when they did, twice, in November 2019 and February 2020.
According to the priest, the bishop was using the letter to try and get White’s parishioners to convince White that he was in the wrong.
“It didn’t really work, and I feared that it was a matter of time before something happened,” White told Crux. “And a week and a half later, he wrote to my parishioners saying I had been removed, and then I received an email saying I had been removed.”
That communication came on Easter Monday. Short and to the point, it stated that effective April 13, White was appointed as chaplain to the various state and federal prisons within the diocese, and that until a new pastor is appointed, Father Kevin Segerblom, Episcopal Vicar for the Western Vicariate, would oversee the pastoral and administrative duties of the two parishes.
When asked by Crux why he didn’t just use the parish website or Facebook page to communicate with parishioners instead of his blog, White said it would have been “perfectly reasonable,” but that he was trying to make a point.
“My thinking was, the bishop’s suppression of my blog is wrong, and I can’t let it stand forever, and I’m waiting for the time the Lord would choose for me to make my points about that,” he said. “It seemed to me like the Lord was telling me ‘this is the time’.”
Today, White acknowledges that his rift with the bishop means it’s not “inconceivable” that he would be dismissed from the priesthood, and that it that’s the “will of God” he will accept it. But in the meantime, “I love being a priest, my whole life is based on being a priest, and I love parish ministry. I got into this business of trying to get to the bottom of my understanding of [the abuse crisis] because of my love for people’s souls and my need to work on my own.”
Former seminarians who studied with White in Washington D.C. have told Crux that the priest had been an important support when they had to “endure Ted,” referring to McCarrick.
White has appealed Knestout decision to remove him from his parishes, and said he plans on remaining in his position until the canonical process has run its course.
He said he hopes the bishop will follow the rules as they are spelled out on canon law and that the Church’s justice system will abide by canon law.
“But he’s given me no reason to believe that that’s what he’s going to do,” White said. “I believe his next move is to not cooperate in the removal of a pastor procedure but to initiate a dismissal procedure based on me not obeying him.”
He said this could result in the removal of White from the priesthood.
“And I hope that I will get justice in that process, but part of what I’ve been writing about is the fact that the quest for justice by victims in the Church has been almost impossible to see through in the end,” White said.
“I want it to be clear that I want to be an obedient priest. All I want to do is do my duty as a priest, I don’t want to be hero,” he said. “I’m resisting the bishop at this moment to guarantee that we follow the rules properly.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma