By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist Mark White
This spring, I received a letter from my boss ordering me to take down my blog or lose my job.
Workers all over the country have found themselves in this kind of situation. But I may yet become the first Catholic priest removed for blogging.
Until recently, I was the pastor of two parishes in southwest Virginia, one in Martinsville and the other in Rocky Mount. I love my work and my community of some 800 families. I began blogging in 2008 as an additional way of reaching the faithful. For the first decade, my digital homilies and musings attracted little attention outside my parishes.
In 2018, though, like many Catholics, I was shaken when news emerged of sexual abuse by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington.
I had been a seminarian when the Catholic Church was rocked by revelations of abuse 16 years earlier, in 2002. One of the many distressing facets of that crisis was that bishops had covered up the crimes of abusive priests, often transferring them to new positions instead of calling the police. McCarrick led much of the U.S. Catholic Church’s response to that scandal, speaking often to the press and championing a supposed “zero-tolerance” approach.
McCarrick ordained me in 2003. Back then, I believed I was entering the church at the outset of a new era of openness.
But as the world later learned, McCarrick himself molested seminarians under his authority and young boys. In the early 2000s, he arranged settlement payments to his victims, even as he stage-managed the church’s response to the crisis.
In 2018, as accusers came forward, the church stripped McCarrick of his status. It quickly emerged, though, that senior clergy had been aware of allegations against McCarrick for years. Pope Francis promised a thorough study of what the Vatican knew when. But today, two years later, the church has still not produced a public report.
When I learned of McCarrick’s misbehavior and the surrounding cover-up, I was deeply upset. I had received Holy Orders from a criminal — and felt a responsibility to explore how my church had failed. On my blog, I began to question and criticize Catholic leadership.
I understand why my superiors are not keen on a priest speaking out against the church. But Christianity directs the faithful to speak the truth freely. The church was literally founded on that principle, with Christ speaking the truth in the face of oppression. The Second Vatican Council recognized the centrality of this freedom when it asserted that “the search for truth must be carried out in a manner that is appropriate to the dignity of the human person. That is, by free inquiry, with the help of teaching and instruction, communication, and dialogue.”
Unfortunately, Bishop Barry Knestout, the leader of the Diocese of Richmond, does not appear to agree. In November 2019, he ordered me to remove my blog from the internet. I initially complied. But when the pandemic hit, I felt it was important to connect with my parishioners online. I resumed posting this past March.
In April, the bishop transferred me away from the two towns I know and love to serve as a prison chaplain several hours distant. While this is important work, Knestout’s intention was to punish and silence me, as he indicated when he wrote that “the restoration of your priestly faculties . . . will be dependent on your taking down your blog.”
I appealed to the Vatican and was awaiting an answer when Knestout prohibited me from practicing ministry in any form. He even changed the locks on the two churches I served, which include my living quarters. I have no other home in the area, and my mother resides in an assisted living facility nearby. At this point, I have to rely on the kindness of parishioners.
My problems are nothing compared to the larger issues facing the Catholic Church. Its leaders have not been forthcoming about McCarrick. Who enabled him to obtain one powerful position after another, in New York, New Jersey and Washington D.C., rising through church ranks over decades, even as accusations against him reached the Vatican? We still don’t know.
The faithful deserve a forthright conversation that would allow the church to reckon with its past and to prevent abuse in the future. To respond to that call with dictates for silence is to repeat the mistakes of the last two decades.
Right now, I can’t be sure of my future as a priest. But I do know that we need people speaking the truth freely in the Catholic Church more than ever.
Father Mark White is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia.