I Made a Mistake. I’m Sorry.
TLDR Version: I shared an article that I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t thoughtful or helpful to genuine understanding and dialogue. I apologize.
Those who follow In Spirit and Truth on Facebook know that I post once or twice a day with news, opinion pieces, and reflections related to the twin crises in our Church. I do a LOT of reading on the issue, and I try to study a variety of sources and perspectives, from both Catholic and secular news media. With bigger news stories, it’s easy to read several pieces on the same subject, seek out primary sources, and feel like I have a good handle on the subject. But I also like to highlight less-prominent stories, things that are happening on a local level but haven’t made it into the national spotlight. These stories are sometimes harder to dig into, but they often reflect the broader issues in our Church in an important way.
On Friday, I read one of these local stories - a story about Father Mark White, a parish priest in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. According to the story, Fr. White had recently been ordered to take down his popular blog after he posted “criticism online of the church’s handling of sexual abuse cases.” The article explained that “his writings expressed frustration and disappointment over the church hierarchy’s decisions and sometimes apathetic attitude in handling its sex abuse cases” and that Bishop Barry Knestout had given Fr. White “an ultimatum: take the blog down or lose his job.”
I shared the article on Facebook, with an outraged remark and an invitation to send messages of support to Fr. White. My post resulted in a fair number of comments from folks who agreed with me, seeing this as an example of the hierarchy’s pattern of suppressing courageous truth-tellers.
However, a few people also commented that I should be cautious when sharing this news piece, as there was more to the story than the brief media reports might suggest. So, I went searching and found a situation much more complicated than the black-and-white, hero-and-villain version presented in the news report I shared.
Fr. White’s blog is no longer accessible to the public, but a reader pointed out that I could still access an archived version of at least some of the content. Unfortunately, the archive only includes posts up through March 2019, so I can’t see for myself the more recent content that might have led to this confrontation with the bishop.
Fr. White’s blog begins back in August 2008, and there is a LOT of content - much more than I could read through this weekend. I did read most of what he wrote from August 2018 to March 2019, and here’s what I can tell you: Fr. White was doing much more than expressing “frustration and disappointment.”
A lot of Fr. White’s content about the sexual abuse crisis is exactly what I wish we were hearing from priests. He’s obviously aware of the seriousness of this problem and the inadequacy of our Church’s reaction. “Absent a comprehensive and communal response to the abuse crisis facing the Church,” he writes, “not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry out the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world” (12/18/18). His hope for the good that may come from the crisis also resonates with me deeply: “Many long, hard days await us. The entire American Church will undergo what the dioceses of Pennsylvania have undergone. Deep pain and shame. May the ordeal have this beautiful effect: Namely, that victims of sexual abuse in the state of Virginia, and throughout the US, will find the courage to seek justice. And may someone with authority have enough love and courage to try to see justice done” (10/25/18). I empathize with Fr. White’s passionate focus on seeking answers about who enabled Theodore McCarrick’s years of abuse. White’s Open Letter to McCarrick (still available online here) is a poignant reflection on his own feelings of betrayal by the man who ordained him to the priesthood. I should also note that I have seen abuse survivors in his diocese saying that Fr. White was kind and helpful to them when so many other priests were not.
All of this is good.
But I believe the story is a bit more complicated than that. Fr. White’s blog also includes some pretty inflammatory content. He frequently refers to Church leaders as “the mafiosi,” saying that “dangerous, dishonest mafiosi run the one, true Church of Jesus Christ” (1/16/19). At one point, he asks this series of questions: “What exactly is the crisis? Are schismatics trying to break down the communion of Christ’s Church? Will the pope have to resign because too many people lose confidence in his honesty? Is there a Gay Mafia operating at high levels?” (10/17/18).
There are also some not-so-subtle jabs at Bishop Knestout and what Fr. White calls his “authoritarian mind games” (9/23/18). In a post about a priests’ meeting with the bishop, Fr. White includes this commentary: “One: A hard-hearted scheming bishop. He hates some of his priests. He wants to see them suffer. So he includes their names in a published list of sex abusers. Two: A princely, zealous, loving bishop. He longs for the faithful people of his diocese to live in open, pure chastity. Free of sexual abuse... Trick is: How to tell these two characters apart, in real life?” (1/31/19).
One post published during the Vatican Abuse Summit is titled “Count the Holy See Among the Abusers” and includes this statement: “I despise everyone involved in the pope’s Roman meeting. I despise them all.” That post goes on to imply a serious accusation against Pope Francis: “What’s the answer to the question that no one had the courage to ask? Namely: Why, when Pope Francis first learned about the way that McCarrick had abused his seminarians–why did the Pope not immediately act?... What’s the most-reasonable answer? Using Ockham’s razor, to remove all superfluous abstractions, and try to get to the simplest explanation? Jorge Bergoglio is a McCarrick himself. Either a McCarrick manqué (never did, but wanted to) or a full-blown McCarrick. A despicable McCarrick” (2/25/19).
And this is just the content up to March 2019. I have seen others discussing things Fr. White has written since then, but since I cannot access those posts myself, I don’t want to comment on them. I will say that it is probably fair to assume that recent content might be even more inflammatory.
Just to be totally clear:
I’m not actually taking a position on Fr. White’s blog or about Bishop Knestout’s actions. You know I’m not shy about expressing my opinions, but honestly, in this case, I just don’t have enough information to have a well-informed opinion. In general, I think Catholics should be more vocal about their concerns and criticisms of actions by church leaders, without fear of repercussion. Maybe Knestout is way out of line, overreacting to honest criticism and dissent. Maybe he has something to hide. Or maybe at some point Fr. White stepped over a line into unchristian personal attacks or into scapegoating homosexuals for the problems of the Church. Maybe implying the Pope might be a child molester is going too far for the public statements of a parish priest.
(Of course, if I don’t know enough to judge the actions of these two men, even less do I know enough to judge their souls. I’m pretty sure Jesus had something to say about that, as a matter of fact.)
Anyway, I’m not taking a side here, except maybe against hasty simplistic reporting - and my own hasty social media posting - that doesn’t do justice to complex situations.
We can do better. We must do better.
As I reflect on my mistake, I realize that I was probably quick to share the story because it fits with my internal narrative. Unfortunately, after more than a year of digging into this mess and really listening to the experiences of survivors, it’s become easier and easier for me to believe the worst of bishops. So, when a story popped up that depicted a bishop silencing a priest who was just trying to express honest frustration with the Church's inaction on the abuse crisis, I found that narrative pretty easy to believe. However, even if a story feels plausible, it's still important for me to try to figure out if it’s true. Or to at least keep quiet until I can learn more.
I do take my responsibility with this platform seriously. My hope with this blog is to be a source you can trust for thoughtful, truthful information so that you can become better informed about these complex issues in our Church. Of course I’m not going to be perfect, but I need to be careful not to spread misinformation, add confusion to an already complicated issue, or pass judgment without enough information.
In this case, I don’t think sharing that particular news story was helpful to productive dialogue. I apologize, and I will work to be more careful in the future.
PS: Thank you to Jeanne and Bryan, who called me on my mistake and sent more information, and to Allen, who showed me how to access Fr. White’s old blog posts. I hope that if (when) I mess up again, there will be other good people who notice and help me to do better.
Lord, guide us to wisdom and prudence in our words and actions.