After being shunned at the doorsteps of a Richmond bishop and now also at the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States in Washington, D.C., Father Mark White of Martinsville and his supporters intend to take their demands for justice to the Vatican in Rome.
You probably know the story by now. Father White was the priest serving St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsville and St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount. Late last year Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout told White to remove a popular blog he had created and used to occasionally criticize the church hierarchy’s handling of the sex abuse scandal within the church.
White initially complied with Knestout’s demand, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, he asked for permission to resume his blog as a means to remain in contact with his parishioners.
Receiving no answer, White resumed blogging, and Knestout responded by removing White as priest of the two local parishes and reassigning him to service in the prisons of southwest Virginia.
White took issue with the Knestout’s perceived authority concerning his right to express his opinion through a blog and submitted a formal request for the Vatican to settle the dispute.
Knestout responded by stripping White of his priestly duties.
The Vatican dismissed White’s request on the technicality of not naming his lawyer representing him in the matter as his “procurator.”
Last month White and his supporters traveled to Richmond where they protested Knestout’s actions outside the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, while Knestout was inside celebrating the ministry of his priests.
On Friday, White and his supporters took their appeal for justice to Apostolic Nuncio Christopher Pierre in Washington, D.C. Pierre serves as the pope’s ambassador to the United States.
White’s group had sent Pierre a letter two weeks before the trip asking for a meeting at 3:30 p.m. on Friday to discuss Knestout’s actions against White including the sex-abuse scandal and the rights of Catholics to speak their minds about the problems they see in the church.
"We came to try to talk to the pope’s representative here in the United States,” White said. "We had two topics that we wanted to discuss: The first one is - does it help our church to cover up the crimes of bishops and priests - does it help us or does it hurt us? Can we live in the truth? Can we help people to heal and find God again by living in the truth? That’s the first topic that we had hoped to discuss with him.
"Question number two: Are we allowed to have free speech in the church? Are we allowed to speak our minds about these things? Are we allowed to get things out in the open? Because that seems to be the way to make some headway here, to make some progress or do we have to suffer reprisals and persecution when we try to have this discussion?
"We’re here hoping someone will welcome us to have these discussions … but at least we can say at the end of the day today 'we tried.’"
Two vans from Martinsville and Rocky Mount occupied by White and his supporters arrived at the offices of the Archbishop on Massachusetts Avenue, across the street from the Vice President Mike Pence’s residence.
Other supporters were already in front of the building with signs that read “Justice for Father Mark.”
At least two of the supporters called the offices inside the building, requesting to meet with Pierre, but were refused because they did not have an appointment.
“The appointment was requested over a week ago, but they said you can’t come in without an appointment,” St. Francis of Assisi parishioner Joe Kernan said. “I said it’s just a bunch of faithful Catholics out here defending a courageous Catholic priest.
“I said we certainly would like to speak with someone about the issue, and they said well, no one is coming out if you don’t have an appointment, and no one is coming in.”
The only ones who met White and his group at the archbishop’s offices were members of the Secret Service, who arrived in three marked vehicles containing several uniformed officers.
After sizing the demonstration as lawful and peaceful, the officers assisted by closing one lane of traffic closest to the building to provide a safer distance between White and his supporters and passing motorists.
For 90 minutes a group of about 65 people wearing shirts and caps and carrying signs all signifying their support of White, sang, chanted and prayed.
"I’m very much heartened and encouraged by all the people who are here with me and the solidarity with the victim’s sexual abuse that everyone is trying to express and a desire for a new day at our church,” White said. “We could have a little more openness and honesty about the whole thing.”
Just as the number of supporters for White continues to grow, so do the number of media outlets covering his plight.
The Diocese of Richmond frequently will offer a comment after a story relating to White, and Knestout has been published or aired on television. Such was the case when WUSA-TV in Washington D.C. broadcast a story about White’s plans to come to the nation’s capitol.
“As of this writing, this is not just about Father Mark’s blog,” Deborah Cox, a spokeswoman for Knestout, said. “Father Mark continues to refuse to accept the assignment and the new job he has been given.”
White responded in his blog by pointing out what he described as Cox's mischaracterizing the situation.
“I very much want to work as a priest,” White wrote. “I appealed my removal as pastor in Rocky-Mount-Martinsville to the Holy See. Last month, the Congregation for the Clergy dismissed my appeal on a questionable technicality.
“In the meantime, Bishop Knestout suspended my priestly faculties - that is, my authorization to minister as one of his priests. I cannot minister in any assignment without that authorization.”
White said he asked Cox to correct her statement, but to his knowledge she had not done so.
Apostolic Nuncio Christopher Pierre did not respond to the Bulletin’s request for comment.
“Our parish life has really been wrecked by the things the bishop has done, and we want our parish life back, and we want a better future,” White said. “These are really good Catholic people - practicing Catholics who believe in a church that can deal with the truth."
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt
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