The boiling dispute between a Rocky Mount priest and a Richmond bishop could wind up spilling over the doorstep of the Vatican in Rome.
That is the intention of Michael Podhajsky, the canon lawyer retained by Father Mark White to defend against the efforts of Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout to remove White as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Rocky Mount and St. Joseph Parish in Martinsville.
Knestout issued a decree effective April 13, the day after Easter Sunday, removing White and declaring the priest had “persistently disregarded” repeated instructions “to desist from his scurrilous and public, published attacks on His Holiness, Pope Francis and other members of the hierarchy.”
“My canon lawyer and I both communicated with the bishop our intention to contest his decision to remove me from office, following the normal procedure to do so,” White said. “The church-law effect of the contest is: I remain pastor until the process concludes.”
But Knestout maintains he has the authority to reassign White. In a letter to the parishioners of both churches, written the same day as the decree, Knestout wrote that White had been reassigned as “chaplain to various prisons, state and federal, within the diocesan bounds.”
“He has received a new assignment and will [be] leaving the area within the week,” Knestout wrote.
Said White: “He wrote that I must vacate my residence by April 17, and should I continue to disobey, he will petition for my removal from the priesthood.”
Late last year Knestout ordered White to remove a popular blog he had authored that often was critical of the way the hierarchy of the church has responded to the sexual abuse scandal.
White was summoned in early February to the Diocese of Richmond to meet with church officials, and church officials traveled to Rocky Mount a few days later to deliver an oral directive to White, telling him to cease posting to his blog under the threat of being removed.
The diocese also took out full-page ads in the Martinsville Bulletin and at least two other state newspapers.
Knestout later submitted a letter to Catholics that was published in the Bulletin, and White responded with a public letter to the bishop.
White initially complied with the bishop’s requirement, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and St. Joseph and St. Francis closed to the public and suspended all Masses.
White said in late March he realized the value of his blog, which had reached more than 1 million readers, as a means of communications was more important than ever, so he wrote to Knestout and asked to be allowed to resume his posts.
Receiving no response, White made the decision to violate Knestout’s order and resurrect his blog.
Now that Knestout has issued the decree of removal, and White’s attorney has petitioned against it. White says he cannot get copies of his records.
“If I want to examine the records of my dismissal from office, I must come to Richmond and sign a statement that I will keep everything I see a secret,” White said. [The] “bishop accuses me of ‘fomenting dissent … publishing objectionable and misleading statements” and is demonstrating disregard for the obligations that exist between a priest and a bishop.
Knestout has spoken about this conflict only through letters or statement from Deborah Cox, his director of communications. He has taken no direct questions.”
Who is in charge?
Knestout has proceeded with his arrangements regarding the parishes in Martinsville and Rocky Mount as if White were cooperating.
On April 16, “Father Kevin Segerblom, pastor of St. Andrew’s in Roanoke, calls the parish secretary to make arrangements to say the weekend Masses [via livestream],” White said. “She informs him that she is in possession of the bishop’s letter and my letter to parishioners, and, according to her information, I remain as pastor and will celebrate the Masses.”
The following day, on April 17, White received a copy of a letter from Knestout to White’s lawyer.
“In that letter, the bishop says he recognizes the ‘suspensive’ effect of my appeal of his decision to remove me, however I do not have the right to reside in the parishes, and if I stay, I will ‘stoke the fires of unrest,’” White said. “Also, I have not been suspended from ministry, but I will be if I continue in ‘manifest disobedience.’”
White said he went about his business as usual on April 18, preparing for the live online version of Mass, which has been the new procedure since the COVID-19 crisis.
But Knestout arrived at the parish in Rocky Mount unannounced that day.
“He says one sentence to me, ‘You may concelebrate [celebrate together],” White said. “After Mass he leaves without speaking to me.”
The “concelebration” of Mass between the unexpected Bishop Knestout and the surprised Father White was streamed live. The picture of the two men together, steeped in dispute, displayed the awkwardness between them.
Knestout delivered a prepared homily that struck at the core.
“Father White and I are at odds,” Knestout said in his homily. “Everyone’s aware of that — it was in the Martinsville Bulletin — it’s been in other areas in terms of news — carried by AP [Associated Press] all over the country.
“We’re at odds, so it’s no surprise that it’s all over the place.
“What is this about? … Some say it’s about the abuse scandal and my desire to tamp it down. I don’t believe that’s the case, but some believe that.
“I believe it’s about communion — about a communion that needs to and should be established and exist between any bishop and priest.
“It’s like two brothers that have known each other for a long time and maybe there was an old wound that was never really dealt with and was never expressed — never talked about and it keeps coming out in bad ways later and it needs to be addressed.”
‘An old wound’
White said he was taken aback by Knestout’s description of the dispute between them.
“That there is an ‘old wound’ between the two of us,” White said. “This is the first I ever heard him express this. I have no grudge against him.”
The Martinsville Bulletin asked Knestout for clarification on what he meant by an “old wound” and for further comment, but Cox said Knestout was refraining “from any further statements at this time.”
The record of the relationship between Knestout and White goes back to 2003, when the now disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick ordained White into the priesthood.
“I was ordained by a predator,” White wrote in his blog.
McCarrick’s priest secretary at the time was Knestout. After McCarrick was accused of engaging in sexual conduct with adult male seminarians over the decades, many outraged Catholics wondered out loud how the priest secretary of a sex abuser could not have been complicit in the knowledge of what was happening.
In June 2018, the Vatican removed McCarrick from public ministry, and the following month The New York Times published an article about McCarrick’s sexual involvement not only with male seminarians but also with minors.
In July 2018 McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals and that resignation was accepted by Pope Francis.
McCarrick was dismissed from the clergy in February 2019 and became the most senior church official to be laicized in modern times.
Different in Martinsville
After the surprise visit by Knestout to the parish in Rocky Mount, parishioners in Martinsville, who, like those in Rocky Mount, are staunch supporters of White, had expected Knestout to pay a similar visit at Mass the following day. This time they would be prepared.
On April 19 faithful parishioners gathered in the parking lot, many of them with signs showing their support for Father White, but Knestout failed to show.
“Father [Kevin] Segerblom [of Roanoke, the designated temporary replacement for White] arrives to say the scheduled Mass in Martinsville with his seminarian,” White said. “He tells me he has come to celebrate Mass. I told him I intended to celebrate, but that I would be glad to have him concelebrate with me.
“I also invited the seminarian to serve the Mass, and at first Father Kevin agreed, but then a few minutes later he left without a word to me.”
Joseph Kernan was one of the parishioners in the parking lot at St. Josephs.
“I think the bishop will rue the day that he picked on Father Mark,” Kernan said. “Don’t shoot the messenger is an admonition to not blame the bearer of bad news. It is often used when someone reveals a difficult truth that the listener does not want to hear.
“It reminds the listener that the truth is not the fault of the person revealing the truth.
“What happens if the shooter, in fact, shoots the messenger? Well … the shooter may die or disappear from the scene… but other messengers will take up the cause and continue to deliver the message.
“So what has been gained by the shooter?,” Kernan asked. “Nothing, except that the shooter has brought even more attention to the message that they found so troubling to begin with.”
Help for Father White
Kernan began a gofundme account to raise $7,500 — the estimated price of a canon lawyer to contest the bishop’s decree. In six days $7,975 was raised.
“I have received about 100 letters, emails, phone calls and social media messages of encouragement and support from outside Virginia over the course of the past two weeks,” White said. “One came from Michael Fleming of California,” a close friend of former Archbishop of Los Angeles Roger Cardinal Mahoney.
“Your sense of outrage at the repugnant and criminal behavior of certain of your colleagues is shared by tens-of-millions of Catholics and non-Catholics the world over,” Fleming wrote. “Your efforts to encourage church hierarchy to be public and transparent regarding the horrendous acts upon children by ordained religious is to be applauded.
“Given Bishop Knestout’s very close professional and personal relationship with McCarrick followed by a period serving his Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl — both having been found guilty to varying degrees of participating in and intentionally covering up these heinous crimes — casts great suspicion on his motivations to muzzle you. ... It is well past time for the Catholic church hierarchy to publicly confess the sins of commission and omission and publicly repent.
“It would appear that Bishop Knestout, and many others, are more inclined to deflect the truth in order to protect their position.”
‘A tranquil life’
White said he looks forward to resolving the conflict, but the legal process of getting to that point is not unexpected.
“The fact I have to deal with is this: I cannot minister honestly as a Catholic priest if I do not try to connect my mind with the mind of the clergy sex-abuse victim sitting in the pew,” White wrote in his blog. “I have no choice there.
“I wish none of the disturbance we experience as parishes right now. I want only a tranquil life for us all, praising God and making our way to heaven.”
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin.
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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