Southwest Virginia priest who has spoken out about clergy abuse faces removal as Richmond Bishop with petition to the Vatican

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/WFXR) — A southwest Virginia priest could be removed from the priesthood. He continued to blog about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals even after the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond ordered him to keep quiet.

WFXR News and its sister station, WRIC, first began digging into this story back in early 2020. Father Mark White at first obeyed an order to stop blogging. However, he restarted the online conversation once COVID hit and in-person church services halted. That has now prompted Bishop Barry Knestout to take their battle to Pope Francis.

The dispute heated up when, in a surprise move, Bishop Knestout suddenly showed up at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Rocky Mount and took over mass. Father Mark White was the pastor at St. Francis of Assisi, as well as St. Joseph’s in Martinsville.

During the televised service, Bishop Knestout told viewers, “Father White and I are at odds.”

In the video shared with WFXR’s sister station, you see Father White is forced to stand in the background. 

“Father White claims that I injured him. I claimed earlier that he injured me,” the Bishop said during the service.

Shortly after that mass, Father White was locked out of the churches, his apartments, and essentially kicked to the curb.

“Thanks be to God I had a parishioner that was able to provide me with a place to live,” Father White said.

Now, the embattled priest could lose his collar.

Bishop Knestout told Father White he’s petitioned Pope Francis to have him formally removed from the clergy state.

“It breaks my heart. I can’t see myself doing anything else,” White said.

Parishioners like Christy Hall are angry. 

“They changed the locks on his apartment with no warning, I mean this is just goofy, childish stuff,” she said. “It is as about as un-Catholic as you get.”

Church members Tiziana Dimao and Gina Foley can’t understand it.

“It’s not right,” Dimaro said.

Dimaro, Foley, and Hall all attend St. Joseph’s. They support Father White and thought he was a wonderful pastor.

“I am heartbroken at what is happening,” Foley said.

Father White says the blog at the center of the controversy was his way of having an open dialogue about the church sex scandals and the Catholic cover-ups.

“Without a more systematic acknowledgment of the kind of cover-ups that have occurred, a lot of it just seems like words,” he said.

The priest also struggles with the fact that he was ordained by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick was investigated by the Vatican years later and is now a known predator. The investigation found he committed multiple sex crimes against children and adults.

“It’s going to take me the rest of my life to deal with that having happened,” Father White said.

The priest thought Bishop Knestout would want to join him in the online conversation.

“Our Bishop knows him and worked with him very closely as well,” Father White said. “We both were under the authority of this predator.”

Instead Bishop Knestout ordered him to take down the blog. The Bishop has now taken their dispute directly to the Vatican. During that mass in Rocky Mount he told viewers, “Father White will bring his case, and I will bring mine.”

“It is a crushingly painful thing,” Father White said.

It’s painful for parishioners too.

“To have a good priest punished like this is unthinkable, it’s un-Christian,” Hall said.

Foley says it just doesn’t make sense. 

“It feels to me as if he is being treated worse than any proven pedophile,” she told WFXR’s sister station.

According to Hall, it has destroyed the parish.

“We have several people who lost all their faith, left the parish and the church entirely,” she said.

The actions of the Bishop have sparked protests. Members of St. Joseph’s and St. Francis of Assisi took their fight to the Catholic Embassy in Washington, D.C. Others have begged for a meeting with the Bishop but say they have been routinely denied.

“He said the answer was going to be the same that he gave to other parishioners, nothing was going to change,” DiMaro said.

It’s been a true test of faith for Foley. 

“As a parishioner, as a lifelong Catholic, it’s incredibly painful,” she said. “He is a good man.”

DiMaro feels the same.

“I am Catholic but I don’t trust the hierarchy anymore,” she said.

Bishop Knestout wouldn’t talk with WFXR’s sister station about it either. He and the Diocese once again refused our request for an interview, saying, “this is a personnel matter.”

In a past statement, WRIC was told “Bishop Knestout expects all clergy to express themselves in a manner that is respectful.” WFXR’s sister station was also told in that statement that, “the Diocese of Richmond continues to offer transparency about the abuse crisis.”

Parishioners like Foley and Hall don’t view any of this as transparent. Some Catholic Church members have written Cardinals and the Pope himself in support of Father White.

“We need good decent men like Father Mark,” Foley said.

Some have even requested the Bishop be relocated.

“I think it’s a swell idea,” Hall said.

Father White says he is keeping his trust in his God.

“I know he is with me, I know he is guiding me,” he said. “And this is something he’s asking me to embrace.”

Father White has a Canon Law attorney trying to dispute the petition to have him removed. He says he also continues to try and do the good work. He is working with survivors of clergy abuse on a speaker’s series.

The next one is in Richmond on July 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Beacon Hill Center on 6425 Iron Bridge Road. Speakers will be Mark Vath and Ricard Windmann.

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