Ed.: We recently had the opportunity to interview Fr. Mark White, the Catholic priest who has been suspended from parish ministry due to his criticism of the church’s handling of sexual abuse. Here are our questions and his responses. We believe his thoughts are important to all who are concerned about abuse in the church, both sexual and non-sexual, and hope that persons of conscience can provide him with support and encouragement during this difficult time. His excellent blog is here.
- My understanding is that the Vatican has essentially taken a pass on your complaint. Where does this leave you? How do you spend your days? And what are your next steps?
Yes, it appears that the Vatican will let Bishop Knestout’s decisions stand. This leaves me suspended from public ministry indefinitely, for no good reason. I continue to celebrate Mass and the Divine Office, with the good Lord and the denizens of heaven for company.
Since it appears that this strange situation will likely stretch on, I have been busy lately trying to set up a long-term place to live. Once I get that settled, I will return to writing daily, which seems to be the ministry that divine Providence is giving me at this point.
- The public has read your story with interest. From your perspective, what is the biggest issue in your dispute with the church?
I think there are two inseparable issues involved in my case. One, honest accountability regarding sex-abuse cover-ups. Two, freedom of speech regarding Topic 1.
- Is the larger issue perhaps with power, and how it is used in the church, versus the still appalling issues with sexual abuse?
I think that sex abuse by clergy, especially bishops, and episcopal abuse of power are two sides of the same evil coin. According to my limited understanding of it, clergy sex-abuse does damage, above all, by abusing the sublime power of the sacerdotal office. The abuse wounds the victim’s most-important relationship—with God. The wound comes not solely, or even primarily, through the physical violation of the body, but by the manipulation—and crushing distortion—of the victim’s interior religion. Clerical abuse of power—even when no sex is involved—does the same damage, in the same deep region of the soul.
- How do you respond to those who say you should have just stayed quiet and let things sort themselves out?
I have lived through enough cycles of the recurring Catholic sex-abuse scandal to know that the problem will never “sort itself out.” Rule by self-interested Mafiosi never ends on its own. People who want a better kind of society have to take risks, make powerful enemies, and seek the truth no matter what it costs. The Catholic Church, considered as a human society, is a community ruled by self-interested Mafiosi, at this point in time.
- How do you respond to those who say that your comments are blasphemous, brash, or disrespectful? Or perhaps not “easygoing?”
I have tried to maintain equanimity and humility. I have failed in that at times, and I have begged pardon of my readership when I did. But the anger many of us Catholics feel towards our hierarchy springs from a just and honest assessment of the well-known facts.
We owe our prelates respect and the benefit of the doubt—until they forfeit the right to it. If the Vatican McCarrick report shows anything, it’s that too many people gave the benefit of the doubt to a man who manifestly did not deserve it, just because he was a bishop and then a Cardinal—with vast damage ensuing as the result of that misplaced trust and deference.
- Setting aside for a moment the issue of sexual misconduct in the church, how prevalent is non-sexual abuse, like abuse of power?
Forgive me for putting it this way, but it is not an overstatement: Abuse of power is really the only thing holding the Catholic Church together right now. The facts now on the table have left conscientious people with no choice but to dissociate themselves from the institution, at least to some extent. Everyone who is “all-in” for Catholicism at this point in history has a compromised conscience, at least partially so. Intellectual or spiritual laziness, or fear of having to face difficult spiritual realities alone, currently binds Catholics together with hierarchy–not honest religion or real Christian communion. We believe it’s the real Church; we believe in the grace conferred by the sacraments. But honest people, considering the Catholic Church as a human institution, see an unrepentant international organized crime syndicate.
- What about sexual abuse? How common is it in the church? Has the church gotten better in dealing with it? Better in preventing it?
When sexual abuse occurs, evil triumphs; when a victim speaks out about it, good triumphs. Our hierarchy continues to fail at grasping this fundamental and obvious distinction. They think that clerical sexual abuse becomes an evil WHEN the victim speaks openly about it.
You don’t know how prevalent clerical sexual abuse is until 20-40 years later. We know now that clerical sexual abuse was alarmingly prevalent thirty years ago. We will likely know the same thing about now, in 20-40 years.
To my mind, though, that’s not really the issue. Right here and now what we can control is: How do I react, when someone confides in me about being sexually abused? How do I carry myself, and talk, and listen–so as to make such a confidence possible? How do I respond in a Christian manner? If I have any kind of authority over the situation, what ought I to do with that authority, to redress the grave injustice? As an institution, we seem to be light years away from having solid answers to these questions.
- Some say that unbridled clericalism is one of the root causes of the problems facing the Catholic Church. Is this accurate? Do you think this is an issue for other faith traditions?
I think “clericalism” makes sense as a term, if defined precisely. In the Church, a deacon, priest, or bishop, has the role of representing Christ as the giver of saving grace. As such, the clergyman deserves commensurate reverence from the Christian, who humbly knows that he or she needs the grace. But ordination does NOT give personal holiness to the ordained. The ordained person remains a sinful human being like everyone else, needs grace like everyone else, and is as capable of committing a crime as anyone else is. A criminal clergyman deserves the same prosecution and punishment as any other criminal.
I think confusion about this distinction between the religious leader as a representative of something, and the religious leader as a fellow human being, runs through all organized religion as a constant danger.
- How did you discern the path to priesthood?
I converted to Catholicism in college, after I fell in love with Christ crucified, living on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. The Lord called me into the Church and to the priesthood at the same time.
- Situations like this can lead to growth for those involved. How has this experience shaped your faith? Would you do anything differently?
I have some regrets: in November 2019, I published an intemperate post that I should have waited 24 hours to edit and then publish. In 2000-2003, when I was a seminarian under Theodore McCarrick, and during the Boston Globe Spotlight scandal, I did not study the issues well at all, did not understand them. I wish I had thought the whole thing through better, back then.
All that said, I feel closer to God now than I ever have, more loved by Him than ever. I am in the situation I am in because it is His will for me, for the sake of some good too mysterious for me to comprehend at the moment.
- What advice do you have for those who are ousted from the church, or perhaps quietly pushed aside, for criticizing the church and its conduct?
My advice would be: Double-check all your facts, think through all your conclusions as carefully as possible, pray, and keep fighting. We are living through a period of Christian history when the institutions are deeply compromised. Living peacefully in them is no sign of virtue, in itself. Quite the contrary.
- In the best of all possible worlds, what would you like to see as an outcome?
If I could go back tomorrow to the life of pastoring the two parishes here in Rocky Mount and Martinsville, I would be very happy. I have loved doing that more than anything I have ever done.
- Many faith traditions are seeing precipitous declines in membership in recent years. Is the church in decline? And what do you say to those who believe that organized faith is in trouble?
I think the coronavirus crisis has quickly brought organized Christianity in the Western world to the brink of mortal peril. We cannot imagine that “normal” parish life will return. The money will gradually run out and the institutions will fail. I think our hope lies in understanding that this age is like the Apostolic Age, as far as the life of the Church is concerned.
- Do you have any further thoughts or comments you’d like to share?
I appreciate your kind interest and the excellent questions 🙂