The Cult of Secrecy

On November 21, 2019, Bishop Barry Knestout appeared unexpectedly at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Rocky Mount, Virginia. He insisted on meeting privately with me. (The bishop had the Vicar General with him.) The bishop then ordered me to turn off my cellphone.

St Francis of Assisi Rocky Mount
St. Francis of Assisi, Rocky Mount, Virginia

The bishop then read a document aloud to me, a “decree” he had written about my blog. As he read, I struggled to take it all in. The circumstances had jarred my nerves. I did not panic about missing some of what he read, however, because I assumed I would be able to read the document later at my leisure.

After reading the document aloud, the bishop rose to leave the premises. He informed me, to my great surprise, that I would not receive a printed copy. He said something about how I might be able to read it, but I didn’t catch what he said. All I remember is that under no circumstances whatsoever would I be allowed to make a copy.

It has been over a year and a-half since that visit. I have never laid eyes on the document the bishop read.

On May 5, 2020, Bishop Knestout suspended my priestly faculties. He forbade me celebrating the sacraments publicly.

In his letter to me that day, the bishop threatened me with an “interdict” if I published his correspondence to me. I’m not sure what that threat even means, to be honest. Nonetheless, he threatened it. If you publish my letters, you will be punished severely.

confessional

A penitent sinner going to confession has a right to expect secrecy from the priest.

Most sins are private. Only rarely in my priestly life has anyone confessed a sin to me that was also a crime. Under those circumstances, when the situation called for it, I told the penitent before absolution that he or she must do something to restore public justice–including submitting to the criminal justice system, in one case I remember.

Because a crime not only damages the soul of the sinner, it also disturbs public justice. A crime is not a private thing. That’s why “The People” or “The Country” or “The State of…” or “The United States” prosecutes crimes in court. Sins may be private, but crimes affect everyone.

Also not a private matter: the question of who will serve as the pastor of a parish, or whether a not a priest can celebrate the sacraments publicly.

Why would Bishop Knestout imagine that his removing me from office or suspending my faculties is a private matter? I was the pastor of two busy, medium-sized parishes. I celebrated the sacraments with people dozens of times a week. His removing me from office and suspending my faculties affected the lives of hundreds of people.

I bring all this up because Mr. Kieran Tapsell has written a helpful, concise analysis of the Vatican’s recent revision of the Code of Canon Law. Tapsell participated in the the Australian Royal Commission report on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which made recommendations about revising canon law.

canon law codex canoniciAs Americans we tend to take for granted that legal proceedings–especially criminal prosecutions–are public. It’s hard for Americans even to grasp how inherently secretive the Church’s canonical process actually is.

In our country, and countries like ours, trials take place in open court. Many take place in front of cameras. Reporters tell the public what happened. The general public has the right to read the final decisions, with attendant documents.

We take all this for granted because we think of court business as something that pertains to us, the body politic. We think that it pertains to us because it does.

The Australian Royal Commission recommended to the Vatican that canonical cases involving child sexual abuse be published, for the general public to read, with the identity of the victim(s) omitted.

mccarrickI made a similar plea early in 2019, regarding the McCarrick canonical case. I argued: the criminal ecclesiastical prosecution of a Cardinal Archbishop is not a private matter. The crimes involved affected the lives of thousands of Catholics.

When the pope defrocked McCarrick, the Vatican published less than one full paragraph of information about the case. To this day, we do not know on what evidence McCarrick was convicted and dismissed from the clerical state.

And the Vatican has rejected the Australian Royal Commission recommendation about child-sex abuse cases in general. The revised Code of Canon Law does not make any provision for giving the public any information about ecclesiastical criminal cases.

Tapsell laments:

The Vatican spokesman said, “Today the atmosphere is different, [when it comes to actually punishing criminal priests.]”

But it remains to be seen whether the Church’s courts actually agree with the spokesman’s claim. As the Church has not adopted the Royal Commission’s recommendation as to the publication of canonical court decisions, we will probably never know–until the next time the Church is required to hand over its records by another civil inquiry, or the United Nations.

The maintenance of secrecy over the Church’s disciplinary actions will not restore its reputation.

My friend Mark Vath has written an open letter to law enforcement officers in Louisiana. The occasion for Mark’s letter is this:

In December of last year, lawyers questioned a serial pedophile priest in a court deposition. The judge then ordered the deposition sealed, in deference to the bankruptcy proceedings of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Since law-enforcement agents have the right to look at the sealed deposition of Father Lawrence Hecker, Mark urges them to do so. Assess whether a felony cover-up has occurred. Make the information public.

Mark asks:

How can the public make an objective, logical, and rational decision as to the level of corruption involved, if the documents and testimonies remain sealed and locked away from public view?

Mark will speak, along with Richard Windmann, here in Virginia next month. They will speak in Martinsville on Sunday, July 25th and in Richmond on Monday, July 26th.

More details to follow, and don’t forget Chris O’Leary’s talks in Martinsville and Roanoke this coming Sunday and Monday 🙂

15 thoughts on “The Cult of Secrecy

  1. Guess you should have obeyed the bishop and kept your site shut down then because it seems to me that the situation was quite serious and you knew that when you reopened your blog.

    1. Okay, but then why are you badgering me endlessly through this mode of communication that you think shouldn’t exist? Shouldn’t you boycott this blog, as a matter of conscience for yourself? I mean, I’m happy to receive your advice, but by your own logic you seem to be participating in wrongdoing.

  2. You continue to be in my prayers, Fr. You are up against an evil many Catholics can’t (or won’t) even imagine exists. Glad to see your blog again and your appearance on The Vortex. Many of us have HAD IT with the bishops and hierarchy in the Church, but we remain faithful to Jesus and trust in Him! God bless you…and thank you!

  3. Prayers continue for you, Fr. Mark. Secrecy is the very opposite of what Jesus commanded when he instructed the Church about how to deal with sin (Matt. 18:15-17). If you committed such a horrific sin then Jesus commands Bishop Knestout to address SPECIFICALLY the sin first with you, then with a witness, and then with the Church if there is no repentance. But what sin is there for you to repent of, Fr. Mark? Speaking the truth against perverts in priests’ garb who were protected by the Church’s hierarchy and thereby continued to rape and slaughter the souls of innocents? No, it is Bishop Knestout and other power-lusting wolves in sheep’s clothing who need to be confronted and called to repent, and forced out if they refuse to repent — just as Jesus commanded us on how to deal with unrepentant sinners in the Church, regardless of title or status. There’s a reason Coalition for Canceled Priests formed a few months ago (https://canceledpriests.org). If enough clerics and laity speak out and withhold funds from bishops’ coffers then maybe we can effect long overdue reform. Bottom line? From the top to the bottom, unrepentant power-abusing doctrinally errant clergy need to told to resign from the offices that they have betrayed.

  4. At first, I figured someone needed to tell you the truth so that you could actually resolve your issues with your bishop and get back to being a priest. Did you really think in April of 2020 that you would still be in no man’s land 15 months later? I did and that’s why I was telling you to avoid Voris and those that will use you and work on fixing your issues with your bishop. You didn’t listen and here we are. And you continue to go to that same well. You really think Church Militant is going to get you back to the active priesthood? The poison that is Michael Voris (who you refuse to understand anything about) is going to help you. No, he is going to use you to destroy the Church.

    At this point, you are probably a lost cause. I really don’t see a path for you getting back to active priesthood, so I am going to call you out for getting into bed with the White Nationalists and hurting all of Catholicism in the process. Frankly, I’m the only one telling you the truth because you surround yourself with people who use you (Voris, et al) and your parishioners who love you and are blinded to see your faults in all of this. It’s sad really, you shouldn’t be destroying your calling over your personal confusion and frustration over McCarrick, but it obviously is eating you out from the inside. Seek professional help.

    1. You refer to me “resolving my issues with my bishop.” That fact is, I have proposed a number of possible compromises. I suggested we go to mediation. You’re trying to hold me responsible for things that Bishop Knestout has done. I did not unjustly suspend myself. I did not refuse to have a reasonable conversation about the issues involved here. I did not bully anyone. I’m not the one abusing ecclesiastical power; I’m not the one who made the decisions that resulted in the situation as it now stands. He is.

      I am not “destroying my calling.” The very blog posts to which the bishop has objected have been my own attempt to save my priesthood, under circumstances where someone in my shoes might have lost faith completely.

      You presume to judge my case, but I don’t even know who you are. You write to me under a nickname only.

      You write that “Michael Voris is going to use me to destroy the church.” How? When Michael has interviewed me, I have tried to answer honestly. I appreciate his interest and his questions. I don’t endorse all his statements. Why would you think that I do? Why would I think that Church Militant is “going to get me back into the active priesthood?” How would that even be possible? What delusions do you imagine that I harbor about that? Church Militant has no control over Bishop Knestout and his administrative actions.

      You ask me to seek professional help. What do you know about it? The fact is that I have benefited enormously from counseling this past year.

      My question for you is, Why do you continue to badger me? If I’m a “lost cause,” so be it. I don’t like the situation as it stands, but I’m not the one who made the decisions that brought it about. I’m just trying to do my best with each day the good Lord grants me.

  5. You’re blaming your bishop for things you did. You reopened this blog after he told you to shut it down and you had. You go on Church Militant and this blog and trash him. He isn’t going to waste his time on you anymore. The time for resolving issues has passed; it probably was too late last year when I told you to, but now, forget about it.

    You don’t save your priesthood by continuing to blog after he told you to shut it down. You also don’t save your priesthood by badmouthing him. You save your priesthood by shutting down the blog and shutting up and then reaching out after several months.

    I’m not sure what delusions you harbor. I would say that doing anything with Voris would be the opposite of saving your priesthood, but you want to interact with him (because you appreciate his interest) and also save your priesthood. The fact that you think you can do both is pretty delusional.

    Your counselor might want to help you realize your own part in the troubles you find yourself in.

    Why do I do this? Because I see Voris trying to destroy the Church and you willfully going along with him (because you appreciate his interest) while staying ignorant of what he stands for you. And yes, you did make the decisions that brought it about (again, discuss with aforementioned counselor). You reopened the blog. That was the decision that brought about all your trouble and your continued errors since then have made reconciliation very improbable.

    1. I appreciate your interest, too. But I don’t think you understand my decision to turn my blog back on last March.

      For Bishop Knestout to order me to suppress the blog exceeded the limits of his authority over me. The obedience of a secular priest does not extend that far. That’s not my personal opinion; it is spelled-out in the documents that the Holy See has published on the subject. The situation called for dialogue between us, in which he would explain his specific problems with particular blog posts. I was ready and willing to be corrected in that way, but the bishop refused to have a conversation with me about any specifics.

      The fact is that my criticisms of the Holy See’s handling of the McCarrick affair, and the sex-abuse scandal in general, were not off-the-wall; I expressed the consensus of a lot of Catholics. It would have been difficult for the bishop to identify particular erroneous statements on my part.

      I turned the blog back on in an unprecedented situation. We had literally prohibited people from entering our churches. I wrote to the bishop and explained my motivations. He never answered.

      I made the decision fully prepared to deal with whatever consequences might ensue. The extent of the bishop’s bullying has stunned me, to be sure. But I have never asked for anyone’s pity. I have a roof over my head and food in the larder, and I still have my priesthood. I still celebrate the Liturgy daily; I still trust in the Lord’s plan. I hope for better days, as the Lord wills.

      For me to have submitted to the bishop’s attempts to win my silence by force–that would have betrayed what I stand for as a priest in the first place. After all, a priest wins souls for Christ by touching people’s consciences, not by threats involving the material realities of this passing life. I don’t harbor any ill will towards Bishop Knestout; I wish we could talk this whole thing over as brothers and sort it out. He and I are both victims of the dishonesty of Theodore McCarrick and those who chose to cover-up for him.

      Your problem seems to be more with Michael Voris than with me. I don’t answer for Mr. Voris. Also, you seem to like to communicate with me via this blog, so how can you consistently argue that it shouldn’t exist? Doesn’t make any sense to me.

  6. If the bishop exceeded his authority, then you wouldn’t be out, but you are. That suggests that you are incorrect. Even if you are technically correct, you are still out, which takes you away from being a priest. Frankly, it was a bonehead move.
    Yes, I do have issue with Voris and your willing ignorance of his actions tend to make me think that your bishop is correct in removing you from ministry. I wouldn’t take a support of a White Nationalist or KKK member to try to show I’m right, so I wonder why you think it’s okay to take Voris’ support.
    Finally, I would be just fine if I never heard of you and so would you. You seem like a good man and I have tried to show you how your actions are perceived outside of the bubble of support. I am disappointed that you continue down a path that will end in no good and figured you would see things differently at some point. That hasn’t happened yet and I fear it won’t now.

  7. In a funny kind of way, I’m grateful to Knestout for doing what he did: his actions reinforces the idea that the church’s overwhelming goal is secrecy regarding abuse, and certainly not candor, honesty, or ptoecting the sheeple..

    I’ve read of cases in which church officials have reported priests to authorities when they believed that those priests were stealing money. Yet until recently, sexually abusive priests–who were committing felonies–were not turned in, but protected.

    A lot of the testimony I’ve seen from those abused, indicates that their LIVES were stolen.

  8. Priests have been sexually abusing children for centuries. We know this from canon law.

    And it’s been news in the public domain for many years. I recall reading a news article about this was circa 1992, regarding a retired R.I. priest. And of course, the blockbusting Boston Globe news story is now 20 years old.

    It seems to me that one way of stopping or minimizing it would be to educate kids about what is not OK between a child and an adult.

    That shouldn’t take more than a dozen very simple sentences, at most, and they wouldn’t have to get into detail that would make some people uncomfortable.

    Surely a document could be developed within a few weeks–perhaps with the help of an organization such as SNAP? Perhaps with accompanying video?

    It probably wouldn’t take the Vatican more than 20 or 30 years to come up with such a document.

    Such a document might include statements similar to these:

    –the only person allowed to touch your privates is a doctor or nurse

    –if a priest asks you to share his bed, tell him NO! and let other kids know he asked you to do that

    –if you think you have been touched inappropriately, tell another adult that you trust, preferably a woman (an aunt? older sister?) And tell other kids, because they may have had similar experiences.

    –if someone tries to video you and that makes you uncomfortable, tell someone. Almost always, a person who wants to video you will want to do it with just you and him (usually a male) in the room.

    Father Mark, do you know if that kind of sex education –in candid, down to earth language–exists anywhere in church documents or teaching?

    1. Excellent points, Howard. I appreciate your question, and I wish I knew more details to offer a good answer. Church teaching has tended to use euphemisms. That said, we have had “safe-environment” education programs in American dioceses since the Dallas Charter of 2002. I don’t know if any studies have been done to determine how effective those education programs are.

      1. It’s clear to me, and I think to most thinking, honest folks, that the church is–at the very least–very antsy about anything related to sex.

        My (admittedly highly imperfect) recollection is that it’s only in the last 60 years or so that the church has formally acknowledged the importance of “relations” between people–although I’m quite sure that the word “sex” is not used, and that the change I mention is discussed only in vague terms.

        Imagine how many kids would have been protected if the church had been honest enough to come out 40 or 60 years with the kind of document I mentioned. But of course, if that had happened, it would have diminished the protection and image the church likes to project. .

  9. A propos my comments re sex ed, here is a link to a NY Times story published the other day that’s relevant:

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