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.
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.
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.
As 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.
I 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.
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.
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 🙂