Heading to Indy to give a talk on Saturday, sponsored by Corpus Christi for Unity and Peace. Thank you, dear Vicki Yamasaki, for inviting me.
Here’s the text, if you’re interested. I believe the talk will be recorded and made available on YouTube.
The Scandal in the Church
Everyone familiar with the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
Near the beginning of the book, the Catechism explains the “Stages of Revelation,” the moments in history when God has “come to meet man,” to “reveal His plan of loving kindness.”
The Catechism highlights the covenants between God and man that occurred between the creation of heaven and earth and the coming of Christ. Anyone know what those two covenants are?
1. The covenant with Noah, after the flood, and 2. the covenant with Abraham, the forefather of the Israelites.
Pretty important to our Christian faith, these dealings between God and Noah, and between God and Abraham. We read about it all in the book of… Correct, Genesis.
It would certainly seem to pertain to our Catholic faith that we believe that these things really happened, right? Not that we reject the science of geology or paleontology. But we need a way to understand the Holy Scriptures as fundamentally accurate regarding these ancient covenants. Right? After all, they prepared the way for the coming of Christ.
It seems crazy to some people, but we Christians have the idea that you can read the Bible and learn things, things that make life mean something.
Not that our faith in the Word of God gives us the answer to every question; the Bible doesn’t claim to answer every question. But we know that we cannot understand the meaning of life, without being able to read the Holy Scriptures. And believe what we read.
Now, you may be wondering: Why the heck is this man talking about this? I mean, it sounds great, but.. Why talk about the early chapters of Genesis right now?
One reason I am here is to tell you my story. I thought it might be good to start with December 2001, just over twenty-one years ago, a couple months after 9/11. As Christmas break approached that year, I had managed to pass my comprehensive seminary exams, and I had one semester left before ordination to the priesthood. But then the rector of the seminary told me that I was not welcome back after Christmas.
The Scripture professors at the seminary had insisted that we seminarians accept their ideas about the first chapters of Genesis, namely that those chapters are a collection of myths. A lot of us felt like we could not accept that. I was foolish enough to state my hesitation clearly.
I said it seemed to me that there might have been a real flesh-and-blood Noah–just like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church all say there was. I added that I thought Abraham might not be a myth, either. He may very well have been an actual human being who ate mashed chick peas and lamb chops and fathered Isaac in his old age.
I foolishly said all this, in a meeting with the profs and the seminary rector. The following day, the rector told me not to return for the following semester.
The plot thickens considerably at this point, because the Archbishop who ordained me a priest eighteen months later was Theodore Cardinal McCarrick.
I was just a starry-eyed young dude back then. Your seminary professors tell you that the Bible isn’t really true; you get kicked out for questioning that; then a criminal who belonged in jail ordains you a priest anyway.
It’s hard to make this stuff up. But it’s the Catholic Church we live in, and it’s what I’m here to talk about.
Vicki and I met at the Church Militant “Bishops, Enough is Enough” rally in Baltimore. She was kind enough to invite me to come speak with you.
Bishops, enough is enough. Something has been rotten in the state of Denmark, so to speak, for quite some time.
Some people think the something rotten is Vatican II. That seems like a shallow and false solution to me. Reading the documents of Vatican II has given me inspiration for decades. Pope John Paul II played a significant role at Vatican II, and his teaching and example inspired me deeply, as I imagine he inspired many of you.
Vicki asked if I would touch on Pope Francis suppressing the “traditional Latin Mass.”
I used to celebrate the “TLM” regularly. Then I became the pastor of a flock with more than half born in Mexico. I thought I should dedicate myself to celebrating Mass well in Spanish. That kind of crowded Latin out of my small brain. But having experience with the Latin Mass definitely has made me a more prayerful celebrant.
So I understand personally how the traditional Latin Mass represents something important to many Catholics. The Holy Father’s suppression of the old rite mystifies me. Did he miss the last fifty years of Church history? Pope Francis has effectively dragged us back into disputes from the 1970’s. I think we had actually worked the whole thing out since then, with the peaceful co-existence of the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary” form of the Roman Rite. What was broken that needed this particular “fix?”
All this said, though, when we refer to the “scandal” in the Church, what we primarily mean is: the sex-abuse scandal. Only a very small percentage of Catholics find themselves confused by the suppression of the traditional Latin Mass. But the entire Church has been fundamentally destabilized by the sex-abuse scandal.
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to the question of what exactly is wrong, but something is certainly deeply wrong. After all, I was ordained by a man who belonged in jail on that very day. At least a couple hundred other priests have to say the same.
Let’s backtrack again, this time to early 2001, when Theodore McCarrick became the Archbishop of Washington. He came from New Jersey with great fanfare, with lots of Washington-celebrity endorsements. He was already friends with the Clintons. One of President Bill Clinton’s last acts in office: giving Theodore McCarrick a human-rights award.
Somehow, though, we seminarians heard through the grapevine that McCarrick had a Jersey beach house. And bad things happened there.
Someone told the new Archbishop that we Washington seminarians had heard about the Jersey beach house. So he told us, in a private meeting: That rumor is not true. Don’t believe these rumors; they are the work of my enemies.
Now, when the new Archbishop told us that, what choice did we have, but to believe him? Could we have acted ‘synodally’ at that moment and said, “We hear you, Your Grace, but we don’t credit you. We think you’re a dishonest creep?” No, we could not respond that way. If we had, we would have been out the door, without passing Go and collecting $200.
The man was a dishonest creep. But if we had said that to him, or to the Vocations Director, or the seminary rector, or to anyone with any authority, we would have been cashiered immediately, and we all knew it. We had no choice but to shrug our shoulders and believe him, when he said he never did anything in no Jersey beach house.
Fast forward seventeen and a-half years: Turns out the rumors were altogether true. In fact, it was just the tip of the iceberg. The whole thing was actually much, much worse. McCarrick maimed the interior lives of more people than we will ever know, until Judgment Day reveals it all.
Ok, re-wind seventeen years again. I was there, in St. Peter’s Square, when Pope John Paul created McCarrick a Cardinal, on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, February 2001. The ceremony was indescribably grand. Praying, faithful people from all over the world. When the Vatican choir chanted the Nicene Creed, they changed key for the words unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam. It moved me to tears, it was so lovely, to be at the center of the Church at such a glorious moment.
The truth about McCarrick started to come out in July 2018. James Grein, whom McCarrick had abused for decades, spoke with reporters and got his story out. Vicki and I were with James in Baltimore in November at the Church Militant rally.
Anyway, when I learned what happened to James, I wrote an open letter to McCarrick:
Dear Father in God and brother priest,
I stood holding the processional cross, right next to you, when you pressed the crucifix to your lips at the door of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. Then we all marched down the aisle, and you took possession of the episcopal throne, on January 3, 2001.
You had no right.
On behalf of the priests you ordained, I say to you: You had no right. You had no right to be the one to whom we made our promises. You had no right to be the one to lay your hands on us to consecrate us.
You had no right to be the one to give us our first assignments. You had no right to give us advice.
You had no right to make any of us Washington priests do a huge capital campaign for you. You had no right to ask us to hold up your tired arms, like Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms. You had no right to take advantage of our good will, and our faith in God and His Church.
On behalf of the young people you confirmed, I say to you: You had no right. You had no right to be the one to confirm any of them.
On the day you put the crucifix to your lips at the door of St. Matthew’s, you should have been where you are now. You should have come clean long, long ago. You did not belong in the tv lights. Your name does not belong on any buildings. Your name belongs in an ignominious footnote in the history of the Holy Church in the USA.
That’s where it belonged on January 3, 2001. But you wouldn’t live in the truth. Instead, you inflicted upon us this excruciating wound–the eviscerating fact of our Archbishop’s utter hypocrisy. We have to bear that wound now.
You had no right. But we will get over it.
Come clean now. Admit every detail of the truth. To God, and then to everyone you have hurt.
Admit the truth. Live in it. And be free.
Your son and your brother, Mark White
McCarrick had vanished by then, his location unknown. I published my open letter to him on my weblog, August 1, 2018.
Remember that summer–2018? It was a doozy. Here’s an analogy.
I’m a lifetime fan of the Washington Football Team formerly known as the Redskins. My brother and I were born and raised in Washington, like our father before us. In our house, we lived and died by the Redskins.
Anway, this season, in November, our team actually started to look like playoff material. But then we lost four straight games in December.
Now, we fans could have tried to kid ourselves and say, “Oh, those four consecutive losses–that was just a fluke. An unlucky break.” But saying that would have required some sips of Redskins Kool-Aid. Because the fact is, the team just isn’t that good. Four straight losses because: It’s not a good team.
Not a fluke. Just reality.
Now, I have heard Catholic clergymen, especially bishops, talk about the summer of 2018 as if it were some kind of flukey bad-luck stretch for the Catholic Church. Some of the truth about McCarrick’s abuse comes out, then the Pennsylvania Grand-Jury Report–decades of rampant sexual abuse of minors in the dioceses of the state. Then the Archbishop Viganò memo, about the long McCarrick cover-up in the Vatican. They knew about McCarrick all along and did nothing.
One, two, three. McCarrick, PA Grand Jury, Vigano. Remember?
Now, these prelates I’m talking about want to have it like this: ‘Gosh, too bad. Summer of Shame 2018. What a bummer.’ As if the revelations of that summer didn’t show us reality. As if it were just an unlucky few weeks. We’re really playoff material. We just had a rough summer.
Huh? Washington lost four straight games in December because it’s a football team with serious problems. Not a very good team. Let’s stop drinking Kool-Aid and live in reality. You don’t have a summer like our Church had in 2018 on a fluke.
I began studying the situation as best I could, and blogging about it. The fact is, our Catholic Church has a system of sex-abuse cover-up. The system is fundamentally at odds with what decent people regard as just and honest. Ecclesiastical cover-ups of sex-abuse crimes are not isolated incidents. It is the way the system works, in our Church.
You may have heard how an independent commission in France studied the way our Church bureaucracy handles criminal sexual abuse. They published their report a couple months ago. I think the commission’s report is one of the most important and genuinely helpful documents to come along in our lifetimes. Here’s a quote:
Even though sexual abuse concerns the victims first and foremost, the response of the Catholic Church has nearly always focused on the clergy perpetrators, and the consequences of their actions for the Church institution. We were struck by the extent to which this clergy and Church-centered approach, almost completely ignoring the victims, was also a characteristic of canon law… Canon law conceals the gravity of the crimes and ignores the suffering of the victims.
What’s more, the entire canonical proceedings are concealed, since the victims of sexual abuse are not party to them and do not have access to the dossier. This confiscation is completed by placing the proceedings in the hands of the bishop of the diocese, at the risk of a major conflict of interest and an obvious breach of the principle of impartiality… There is no transparency in canonical procedure. (pp 211-212, CIASE English translation)
I can personally attest to the truth of this. My bishop initiated a canonical process against me, to have me removed from the clerical state entirely, because of my blogging. In order to participate in the canonical process, I had to make a promise of secrecy about the proceedings. In other words, I could not defend myself against the charges that the bishop had leveled at me, unless I first promised secrecy. Now, in my case, who does secrecy protect? Me? Hardly. I have nothing to hide. All by blog posts are public.
The culture of cover-up goes all the way to the top. There are two totally different points-of-view right now, when it comes to the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy. In the echo chamber of professional Catholic reporters, whose bread is buttered by the hierarchy, we hear and read about “reforms.” Outside this echo chamber, there’s the community of clerical sex-abuse survivors, who see up-close-and-personal how much has actually changed. Very little.
The “reforms” are for the most part empty words. All we need to do is look at our own situation here in the US. We supposedly “reformed” in 2002, after the Boston Globe Spotlight investigation. I was a transitional deacon then; I’m sure many of you remember the time.
The “reform” of the Church in 2002 was led by… Theodore McCarrick.
Not that the Dallas Charter is wrong, in and of itself. It laid down good rules.
But what didn’t happen in 2002? What didn’t happen was any reckoning with the thousands upon thousands of criminal cases that already languished in diocesan files all over the US, and all over the world.
When the PA Grand Jury released its report in August 2018, the stage at the press conference was full of weeping sex-abuse survivors. They had all been abused before 2002. Their case files sat in chancery archives when the bishops passed the vaunted Dallas Charter and “reformed” our Church. But no one gave those survivors any justice. They had to wait sixteen more years, for the state Attorney General to act.
Also in 2002: the Vatican already had a thick file of crushing sex-abuse accusations against McCarrick. But McCarrick’s victims had to wait another sixteen years, too. Actually, those survivors are still waiting.
Again, the French report offers an insightful summary of the situation:
In this context the Church itself gradually became the object of scandal… [because of] the vast discrepancy between the institution’s moral discourse regarding the weakest members of society and its own practices, of which society now became aware. The very notion of scandal thereby became completely reversed. In the past, the Church put forward justifications to impose silence on the young victims, basing this in part on how selfish and dishonorable it would be to taint an institution that considered itself holy. Now, in a society growing increasingly intolerant of the concealment of such crimes, the Church itself has gradually become the source of scandal. (p. 209)
I wrote two open letters to Pope Francis in September 2018. In the first letter, I begged him to resign:
I am one of your parish priests. About 414,000 of us labor daily in the vineyard.
This summer our Church has suffered a public-relations catastrophe. It has wounded the hearts of the faithful sons and daughters of the Church.
We need a father who will seek justice for the victims of sexual abuse. We need an honest father with sound judgment.
None of us presume to judge you. As the law of our Church has it, God alone judges the pope.
But I, for one, beg you:
Establish a procedure for selecting at random parish priests from around the world, to take the places of the Cardinal electors in the Sistine Chapel. Then vacate the Chair of Peter.
Your Son in Christ, Father Mark White
My bishop asked me to remove that particular post, and I did so, out of obedience. A few weeks later I wrote another open letter to the pope. It was in response to a speech the pope had given, asking young people to have the courage to tell their bishops why they don’t trust them. I wrote:
I do not trust you because you have misinterpreted what the moment demanded of you, from Day One.
Your predecessors gave us the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Out here in the parishes, we did not languish in doubt regarding the teachings of the Church. We did not hanker for verbose Roman Synods. To the contrary, on the day you took office, our parishes were humming with the business of communicating the teachings of the Church, contained in the Catechism.
We did not need a “new pastoral paradigm” to govern the relations between priests and their people. What we needed–it is now painfully obvious–was greater discipline in the ranks of bishops, and in the Vatican.
In the US, we have suffered a crippling scandal. All of it is attributable to the negligence of bishops, including yourself. The documents that scandalized people in Pennsylvania–all of them had been in the custody of the bishops there for twenty years or more. And bishops, including you, knew about Theodore McCarrick. Only you bishops had the authority to do anything about him.
Holy Father, you have spoken over and over again about the primacy of mercy. You misinterpreted what the moment demanded. For over a generation, no one has had any doubt that the Church knows how to act with mercy. The obvious problem we have is: the Church has forgotten how to act with severity. How can you not see that your former-Cardinal-Priest Theodore McCarrick has–in his brazen recklessness–exposed this colossal weakness?
What did the moment demand, when the first of McCarrick’s brother bishops learned of his predations? Mercy? Hardly. What did the moment demand, when you learned of it? Mercy? No. The moment demanded the just application of strict rules.
Do you not see how desperately the Church needs a severe father right now? A fearless and exacting enforcer of rules. A man whom sinners behold, and tremble…
Why is the Washington Football Team not in the playoffs? It is not a playoff-quality team. Why do so few people trust the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Catholic Church?
Another quote from the French report on clerical sexual abuse:
Denial, the use of euphemisms in reference to abuse, a culture of secrecy and silence, the fear of scandal–the idea of scandal being distorted into the protection of the institution at all costs, instead of the scandal being, as the Gospel puts it, the harm caused to children. All are characteristics of a certain culture within the Catholic Church which has delayed any real awareness of the seriousness of the wrongdoing and the implementation of measures to repair the harm done. (p. 10)
The predator who ordained me: he is one case, one among many, many. He victimized innocent young people, using his authority as a clergyman to ruin people’s lives. He used his authority as a bishop, a successor of the Holy Apostles of Jesus Christ–he used that authority to destroy the spiritual lives of young men who aspired to the sacred priesthood.
Has that harm been repaired?
In November 2020, the Vatican bureaucracy finally answered Archbishop Viganò’s 2018 exposé of the McCarrick cover-up. The “Vatican McCarrick Report.”
Does that report represent a true reckoning, an act of justice and reparation? No. Quite the opposite. It contains one flimsy excuse after another for unconscionable negligence.
Who has ever paid a price for enabling Theodore McCarrick’s criminal activity? Monsignors, chancery officials, bishops, Cardinals, and popes all covered up for him. They all covered up the man’s crimes, for decades.
This involves both sides of the Catholic liberal/conservative divide. It wasn’t only McCarrick’s fellow liberal churchmen who covered up for their powerful Cardinal friend. McCarrick’s conservative enemies also insisted on keeping the whole business secret. John Cardinal O’Connor of New York did not want McCarrick made a Cardinal, but he likewise insisted on McCarrick’s abuses remaining secret. Pope Benedict ordered McCarrick to resign as Archbishop of Washington, but he also insisted that McCarrick’s abuses remain secret.
And, of course, McCarrick’s old friend Jorge Bergoglio has never shown any real interest in repairing the harm that McCarrick has done.
When Francis ascended to the Chair of Peter, McCarrick was a globe-trotting, honorary-doctorate receiving, king-making Cardinal predator, with a wake of broken victims up and down the eastern seaboard.
In 2013, Archbishop Viganò tried to tell the new Pope Francis about this problem. Other officials did, too. But the Holy Father was not interested in doing anything about it, until the New York Times had the story, over five years later.
Because of my extensive blogging about all this, my bishop sent his minions to have the locks changed on my rectory, while I was out visiting a parishioner. He removed my priestly faculties. All the sacramental ministry I can do now as a priest is to celebrate Mass by myself.
I miss celebrating with the people. But the Lord provides. It is a special privilege to be a priest, under any circumstances–even if I was ordained by a criminal and have been sidelined by one of the criminal’s proteges.
The one thing that truly frightens me, though, on my bishop’s behalf, is confessions. That is, the confessions that I am not hearing now. I always loved hearing confessions. I heard hours of confessions every week for seventeen years. But I cannot validly hear confessions now, except if someone is in immediate danger of death. The bishop removed my jurisdiction, which means my absolutions would be invalid.
This suspension has gone on for nearly two years, with no end in sight at the moment. It scares me for my bishop, that he will have to answer to the Lord for all the confessions that I might have heard, but have not, because of what he has done, over blog posts that he has deemed “inappropriate” in tone. It is terrifying to contemplate.
Everyone knows we just started a “Synod on Synodality,” right? World-wide Synod on Synodality.
No one seems to know what this is about, or what it means. Timothy Gordon did a podcast about the Synod on Synodality. He went through the documents that the Vatican has published, but for the word “synod” he substituted the word “Smurfs.” For the word “synodality” he substituted the word “smurfy.” So hopefully we will have a smurfy synod. Which makes about as much sense as the documents that the Vatican produced in the first place.
But what if it weren’t just a clown-world thing, this Synod? What if we decided, “Okay. Let’s use our opportunity right here and now to say our piece, to by ‘synodal?’”
It might feel as if we were the engineer on the Titanic trying to get through to the captain. “Sir, the hull is breached past the fifth bulkhead. The ship will go down.” It might seem like the captain of the ship of the Church is just staring into space, can’t deal with reality, just like in the movie.
But we still believe in the miracle of Jesus Christ. We believe in His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We think that our Church can deal with reality, and survive, and not sink. Reality in all its ugliness. We believe that our Church can deal with it, and actually grow closer to the Lord for having done so.
How do we know how wrong sex-abuse is? We know it from gazing with the eyes of faith upon Jesus Christ, loving and chaste. We hate the Catholic sex-abuse crisis not because we hate Catholicism. It’s actually the opposite. We hate the Catholic sex-abuse crisis precisely because we are faithful Catholics.
It actually springs from the same kind of meditation on Scripture that makes us pro-life. Why are we pro-life? How do we know how wrong abortion actually is? We know how wrong it is from thinking about our Lady giving birth to our Lord. We know how wrong abortion is by gazing with eyes of faith at the crib in Bethlehem. It is precisely by meditating on the peace and tenderness of the Birth of the Lord that we realize how unacceptable physical violence to an unborn child is. It’s intolerable.
Likewise: When we think of the strong, loving gentleness of the chaste Christ, how He never violated anyone’s integrity as a human being; when we gaze with the eyes of faith on His loving face, we recognize how intolerable sexual violence against a young person is. To strike at the innocence of one of these little ones, whose angels gaze at our heavenly Father? That is an intolerable crime.
Building a culture of life means building a community in which sex abuse is dealt with openly, honestly, swiftly, and severely. The good news is: That’s who we are, we Catholic people. We need not despair. Building a true culture of life is exactly what we most deeply want to do.
The realities on the playing field right now are not pretty. We do not have a playoff-quality team. But the situation is not hopeless, because our Church includes legions of good, honest people like yourselves, who want a better future and are willing to work hard for it, willing to take chances and make sacrifices for it.
The holy Catholic Church has an indestructible center of gravity that keeps Her moving towards communion with God. Our center of gravity is our interior life, our communion with Christ through prayer and the sacraments.
When I was 21 years old, I was out for a walk during a lunch break from my office job. The skies opened for a sudden downpour, just as I was walking past the neighborhood Catholic church. I ducked inside to get out of the rain.
It was the first time I had ever been inside a Catholic church. I didn’t even know what a tabernacle was. But as soon as I stepped inside, the Lord gave me a gift that has stayed with me ever since. I knew He was there. I knew I was in the presence of the living God made flesh.
Something is rotten in our Church, but that doesn’t mean we should become less Catholic. Quite the contrary. It means we have to become more Catholic. The solution to the Catholic scandal is… Catholicism.