Update on My Canonical Case

canon law codex canonici

I have received a notice from Bishop Knestout. He intends formally to charge me with two canonical “delicts,” that is, Church crimes. He tells me that he intends to pursue an “extrajudicial penal process.” (Not sure what that means.) He intends to “resolve my situation” by “invoking II Special Faculty.” (Don’t know what that means, either.)

The charges are: 1. disobedience 2. incitement.

According to the canon, disobedience = “not complying with the legitimate precepts or prohibitions of the Apostolic See or the ordinary [ie. bishop].”

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

Precept. I believe that, in November 2019, Bishop Knestout signed a ‘precept’ concerning this blog. On the 21st of that month, the bishop surprised me after daily Mass and read at least part of that precept to me.

The situation that day was far from calm; I did not catch every word of what the bishop was reading to me. I didn’t worry about that, though, because I assumed that I would receive a written copy.

When bishop finished reading, however, he informed me that I would not receive a copy of the document. I was dumbfounded.

I am assuming that the Bishop intends to accuse me of disobeying this particular precept of November 2019, in this “penal process” now begun. I certainly hope that I will have the opportunity to hold the document in my own hands and read it with my own eyes, before I am put on trial for disobeying it. I hope that I will have some time to consider its contents carefully.

None of us are in the dark, though–at least I don’t believe we are–about the basic thrust of this mysterious document. The precept compels me, under pain of losing the office of pastor in Martinsville/Rocky Mount, to remove this blog from circulation entirely and to withdraw completely from publishing anything.

In March of last year (2020), my canon lawyer wrote to Bishop Knestout, pointing out that I needed more information from him in order to understand his problems with this blog and to make adjustments to satisfy him. We never received any response to my lawyer’s letter.

sacredheartcathedralrichmond

Then last summer my lawyer argued that the precept in question appears not to be in harmony with the teaching of the popes, when it comes to priests using the internet to communicate.

My lawyer made this distinction:

On the one hand, we acknowledge the prerogative the bishop has to guide me in what I would publish here. I have, in fact, repeatedly sought such guidance. On the other hand, the bishop’s demand that I cease entirely to communicate over the internet violates my basic freedom as a human being, and it contradicts the law and the teaching of the Church.

This past March, I wrote to Bishop Knestout. I re-iterated my offer to work with him–or with someone delegated by him, or with anyone approved by him–to try to solve the problems that this blog has caused in our relationship. I remain willing, as I have been all along, to correct any errors I have published here. I expressed my desire to serve the diocese in some priestly ministry that might be helpful.

St Peters

Bishop Knestout responded by urging me to seek laicization. Then he informed me that he himself had petitioned the Holy See to expel me from the clergy.

Apparently that petition was returned to Bishop Knestout at some point this summer, without any action taken on it in Rome. Perhaps because I have never been given due process and the opportunity to defend myself. Indeed, I have never been clear on what exactly the bishop believes I have done wrong, other than continuing to keep this weblog in existence.

To return to the charges that have now, at long last, been made a little more clear… The second one is brand new. I don’t have any record of the bishop ever accusing me of incitement, until last week.

According to the canon, the crime of incitement = “publicly stirring up hostilities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary [bishop] on account of some act of ecclesiastical power or ministry, or inciting subjects to disobey.”

I have no awareness whatsoever of ever having done this.

I have freely shared my own point-of-view, on topics that cause a lot of thoughts and emotions. But I believe that I have always left it to you, dear reader, to determine how you react to what I write.

For my part, I bear no ill will towards Pope Francis or Bishop Knestout. To the contrary, I pray for both of them with love every time I celebrate Holy Mass. I have at times been angry with both of them, but that anger cooled long ago.

It seems to me that expressing yourself in a proper forum about highly debatable matters of Church governance ≠ incitement to hatred or disobedience.

I do not think that I myself have wrongly disobeyed; I know for certain that I have never urged anyone to disobey the Church’s law or any particular ordinance of Bishop Knestout.

Two weeks from today my canon lawyer and I will meet with the bishop and Judicial Vicar to initiate this “extrajudicial process.” I pray for humility and honesty. Apparently the bishop will present evidence to support his charges; may I have a mind open to see the whole matter as clearly as possible.

If I have in fact done wrong in the ways that the bishop contends, I pledge myself to do whatever I can to repair the damage.

Today we keep the anniversary of St. Therese of Lisieux’s holy death. On the day of the meeting in Richmond, we will remember Therese’s spiritual mother, St. Theresa of Avila. Let’s pray to these two Doctors of the Church. May a miracle of peace and mutual understanding occur.

Update in the Local Paper + Father Altman

I appreciate Bill’s very good report. To be clear, though, my appeals haven’t completely run out.

Bishop Knestout has petitioned the Vatican to expel me from the priesthood. I am fighting the bishop’s petition, with the help of a canon lawyer.

Please pray. If you want to help me pay my canon lawyer, click HERE.

My friend Father James Altman of the diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, has now been suspended from sacred ministry, like myself.

Our cases are quite different. We have different personalities. I can’t say that I agree with everything my friend says. And he certainly doesn’t agree with everything I say or don’t say.

Be all that as it may, I found this part of his interview yesterday with John Henry Westen to be quite moving (starting at 15:15):

Father Altman and I have this much in common: We have suffered severe penalties without due process. What exactly did he do or say that required a suspension of his priestly ministry? What did I do or say? The authorities over us have never specified with any precision these “offenses,” for which we have been so severely punished.

That is not fair.

The Church is a mysterious web of relationships. By the grace and power of God, we parish priests form relationships with our people, and those relationships run very deep.

Under circumstances like this, any unilateral and arbitrary exercise of bureaucratic authority will inevitably wound peoples’ souls. Those wounds may never heal in this lifetime.

Parishioners in Rocky Mount and Martinsville speak of the parishes being “cursed” by what the bishop and his henchmen did here last spring. Now another parish in Wisconsin will have to live under a similar curse.

As I mentioned, I do not agree with everything that my friend Father Altman says. If I had been his parishioner, I would have disagreed with him on certain points, just like many of my parishioners have disagreed with me, over the years.

The Catholic Church has to be a place where people can disagree with each other and still receive the sacraments together, kneeling next to each other in peace and mutual love. Our minds simply do not comprehend the mystery that we share at the altar. So anyone who would propose to “police” the boundary lines has to tread lightly.

Also: there has to be room for us priests to be our individual selves.

When we priests have criticisms of managerial decisions made by our superiors in the chain-of-command, we have a right to voice those criticisms. Criticizing management decisions does not involve breaking communion with Holy Mother Church. The bishops ≠ Christ’s Church.

I don’t know the bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin. But it seems to me that he has made a power play that will wound a lot of people, without any real benefit coming from it.

A year and a half ago, I begged Bishop Knestout to leave me in peace. Just let me do my thing. If my blog posts are the work of a whack-job with a crazy ax to grind, so be it. You can show your strength as a leader by tolerating them. Ignoring them. In the end, the world ignores the work of whack-jobs.

He did not take my advice.

Whack-jobs vent their misguided spleens, and, in the end, the world takes no note of them. But when someone without power criticizes authority, and then authority turns around and punishes the critic arbitrarily, with a merciless power-play… That actually proves the criticism to have been valid in the first place.

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 🙂

18th Anniversary

McCarrick ordination

Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ.

Eighteen years ago today, then-Cardinal Archbishop Theodore McCarrick ordained nine of us as priests, sacred ministers of the holy mysteries of Jesus Christ, chaste and loving.

At the ceremony, we all promised to respect and obey the bishop. Over the course of the ensuing years, McCarrick gave me my first three parish assignments. I gladly did his will.

But [PG-13] if he asked me to play with his penis, should I have obeyed?

The Cardinal was a criminal. For decades he abused his power as a priest, then as a bishop, to obtain cheap sexual gratification for himself.

In May of 2006, right after he gave me one of the happiest assignments I have ever had, McCarrick suddenly announced his retirement. He was evidently able-bodied and vigorous. Something weird was going on.

Turns out that the highest authorities in the Church were working behind the scenes to cover-up McCarrick’s crimes. My own current bishop, Barry Knestout, was apparently in-the-know about the cover-up.

It was an institutional deception piled on top of a criminal betrayal. When we learned the truth, over a decade later, many of us experienced intense anger and pain. I will spend the rest of my life trying to deal with the effects of this betrayal of my trust in Church leadership.

We priests do our best to obey. But we are also baptized and confirmed Catholic Christians, who have to prepare ourselves for judgment by God, just like everyone else.

We’re human beings. We’re not trained monkeys.

Last year, Bishop Knestout assigned me as prison chaplain for the diocese. I could not undertake the assignment because…

1. The pandemic has prevented prison ministry for the past year.

2. Bishop Knestout suspended my priestly faculties shortly after giving me the assignment.

A local businessman here recently offered to purchase a building for me to set up an independent church. “Father, people will come from all over!”

This kind, well-meaning Christian has the necessary money. But I do not have the will to do such a thing. I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, governed by Pope Francis, and all the bishops in communion with him.

mlk birmingham jail cellI obey my suspension and celebrate Mass in the company of just the Lord, the angels, and the saints. Today my Mass will be for Theodore McCarrick, that he might get to heaven somehow. The pope kicked him out of the priesthood two years ago.

I wrote my bishop last month, asking him if we could try to find a compromise about this blog, so that I could undertake the assignment he gave me last year, before he suspended me.

He wrote back, insisting that I would never have an assignment. He urged me to ask the pope to remove me from Holy Orders. Then he quickly wrote again, informing me that he had asked the pope to laicize me. So I could wind up just like the former Cardinal who ordained me. Seems strange, since McCarrick abused people, and I just wrote about it.

Every priest I know finds Bishop Knestout’s petition breathtakingly unbelievable. Especially when you consider that there are convicted criminal pedophile priests alive and well today, who have never been laicized.

I do not know what my bishop has sent to Rome. I have asked for more information, and for a chance to understand the rationale and defend myself.

In his letter to me, Bishop Knestout referred to my “persistent disobedience.” He says I should be kicked out of the priesthood for a failure to honor my promise to obey. He has ordered me to shut up about all this. I have not done so.

Can’t we keep this in mind here, please: I made my promise of obedience to a criminal, a criminal that everyone in a miter covered-up for.

I’m doing my best here. I really am, all things considered.

How about cutting a suffering dude a break? I will happily minister to the incarcerated criminals.

After all, a criminal ministered the holy priesthood to me, eighteen years ago today.

Holy Virgin, help of Christians and Mother of the Church, pray for us who have recourse to you.

Interview from the Ecclesiastical Gulag

Some of my previous Gulag Dispatches…

(I wrote nine last year, but these particular ones are perhaps worth revisiting now)

#1 attempts to make sense of my “offenses” under Church law (May 15, 2020)

#2 considers the Roman tribunal that will consider the case and asks for a recusal (May 17)

Wuerl Knestout Pope Francis[NB on dispatch #2. Donald Card. Wuerl turned 80 last November, which means he no longer sits on any Roman tribunals. The Vatican appears to have timed the release of its McCarrick Report to correspond with Wuerl’s aging-out of official Vatican roles, since the report casts enormous shadows on Wuerl’s credibility. Nonetheless, I fear that he continues to exercise influence over the decisions of the Cong. for the Clergy.]

#5 considers freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and evangelization (June 4)

#6 asks, What does “Justice for Father Mark” Mean? (July 4)

#7 outlines The Discussion We Want to Have (July 16)

#8 Canonical Arguments and the Secret McCarrick Report (August 4)

#9 Walter Winchell + the Gas-lit Gulag (August 25)

Cool Hand Luke in leg irons

Pretty grim situation.

But, on the flip: We can hope for holy water in the stoups at the church doors soon 🙂 We will be able to bless ourselves coming and going, like was always did before. Rebirth.

Catholic Whistleblowers Letter

The Catholic Whistleblowers is an organization dedicated to supporting sex-abuse survivors.

I am honored by this letter to Bishop Knestout.

Plus a tweet from my mom:

Quick Update and Request

Last month I wrote my bishop, Barry Knestout.

I asked if we could work together with a mediator, or with a brother priest, or with anyone he might think helpful, in order to try to resolve our dispute over this blog.

I made the same request a year ago, and never got a direct response.

This time, I got this response:

Bishop Knestout has written to the Vatican, demanding that I be removed from the priesthood completely, without any further dialogue or recourse.

The bishop has submitted documents to the Vatican, to support his demand. I have never seen the documents. I have no idea what they contain. The bishop and I have never discussed this.

I have never done anything to justify the bishop’s actions, nothing that Church law forbids, or the moral law, or civil law.

All I want is to continue serving God as a priest. I have asked the bishop for an assignment. He refuses to give me one.

Would you be kind enough to write to Beniamino Cardinal Stella of the Congregation for Clergy at the Vatican? Could you alert him to the fact that Bishop Knestout has acted in a clearly unfair manner?

And could you share this with others and ask them to do so?

Write to Cardinal Stella in care of the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C.

His Eminence Beniamino Card. Stella

Prefect, Congregation for the Clergy

c/o The Apostolic Nunciature

3339 Massachusetts Ave., N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20008

Nunciature looking north