MARTINSVILLE — The Rev. Mark White says he is staying in the pulpits of Catholic churches in Martinsville and Rocky Mount.
On Monday night, after Bishop of the Diocese of Richmond Barry Knestout had notified White and his parishioners in an emailed letter that White had been removed as pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsville and St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount, White said he would remain as priest and was seeking legal counsel to defend his right to do so.
White and Knestout have had a months-long dispute about a popular blog White writes that sometimes includes strong criticism of how the Catholic Church has handled cases involving sexual abuse by priests.
Knestout said in the letter that White would be reassigned as “chaplain to various prisons, state and federal, within the diocesan bounds” effective immediately and would be leaving the area within the week.
“I don’t intend to go anywhere until the canonical process has run its full course,” White said Monday evening. “As a sitting pastor, I have the right to recourse before being removed.”
J.D. Flynn is the editor in chief for the Catholic News Agency, and Ed Condon is its Washington editor. Both are canon lawyers and wrote a joint article that relates to White.
A bishop cannot remove or transfer a pastor “without following a detailed and nonnegotiable process defined by canon law,” they wrote. “This procedure can only be initiated if a priest has met one or more conditions for removal outlined in that law.”
Those conditions include actions deemed “gravely detrimental or disturbing.” If those are met, the bishop must consult with a priests council in a setting where the pastor is allowed to see the evidence against him and make a defense.
“During this whole process, the bishop can neither remove the pastor nor appoint a replacement,” the article said.
Knestout wrote in his letter Monday that the Rev. Kevin Segerblom, pastor of St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Roanoke, would be White’s immediate replacement “until such time as a new pastor can be named.” White served as pastor of St. Andrew’s until being reassigned in 2017 to the parishes in Rocky Mount and Martinsville, where he had served previously.
White’s blog has been seen by more than 1 million viewers. Late last year, Knestout threatened to remove White unless he took down the blog and refrained from communicating publicly online.
White complied, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, he asked for Knestout’s permission to resume his blog.
Knestout ignored the request, so White decided to go against the order and resume publishing his posts online.
Within hours of receiving the emailed letter from Knestout, White was on his blog with a video of himself reading a letter he had penned in response.
“I regret the wording that the bishop used in his letter to you of earlier today,” White said. “In the church, we have the norm of law. According to the legal norms, I enjoy the right to take recourse against the bishop’s decision.
“I have a canon lawyer, and he is helping me deal with this situation in the proper legal way.
“In the meantime … I remain your pastor until the full legal procedure has run its course.”
White said the process could take months.
Flynn and Condon wrote that if a bishop removed a priest in violation of canon law procedure and the priest appealed to Rome, “it is likely the Vatican would order the pastor to be reinstated.”