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Father Mark White and the Streisand Effect

By BEN R. WILLIAMS

Back when I was a full-time journalist, I did several interviews with Father Mark White, the pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsville and St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount.

Generally speaking, when a reporter comes to talk to the local Catholic priest, it’s because the Catholic Church has made the news. I interviewed Father White about a number of topics, varying in range from “somewhat controversial” to “potential minefield.”

I immediately took a liking to Father White. When I asked him a question, he would ponder it quietly before providing a carefully considered answer. He didn’t dodge any hard questions. He was honest, thoughtful, and kind. 

I know a few people who attend St. Joseph and I’ve never heard an ill word said about Father White. He’s been a boon to Martinsville’s Catholic community, a caring pastor for the better part of a decade.

And that is why, when I learned of how he’s been treated by the religious organization that he represents so well, I was furious.

If you haven’t been following the news, I’ll try to offer a brief summary. 

Father White writes a blog which he uses to connect with his flock. It’s available at www.frmarkdwhite.wordpress.com, and you should check it out. It has a vast number of sermons, homilies, and other religious musings dating back to 2008.

The blog also contains some pretty pointed criticism of the Catholic Church, much of it focused on Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a high-ranking figure in the church who was defrocked last year after having spent FIVE DECADES regularly soliciting sex from seminarians. It was apparently an open secret within the church hierarchy.

Father White has spilled much ink on the “McCarrick Report,” a document that was mandated by Pope Francis and would have provided a detailed break-down of McCarrick’s crimes.

That report was evidently completed a couple of years ago but has yet to see the light of day outside of the Vatican. One might almost suspect that it’s being suppressed. Wonder of wonders.

Father White wants the report released, and who could blame him? There’s a disease in the church, and sunlight is the best disinfectant. Anyone who truly cares about the future of Catholicism, it seems to me, would want this report released so that the church can move beyond its unpleasant past toward a brighter new chapter.

Enter Bishop Barry C. Knestout, 13th Bishop of the Diocese of Richmond. Knestout had served as priest secretary to Cardinal McCarrick, and believe it or not, he took issue with Father White’s blog. Last year, he ordered White to silence his blog or else be removed from the priesthood. 

White complied … but then, of course, the Coronavirus hit. Lacking a way to speak to his flock in person, Father White asked Bishop Knestout if he could resume his blog in order to keep in touch with his parishioners. He never heard a response, so he started the blog back up. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

Bishop Knestout rewarded this priest going above and beyond to minister to his flock by removing Father White from his parish and banning him from setting foot on church property.

Which included his house.

The house he lived in.

He was banned from his own house.

Now look: I don’t have a dog in this particular fight. I’m not Catholic. I haven’t spoken to Father White in years. But I know when an outrage is being committed against a good man, and I can’t abide it. 

I would like to humbly introduce Bishop Knestout to the Streisand Effect, a phenomenon which recent evidence suggests he is wildly unfamiliar with. You see, back in 2003, Barbra Streisand filed a $50 million lawsuit against a photographer named Kenneth Adelman. Adelman had taken 12,000 photos of California’s coastline in an effort to document erosion, and one of those photos was an aerial shot of Streisand’s sprawling mansion.

Prior to Streisand’s lawsuit, the photo in question had been downloaded six times, and two of those were by her own attorneys. Once the lawsuit hit the news, more than 400,000 downloaded the picture over the following month. Streisand lost the suit and was ordered to pay Adelman’s legal fees, which had added up to more than $150,000.

The moral of the story is that there is no greater way to shed light on a piece of information than by attempting to suppress it. 

Until this month, I didn’t even know that Father White had a blog, and I don’t think I’d even heard the term “McCarrick Report.” I’m much wiser now, and I have Bishop Knestout to thank! If it weren’t for his tireless efforts to destroy a man’s life, I would have remained ignorant! 

As I said, while I’m not a Catholic myself, I have friends who are Catholic. I’ve even attended a Catholic wedding (all 17 hours of it!). And I feel for people who are members of the church. I’m not telling any tales out of school when I say that the Catholic Church has been rocked by scandal after scandal, and those scandals have gradually become its public face. How many jokes do you know that prominently feature a Catholic priest? I know several, and I sure can’t share any of them in this space.

For people like Father White, people who believe in the church and want the best for it, that is a tragedy. It is a tragedy that the horrific actions of the very men who were supposed to lead the church have turned it into a dark punchline. It is a further tragedy that the people who actually do represent the heart and soul of the church are being stifled and punished for trying to fix what’s wrong instead of looking the other way. It would seem the best way to rise through the ranks of the church is to become the moral equivalent of Mr. Magoo. 

To Father White, I wish you all the best. To Bishop Knestout, I offer a final story; a parable, if you will.

Several years ago, the great stand-up comedian Bill Burr did a pretty savage routine about the Catholic Church. Shortly thereafter, he appeared on the morning talk show “Good Day NY.”

One of the hosts asked him: “Don’t you think you went a little too far with the Catholic Church jokes?”

Burr replied: “Don’t you think the Catholic Church went a little too far?”

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