West Virginia bishop revives lay-led advisory council

Bp Brennan of W C Bishop Mark Brennan. | Archdiocese of Baltimore

The Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston is reviving a lay-led advisory council as part of reforms following the 2018 departure of disgraced emeritus Bishop Michael Bransfield.

In a Feb. 4 letter, Bishop Mark Brennan announced the revival of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, which was originally founded in 1968 but lapsed during Bishop Bransfield's tenure.

The council members will aim to represent the people of God in West Virginia and facilitate dialogue and communication between the laity and the bishop, Brennan, who took the helm of the diocese in August 2019.

The main plank of the council's mission is to "assist the Bishop, through consultation and cooperation, in developing pastoral priorities, initiatives, and plans to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ within the Diocese in the light of its existing social, economic, demographic, and cultural circumstances and resources."

The council will consist of three elected lay members from each of the dioceses six vicariates.

It will also feature several appointees of the bishop, including a deacon, a religious, and two young adults.

The vicariates elected their lay members in late 2020, the bishop said.

The group will meet three times a year, with its first meeting set for Feb. 19-20, Brennan said. Brennan told the Times-Leader that he had hoped to revive the council soon after his installation as bishop, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed their plans.

The council previously helped to form the major documents of the last diocesan synod in Wheeling-Charleston, held in 2000. Bishop Bransfield had not held a meeting of the council since March 2006, the Times-Leader reported.

Bransfield headed the diocese from 2005 to 2018. Pope Francis accepted his resignation in September 2018.

Bransfield has been found to have sexually harassed, assaulted, and coerced seminarians, priests, and other adults during his thirteen years as Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston. He was also found to have given large cash gifts to high-ranking Church leaders, using diocesan funds.

After Pope Francis accepted Bransfield's resignation, the pope ordered Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to investigate allegations against Bransfield. Investigators established that the bishop had engaged in a pattern of sexual malfeasance and serious financial misconduct.
Bransfield spent nearly $1 million on private jets and over $660,000 on airfare and hotels during his 13 years as Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston. He often stayed in luxury accommodations on both work trips and personal vacations.

The bishop also spent thousands of dollars on jewelry and other clothing, including spending more than $60,000 of diocesan money at a boutique jeweler in Washington, D.C. during his time in office.
He often travelled with young priests in their twenties. Bransfield was accused of sexual harassment by at least one of his travel companions.

Some of the bishop's travels were connected to his work with the Papal Foundation, which supports projects and proposals recommended by the Holy See. Bransfield headed the foundation's board until his retirement.
The disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who served as Archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006, co-founded the Papal Foundation in 1988. He was credibly accused of sexual abuse in 2018 and was later dismissed from the clerical state.

Bishop Brennan has said that Bransfield has also been ordered to repay his former diocese $441,000 "for unauthorized benefits received from diocesan resources," confirmed he had done so, and said the funds "will be added to those already set aside by the sale of his former residence for assistance to victims of abuse."

Brennan also confirmed that Bransfield will continue to receive $2,250 in a monthly stipend, in line with the amount recommended by the USCCB for retired bishops, and would still be covered by the diocesan health insurance plan.

"However," Brennan said, "no other benefits, such as for a secretary or travel, will be provided."

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