W. Virginia’s scandal-ridden Bishop Bransfield must make amends for ‘betrayal’

bransfield Bishop Michael Bransfield. CNA file photo.

The disgraced Bishop Michael Bransfield, former head of the Wheeling-Charleston diocese, should apologize to his victims of sexual harassment, apologize to the diocese's Catholic faithful, and repay nearly $800,000 to begin to make amends for his behavior, West Virginia's new bishop has said.

Bishop Mark Brennan, head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston since last year, said Bransfield's actions have caused "a deep and abiding sense of betrayal" among the faithful of the diocese, clergy and diocesan employees.

"I am grateful for the patience of the good people of this diocese, despite their justified eagerness for some sense of justice and closure to this very tragic chapter of this local Church," Brennan said in a Nov. 26 letter to the Catholic faithful.

He said he has listened to Catholics' "anger over the deeply troubling behavior and actions of the former bishop." He has met with the diocese's priests and victims of Bransfield's sexual harassment.

Wheeling-Charleston is West Virginia's only Roman Catholic diocese. About 1.8 million people live in the state, and about 110,000 of them are Catholic.

Bransfield headed the diocese from 2005-2018. Pope Francis accepted his resignation in September 2018, just after Bransfield turned 75, the mandatory age at which Catholic bishops must offer their resignation.

Pope Francis then ordered Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to investigate allegations that Bransfield had sexually harassed adult males and misused diocesan finances during his time in West Virginia. Investigators established that the bishop had engaged in a pattern of sexual malfeasance and serious financial misconduct.

Bransfield is reported 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.

Lori banned Bransfield from public ministry within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and the Archdiocese of Baltimore in March. In July the Vatican imposed additional sanctions, including a ban on Bransfield living in his former diocese.

Brennan's latest letter cited the Pope's requirement that Bransfield make amends for some of the harm he has caused. While Pope Francis instructed Bransfield that the nature and extent of the personal amends are to be decided in consultation with Brennan, Bransfield "has consistently declined to do so," Brennan said.

"Consequently, I have presented this plan to him," said the bishop.

Bransfield must make apologies to the victims of sexual harassment for the "severe emotional and spiritual harm" he caused them. He must apologize for the "grievous harm" he has caused to the faithful of the diocese and to the reputation of the Catholic Church in West Virginia. He must apologize to diocesan employees for the "culture of intimidation and retribution" he created.

Bransfield spent nearly one million dollars on private jets and over $660,000 on airfare and hotels during his 13 years as bishop of his former diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. He often stayed in luxury accommodations on both work trips and personal vacations.

He often travelled with young priests in their twenties. Bransfield was accused of sexual harassment by at least one of his travel companions.

The bishop spent thousands of dollars on jewelry and other clothing, including spending more than $60,000 of diocesan money at a boutique jeweler in Washington, DC during his time in office.

Bishop Brennan said the diocese believes a request for the $792,000 restitution from Bransfield constitutes "a fair and just amends" to the diocese for "what were clearly and solely personal expenses." His letter detailed the results of the diocese's financial reviews and consideration of his personal expenses and expenditures on his "luxurious lifestyle." The proposed restitution does not include the $110,000 penalty Bransfield owes the IRS.

All proceeds would go to a special fund to provide counseling, care and support for sexual abuse victims, Brennan said.

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Instead of receiving an ordinary bishop's stipend, Bransfield must accept a stipend of only $736 per month, equal to the stipend of a retired priest who has served 13 years in the diocese. The diocese will still provide his Medicare supplemental health care coverage, but Bransfield must pay for his pharmacy benefit plan and must be personally responsible for long-term health care and disability policies.

Bransfield must either purchase or return the car he was provided upon his retirement. He may not be buried within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston's diocesan cemetery upon his death.

"I wish to make clear that it is not my intention to impoverish the former bishop," Brennan said.

"While not a dollar-for-dollar restitution for the former bishop's excessive expenditure of diocesan funds, I believe that this amount reflects the spirit of Pope Francis' requirement that Bishop Bransfield make 'amends for some of the harm that he has caused'."

If Bransfield accepts the proposed effort to make amends, it would be "an act of restorative justice" from him. The proposal "is also for his own spiritual good and his own healing as a man who professes to follow Christ," Brennan said.

It is now up to Bransfield whether to accept these measures and "accept responsibility for his actions which have caused grave harm to this diocese he once led."

"I have strongly encouraged the bishop to do so and put the well-being of this diocese ahead of his own personal considerations," said Brennan, who prayed that God's grace will allow the Catholics of West Virginia to move forward.

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In his letter, Brennan noted that the liturgical season of Advent will soon begin. He described Advent as "a time of renewed hope and anticipation" that culminates in Christmas, "the assurance of a new beginning."

Brennan's letter drew a response from West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who said it was "a step forward."

Morrisey called on the diocese to release "all of its investigative reports on Bishop Bransfield," to tighten its child protection measures, and to implement "concrete measures to provide assistance to the many victims of sexual abuse and pedophilia needing medical, social, or mental health services."
"It is time for the diocese to truly come clean and begin to put this horrific scandal behind it," said Morrisey, who suggested that the diocese needs prodding from his office.

"The subpoena from our Office is likely the only reason we have a list of diocese (sic) priests who are credibly accused of sexually abusing minors," said Morrisey.

In a Nov. 27 response, Brennan said the attorney general is aware of the diocese's "rigorous controls regarding the protection of young people consistent with our Safe Environment program and policy to protect children and young adults."

The diocese began to review and compile its list of credibly accused clergy in July 2018, several months before the subpoena.

Brennan noted the Nov. 6 decision of the Circuit Court of Wood County, which tossed out Morrisey's lawsuit against the diocese pending a state Supreme Court ruling on whether it violates protections of church-state separation. That lawsuit took the unusual step of citing consumer protection law in alleging the diocese under Bransfield covered up criminal behavior and employed admitted sexual abusers without adequate background checks.

This court decision was "obviously adverse" to the attorney general, said the bishop, who added "we can only assume this is why he continues to criticize the diocese and the Church."

This October another allegation surfaced that Bransfield had inappropriately touched a nine-year-old girl during a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., in 2012. A police investigation is underway. Bransfield has denied the accusation.

At least four senior American prelates received financial gifts from Bransfield. These same churchmen also received complaints against him from the West Virginia faithful, the Washington Post reported in July 2019. Archbishop Lori is among the bishops who have said they would return the gifts. He said he would returned $7,500 in gifts he had received from Bransfield in 2012.

Before he was named bishop, Bransfield served as the first rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. He is a past treasurer of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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 last year.

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 later removed from the clerical state by Pope Francis.