The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston announced July 19 sanctions from the Vatican -- including taking away…
West Virginia bishop: Bransfield’s punishment ‘couldn’t be a mere slap on the hand’
A plan of amends that requires former Bishop Michael Bransfield to pay nearly $800,000 in restitution had to be “substantial,” said his successor, Bishop Mark Brennan of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia.
“It couldn’t be a mere slap on the hand or the outcry, not just from West Virginia but around the country, would be very direct,” Bishop Brennan told Our Sunday Visitor in a recent telephone interview.
To not require a considerable course of reparation for Bishop Bransfield — who is alleged to have engaged in financial misconduct and the sexual harassment of priests and seminarians — would send “a disastrous message” that the Catholic Church in the United States still refuses to hold bishops accountable for their actions.
“So it has to be a substantial plan of amends, without cutting off the man’s head,” Bishop Brennan said.
On Nov. 26, Bishop Brennan released a letter to the faithful that outlined the plan of amends that he formed after consulting with his diocesan finance council and priest consultors, as well as with legal counsel and other professionals.
The plan asks Bishop Bransfield to apologize to the people he is alleged to have sexually harassed, as well as for the “grievous harm” he caused the local Church and to the diocesan employees “who suffered from a culture of intimidation and retribution” the bishop created.
Bishop Bransfield’s monthly pension is being cut from about $6,200 a month to the $736 stipend that a regular retired priest with 13 years of service would receive.
“He’s got enough money to live on, without anything from us,” Bishop Brennan said. “In recognition that he did give 13 years of his life to this diocese, he’s getting what an older priest would get for retiring. That’s what the finance council and priest consultors thought would be the appropriate thing to do.”
Bishop Bransfield will be responsible for paying for his own long-term health care and disability policies, and will have to return or buy outright a car that he was given at his retirement. He also will not be allowed to be buried in the diocese.
However, the headline-grabbing portion of the plan recommends that Bishop Bransfield, who led the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston for 13 years until he resigned in September 2018, pay the diocese $792,638 for Church funds he used to support a luxurious lifestyle that reportedly included stays at luxurious hotels, limousine rides and private jets.
“In the end, none of it was related to Church business. It was purely personal,” said Bishop Brennan, who told Our Sunday Visitor that the diocese’s finance team conducted “an extensive review” of past expenditures during Bishop Bransfield’s tenure.
Bishop Brennan said the diocese’s finance department and other officials didn’t have access to Bishop Brennan’s calendar, and that they assumed his spending was related to official Church business.
“But we did a deeper dive into this and found out that it wasn’t,” Bishop Brennan said.
The $792,638 that Bishop Bransfield is asked to pay the diocese does not include a $110,000 penalty he owes to the Internal Revenue Service for diocesan funds he reportedly used for personal expenses from 2013 to 2018. The former bishop is alleged to have used that money for personal travel, alcohol, vacations, clothing and luxury goods.
All proceeds from Bishop Bransfield’s repayment would be directed to a special fund to provide for the counseling, care and support of those who have suffered sexual abuse.
Settle with the diocese
To date, Bishop Bransfield has denied all allegations of wrongdoing. Reached shortly after the plan’s release by the Washington Post, Bishop Bransfield told the newspaper that he wasn’t expecting the announcement, adding: “I’m just absolutely shocked this happened today.”
Bishop Brennan told Our Sunday Visitor that he met with Bishop Bransfield on Nov. 15, where he presented his predecessor with the plan of amends during a long discussion. To date, Bishop Bransfield has not indicated if he accepts the entire plan, part of it or none of its recommendations.
“I can’t put words in his mouth for him to make an apology. I’m not going to try to do that,” Bishop Brennan said. “Hopefully he’ll see it’s far better of him to settle with the diocese and get that off the table, because he does have other things he has to be concerned about.”
After his resignation last year, the Holy See ordered an investigation that resulted in Pope Francis determining earlier this year that the allegations against Bishop Bransfield were credible and substantiated.
The Holy See appointed Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to investigate the allegations. While celebrating Mass Dec. 2 at the tomb of St. Peter in Rome, Catholic News Service reported that Archbishop Lori said Pope Francis has warned bishops “against using our ministry for financial gain or personal comfort.”
“Thus Peter, and his successor, Francis, call us to simplicity of life, a pastoral poverty that enables us to keep the poor always in focus,” said Archbishop Lori, who was in Rome with other bishops for their ad limina visits to Rome.
This past summer, Pope Francis imposed disciplinary measures that prohibit Bishop Bransfield from presiding over or participating in any public liturgies, or even from living in the diocese. The pope also ordered Bishop Bransfield to make “personal amends” for the harm he caused.
The Holy Father tasked Bishop Brennan with working out the details of how his predecessor would make amends. Since Aug. 22, when he was installed as the seventh bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, Bishop Brennan has been consulting with advisers to formulate such a plan.
Bishop Brennan said his predecessor has known since July that he would have to make some kind of amends. On Oct. 1, Bishop Brennan said he wrote a letter to Bishop Bransfield to give him the opportunity to present his own suggested plan of amends.
“He never did,” Bishop Brennan said. When asked what the diocese can do if Bishop Bransfield refuses to accept any plan of amends, Bishop Brennan said he did not want to discuss his strategy moving forward.
“There are some ideas what to do further if there is no cooperation at all, but I’m not going to reveal that now,” said Bishop Brennan, who also responded to some criticisms that the plan does not go far enough in seeking restitution or imposing other penalties.
“People might want every penny back,” said Bishop Brennan, who argued that the plan, while not an exact dollar-for-dollar restitution, is still consistent with Pope Francis’ wishes that Bishop Bransfield make amends for the harm he caused.
Bishop Brennan added that he is not trying to impoverish his predecessor: “What I’m trying to do is offload some cargo from his ship, not fire a torpedo to sink his ship and then maybe get nothing.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.