During the four-month period when I didn’t publish any blog posts, our sister diocese in West Virginia experienced some notable developments. Here’s the update that I promised, from the old-post mailbag…
Bishop Michael Bransfield governed the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, from 2005 to 2018, sexually harassing numerous seminarians and young priests, and spending multiple millions on himself.
Bransfield reached retirement age a few weeks after the truth about Theodore McCarrick began to become public, in the summer of 2018.
Remember: truth about McCarrick did not become public owing to the honesty of any sitting bishops or popes. It became public thanks to the work of two lawyers in New York and the courage of Mr. James Grein.
If McCarrick had not been “outed” by circumstances outside the hierarchy’s control, we can well imagine that Bransfield would have retired quietly and uneventfully to the plush West-Virginia digs he had prepared for himself.
But, as we know, panic mode had struck the halls of ecclesiastical power in late summer, 2018.
We have previously covered what happened:
–An insider grew impatient with the dubious “rescue,” and revealed to the Washington Post that: 1. Archbishop Lori had commissioned a report, which found, among many other things, that Bransfield had given Lori thousands of dollars. 2. The report went to the Vatican with the information about Bransfield’s gifts to Lori expunged.
–Then it turned out that: The Archbishops of Baltimore, and the Vatican, had long known about Bransfield’s profligate ways. The faithful had complained repeatedly, through two papacies. The higher-ranking prelates just ignored all the complaints.
We traced the eerie similarities between how people complained up the ecclesiastical chain-of-command about McCarrick for over a decade, and got nowhere. And how they complained about Bransfield for over a decade, and got nowhere.
–In mid-summer of last year, Lori yielded to pressure applied by laypeople in the diocese. The Archbishop promised that an independent audit of the diocesan finances would be commissioned and made public. In November, the diocesan spokesman promised that the audit would come out “early next year.” Nothing so far.
[That is: nothing as of January 26, when I originally wrote this. On February 21, 2020, the diocese released a financial report. I discuss the contents of that report in an addendum below.]
–Mark Brennan became bishop of West Virginia in August. Pope gave Brennan an impossible mandate. Then Archbishop Lori went to talk at Notre Dame University.
–In November Bishop Brennan announced a “plan of amends.” He went to Rome and discussed it with Marc Card. Ouellet. But Brennan said nothing publicly about the outcome of that meeting. Meanwhile, a former seminarian, abused by Bransfield, discussed the plan with a journalist. In the interview, the young man had some inspiring things to say, and cut through an ecclesiastical lie or two.
–Then the Washington Post stepped into this swirling nebula of feckless non-disclosure of facts. They went ahead and published the entire internal investigative report that someone had leaked to them in June.
Here’s one of our heroes, Michael Iafrate, commenting after the Post published the report:
Your humble servant read every word of the report. It illuminates the way that bishops can abuse their authority. The report has these shortcomings:
1. The Post published the edited version. That is, the version without the precise details of Bransfield’s apparent bribes to higher-ranking prelates, including Lori.
2. The report does not recount the efforts that good Catholics in West Virginia had made for years, to alert authorities about Bransfield. As noted above, West-Virginia Catholics had complained repeatedly to the Metropolitan Archbishops of Baltimore, and to the Apostolic Nuncios of Popes Benedict and Francis.
3. The Post has in its possession, but has not published, the letter that gave rise to the report. In August of 2018, the Judicial Vicar of West Virginia, Monsignor Kevin Quirk, wrote to Archbishop Lori to raise the alarm about Bransfield.
The Post has quoted Msgr. Quirk’s letter, but has not published it in its entirety. I can only imagine that someone attuned to the subtleties of the communiques of ecclesiastical officials could understand things about that letter that Post reporters probably cannot grasp.
At this point, a year and a half later, it seems to me like the Post really ought to publish the whole letter. Given the extensive consequences that the document produced, the public has a right to see it. (With names of victims blacked-out, as necessary, of course.) But maybe there are reasons not to do so.
What does the Bransfield Report teach us? Independent investigators ought to subject every diocese to the same scrutiny. Every diocese ought to have a similar report done, with the findings published for the world to see.
Because: Bransfield engaged in some conspicuous excesses of self-indulgence, to be sure. But, when it comes to excessively exercising mind-controlling authority over subordinates, Bransfield did not stray far from the norm. If anything, he was less severe than many others.
It’s the same playbook, followed far and wide: Demand unqualified, irrational obedience. Demand that everyone around you see the world precisely as you see it. (After all, if they don’t, they can’t be good Catholics.) Demand that they accord you the center-of-the-universe dignity that accrues to every man with a miter.
Make these demands capriciously, unexpectedly. But insist on immediate satisfaction. Punish anyone who refuses to submit. With the greatest possible severity.
On February 21, 2020, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston published the promised financial audit. It covers only fiscal year 2019.
Last October, reporters raised questions about former-bishop Bransfield diverting Medicare and Medicaid money for diocesan use, possibly committing a federal crime by doing so. As far as I know, those questions remain unaddressed by the diocese.
The report released on February 21 does not disclose the lavish spending made by Bishop Bransfield during his tenure, which ended just as the fiscal year 2019 began. Genuine transparency would seem to call for a full disclosure, by the diocese, of all those expenditures over the Bransfield years.
The published report does disclose the amount that the diocese had to pay for the investigative report that the Washington Post obtained and published.
Over a year has passed since the secret investigative “Bransfield Report” landed on the desk of the Archbishop of Baltimore. It resulted in “punitive measures” taken by the Holy See. Those measures amount, at this point, to a reduction in Bransfield’s pension.
The Church never released any of the specific information contained in the report. An insider (or insiders) leaked it to the press. That provided the people of the diocese with a window inside a dysfunctional situation–a situation they had long known from the outside.
The Church still has not found Bransfield guilty of anything in particular.
Which means the hierarchy found him guilty, basically, of being a dangerous, self-serving autocrat who had the bad fortune of getting caught at being one.