CHARLESTON, W.Va. (ChurchMilitant.com ) – A Vatican-ordered investigation of Michael J. Bransfield has uncovered massive improprieties beyond the prior incidents of abuse, abuse cover-up and financial mismanagement that prompted a civil case filed last March against the former bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston diocese.
Bransfield once served as president of the board of trustees of the scandal-wracked Papal Foundation, where he worked closely with the grantmaking institution’s co-founder Theodore McCarrick, the disgraced former cardinal.
The latest revelations against Bransfield include $350,000 in gifts given in increments of 566 personal checks. Recipients of these gifts range from priests he allegedly abused to 11 high-ranking clerics, according to an expose published in The Washington Post.
After writing the checks, Bransfield was reimbursed by the diocese with a sum more than the original gift to cover taxes, a practice known as “grossing up.” Likewise, the diocese’s finance director, Michael Deemer, used the “grossing up” method to hide Bransfield’s exorbitant personal expenses by increasing his salary by the same amount.
William Lori, the Baltimore archbishop assigned by the Vatican to oversee the Bransfield investigation, appears as one of the beneficiaries of Bransfield’s generosity with diocesan funds, according to a draft version of the report. At his behest, Lori and the other 10 clerics identified in the draft are omitted from the final report.
“Lori’s name was among those cut,” writes Post reporter Scott McCloskey, who had access to both the draft and final versions of the report. “He received a total of $10,500, records show.”
The newspaper also names Cardinals Donald Wuerl, Timothy Dolan, Raymond Burke and Kevin Farrell. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò is also on the list.
Farrell received by far the largest sum: two checks totaling $29,000 to pay for renovations to his apartment in Rome. Lori has since returned the funds and has pledged to sell Bransfield’s house, using the proceeds to assist victims of clerical sex abuse.
Other beneficiaries included Cdl. Bernard Law, Cdl. Edmund Szoka; Rev. Pietro Sambi, former apostolic nuncio and, respectively, Bransfield’s cousin, Monsignor Brian Bransfield, general-secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and nephew Rev. Sean Bransfield, vice chancellor of the Philadelphia archdiocese.
One of Bransfield’s catchphrases was “I own this,” referring to his opulent surroundings.
According to The Washington Post:
The gifts came as a succession of younger male clerical assistants complained to church officials in West Virginia that Bransfield was sexually harassing them. Similar concerns were raised about Bransfield’s conduct in Philadelphia, where he taught at a Catholic high school, and in the District of Columbia, where he was head of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from 1990 to 2005. …
At least six of Bransfield’s clerical assistants in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston “were broken by the experience,” Vicar for Clergy Anthony Cincinnati told investigators. “Seminarians or young priests appealed to leaders in the diocese, to no avail,” the report says. They were instructed to “make your boundaries clear,” it says, or told they had no choice to join Bransfield in such activities as sleepovers at his residence and on trips.
The report not only divulges details of Bransfield’s financial gifts from diocesan monies but as well his harassment “of young priests and spending church money on personal indulgences.”
“Bishop Bransfield adopted an extravagant and lavish lifestyle that was in stark contrast to the faithful he served and was for his own personal benefit,” according to the report. McCloskey adds:
During his 13 years as bishop in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation, Bransfield spent $2.4 million in church money on travel, much of it personal, which included flying in chartered jets and staying in luxury hotels. … Bransfield and several subordinates spent an average of nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol. … The West Virginia diocese paid $4.6 million to renovate Bransfield’s church residence after a fire damaged a single bathroom. When Bransfield was in the chancery, an administrative building, fresh flowers were delivered daily, at a cost of about $100 a day — almost $182,000 in all.
Over the last six years of his tenure in West Virginia, Bransfield received $324,129 as reimbursement for such personal expenses as clothing, jewelry and personal services.
Although poverty is profound in West Virginia, the diocese derived a hefty income from a bequest made in the early 1900s, which included land in Texas where oil was eventually discovered. Mineral rights from the property have resulted in a $230 million endowment and annual revenue of nearly $15 million.
Bransfield resigned in September 2018. He submitted his resignation when he turned 75, as is policy for Catholic bishops. Just a few days after, the Vatican appointed Abp. Lori to oversee the Wheeling-Charleston diocese temporarily and to investigate the allegations that have been made about Bp. Bransfield.
In March, Church Militant quoted Abp. Lori’s summation of his findings: “Pending the assessment of the findings of the Holy See, as Apostolic Administrator of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, I have directed that Bp. Bransfield is not authorized to exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry either within the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston or within the archdiocese of Baltimore.”
Also in March, Church Militant reported that West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey had filed a lawsuit against Bransfield for allegedly “deceiving consumers and claiming their schools were safe when they were employing credibly accused pedophiles.”