I have often been to Mass in the Roman Catholic diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which covers the entire state of West Virginia. The diocese’s borders are identical with the state borders– the bishop of Wheeling-Charleston is the bishop of the Mountain State. I’ve grown to love some of the parishes there.
West Virginia has been ranked the ninth poorest state in our country, based on household income. More than one in four of the children in West Virginia live in poverty. And, since it’s a largely rural state in the Appalachian mountains, that ranking doesn’t even tell you the whole story. Twenty thousand dollars a year plus food stamps goes a certain way if you’re living in an apartment on a bus route in a city; it’s something else entirely if you’re living in a trailer on the side of a mountain an hours’ drive from the nearest Wal Mart, with no water except what comes from the pump outside and no wifi for twenty miles. The expenses are different, and the amount of help the government can provide doesn’t go as far. These hardworking people have been left behind by every economic boom our country has experienced. Their lives are always difficult.
West Virginia is not a largely Catholic area, but the Catholics I have met there are truly wonderful. They drive for an hour or more to get to Mass, they act as if they’re truly grateful to be there, and afterwards there’s often a party. About twenty years ago I went to Mass in a tiny church in Pocahontas County which had perhaps as many as twelve fervent worshipers and one beautifully reverent priest, in a room the size of a small store front; the person serving as lector and usher provided music for the hymns by turning on a cassette player. During the announcements after the liturgy, the priest smiled and said that the bishop wanted to meet him “and his staff” for a luncheon in Charleston.
“The conversation started with ‘I don’t have any staff,’ and it didn’t end with ‘my congregation can’t afford to take a day off to go to Charleston with me,’” the priest joked. “But if anyone can take a day off to come with me, the bishop knows how to eat right, you’ll get a good lunch.”
The well-fed bishop of Wheeling-Charleston is responsible for the spiritual well-being of those financially poor, culturally and spiritually wealthy people in those tiny parishes in the mountains.
For the past thirteen years, the bishop of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston was Michael J. Bransfield, who recently resigned. And now we get to know why he resigned.
Today, a letter was released to the faithful in the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston by the apostolic administrator who is currently in charge, the Most Reverend William E. Lori, describing what Bransfield was up to all these years.
According to the letter, Bransfield sexually harassed underlings and created such a “culture of fear of retaliation and retribution” that no one dared stop him from covering up massive misappropriation of diocesan money for his lifestyle. The diocesan letter mentions renovations to his two residences, the construction of a retirement residence, and lavish spending on “personal travel, dining, liquor, gifts and luxury items,” but doesn’t go into detail.
Thankfully, the Washington Post came out with an investigative story less than 20 minutes after the letter was published, and it fills in some of the blanks. A thousand dollars were spent per month on alcohol alone. $4.6 million were spent on renovating an entire private residence after a single bathroom sustained some fire damage. Bransfield had his house decked out in fresh floral arrangements which were delivered daily, to the tune of $100 per day. He also allegedly harassed, kissed, touched or exposed himself to at least nine adult men; the people around him feared to leave him alone with an altar server. Bransfield has denied these allegations, which rings awfully hollow considering that the diocese found them to be “substantiated;” they’re going to sell the bishop’s residence and pay the victims’ therapy bills. I guess that’s a start.Lori himself disclosed receiving seven and a half thousand dollars in “gifts” from Bransfield over the years, which he apparently just now returned to the diocese suggesting it be given to Catholic Charities. I am, myself, striving to be charitable about a cleric who receives thousands of dollars as a present from another cleric and doesn’t immediately assume something is deeply wrong. I am also striving to be charitable about Lori who, as a recipient of all that money, surely had a gross conflict of interest, being put in charge of investigating Bransfield in the first place. Perhaps I can be forgiven for wondering whether we’d have gotten a letter from the diocese at all, if they hadn’t been anticipating the Post coming out with the story first. His appointment represents at minimum a crass mistake.
West Virginia is the ninth poorest state in the country.
Children there can take two hours to bus to school, where the textbooks sometimes haven’t been replaced in decades.
There are regions where it’s not even a given that there will be potable running water indoors, not because they can’t afford to pay the bills but because the infrastructure isn’t there or is too old to work properly.
Mental illness, despair and drug use are rampant.
The Latin Catholic parishes sometimes can’t even afford to hire staff.
Their parishioners can’t afford a day off.
And this self-indulgent, prurient lounge lizard with a hundred-dollar-a-day cut flower habit was put in charge of every Latin Catholic church in the state for thirteen years.
When the Holy See finally got around to asking questions, they apparently left the investigation in the hands of a bishop who had quietly received thousands of dollars in “gifts” from the man he was supposed to investigate. And he’s going to atone by selling one house and paying the therapy bills.
I am nine hundred ninety words into this blog post, and I’m speechless. I don’t think a word exists in English or ecclesiastical Latin to express how horrendous an abuse of power was committed in the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. No curse words I know even begin to do justice to the obscenity of living that lavishly, while committing sexual harassment and worse things, and claiming Jesus Christ as your excuse, all the while surrounded by some of the poorest and most desperate people in the country.
The folks in West Virginia might begin by saying “bless their hearts.”
And for those who don’ t know, that’s not a compliment.