Elsie McGrath never thought of herself as a rulebreaker.
But in 2007, she broke one of the most fundamental rules in Roman Catholicism when she became an ordained priest.
She was later excommunicated, along with fellow priest Rose Marie Hudson and Bishop Patricia Fresen, who ordained the two.
Women are barred from joining the Roman Catholic clergy, but McGrath is hopeful that will change. Last month, Pope Francis caused a stir when he said the Vatican would explore the possibility of female deacons, a class of ministry allowed to oversee weddings and baptisms but not provide Communion.
McGrath spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan about her call to priesthood and her hopes for the future of the Catholic Church.
On converting to Catholicism
I became a Catholic in 1956 after I married a Catholic at the age of 17. There was nothing to it, because Catholics in those days were very “tunnel vision” and out to save the world all by themselves. Nobody could be saved if they didn’t join the fold, and there was nothing to joining the fold except saying, “Yes, yes, yes” and not questioning anything.
Having been raised as, “Do what we tell you and always obey the rules and everything will be wonderful,” I thought: “This is pretty good. I’ll just be Catholic, and I will do as they say and obey the rules and everything will be good.” And then Vatican II happened, and everything started falling apart. I felt they were abandoning me, taking away my security blanket of having all the answers and leaving me looking for my own answers. And then I started getting enlightened and got on the bandwagon for changing things.
On watching her husband, Jim, become an ordained deacon
I had already gotten an undergraduate degree in theology from St. Louis University. My plan was to go into a master’s program after I got my undergrad degree, but because (Jim) was going into the diaconate, I put that off until he was finished because we went through his diaconate formation together. All of the women were encouraged to do the classes with their husbands, which was a four-year preparation at that time. I went through the whole thing with him because he was so enthusiastic about it, and I was so happy for him that he was making this move.
Jim became a deacon in 1996. I was good with it right up until the very moment that we went into the cathedral for the ordination ceremony. We walked down the aisle together as couples. When we got to the altar rail, the women got to move out of line and sit down in the pew and the men advanced up onto the altar. At that point is when I first realized how absolutely awful and unjust this whole thing was. I felt like I had been stabbed. I was totally unprepared for the reaction I would have.
On meeting Bishop Patricia Fresen, the leader of the women priests movement
Becoming a priest was literally the farthest thing from my mind, except for the injustice of women not being allowed to. In 2006, Patricia Fresen came to St. Louis, and I thought, “I really need to go hear what this woman has to say, because I have discounted these women priests, but I really don’t know anything about them.”
My friend called and said, “I’m going to have a little wine-and-cheese party at the house on Friday evening for Patricia Fresen to be able to meet a few people. Why don’t you come over?” Well, I didn’t really want to do that. I didn’t want to meet her up close and personal, but I went. I walked into the front door of the house, and Patricia was sitting right there. As I walked in, we locked eyes with each other. I had no idea it was her, but I said to myself, “I have got to meet this woman.” The funny thing is that I had not an inkling that this was ever in my mind or my heart until I locked eyes with Patricia Fresen.
On being called to the priesthood
I questioned my own motives, especially because this all happened so quickly and I was completely unprepared for it. I kept wondering, “Why are you really doing this? Are you trying to prove something? Does this have to do with your ego?” It took me from June until November to come to the conclusion that this was something that I really, really was being called to do.
This had nothing to do with me personally; this was what the spirit within me was leading me to, and it made perfect sense. Why else would I have spent all of those years getting all of those theology degrees? Everybody would say, “What are you going to do with that? I guess you think you’re going to be a priest or something?” I would say: “I just love theology. I can’t get enough of it.” The more I know of it, the better I can help the people that I’m working with in the church. This was a monumental step forward in educating people about what church really ought to be.
On her ordination ceremony
[Archbishop] Burke made it clear that anyone who even attended this “attempted ordination ceremony” was going to be excommunicated right along with us. Some of them knew that they were treading on thin ice, but they wanted to be there anyway. [Editor’s note: McGrath’s husband died in 1998.]
We had scads of religious sisters there. We had a drum circle before the ceremony in the corner of the synagogue, and most of them were religious sisters. They didn’t say anything, they didn’t look up, they didn’t look around. And when it came time for everything to start, they just kind of quietly disappeared again.
The whole ceremony was just otherworldly. It was almost like I was floating above somewhere and looking down on what was happening. We processed back out of the sanctuary and the three of us are standing there, Patricia and Ree (Rose Marie Hudson) and me. Here comes this guy straight up, almost ahead of everybody. He works his way through all of those people, and he serves all three of us with the latest document from Burke, the summons. It said, “You have just committed the gravest of sins and you have until,” I believe, “December the third to recant.” In March, the actual decree of excommunication showed up.
On being excommunicated from the Catholic Church
Excommunication is literally a contract. It’s a legal document, and that means that it has to be accepted by both parties for it to actually be in force. We see ourselves as Roman Catholic women who have chosen to be ordained and model a new way of being in the church. We do not accept excommunication, and therefore, we’re not excommunicated.
We don’t need “the Church.” Whenever we talk about “the Church,” we’re literally talking about the hierarchy of the church. But the church itself is us. Our choice is to remain in the church and effect change from the bottom up, because that’s the only way change ever happens anywhere.
On leading Therese of Divine Peace, a Roman Catholic congregation in St. Louis
We have about two dozen faithful members. Everyone is welcome at the table; that is the biggest thing. You don’t have to show papers to receive Communion. At the famous Last Supper, Jesus even served Judas before Judas left the room. If this is the sacrament of unity, how can anybody possibly be barred from the table? If you believe that you are in a community of people who are faithful to living the way Jesus did, what’s going to stop you from sharing bread and wine?
The Roman Catholic piece keeps a lot of people away from us for two very big reasons. One, they don’t want anything to do with the Roman Catholic Church anymore. Or two, they don’t want to take the chance of getting in trouble, because the Roman Catholic Church is so important to them.
On the possibility of women being ordained in the Catholic Church
Pope Francis has done a lot to move things along from the stagnation that we were in with the two before him. He’s softening his stance because he’s understanding that we might have something important to offer the church.
We absolutely know that it will change. Anybody could throw out a figure of when this is going to happen. We’re not going to see it happen from this particular lifetime, but that’s what we’re doing it for.
The Catholic Church leader also denounced a resurgence in anti-Semitism in Europe
By Philip Pullella
Pope Francis said on Friday politicians who rage against homosexuals, gypsies and Jews remind him of Hitler.
“It is not coincidental that at times there is a resurgence of symbols typical of Nazism,” Francis said in an address to participants of an international conference on criminal law.
“And I must confess to you that when I hear a speech (by) someone responsible for order or for a government, I think of speeches by Hitler in 1934, 1936,” he said, departing from his prepared address.
“With the persecution of Jews, gypsies, and people with homosexual tendencies, today these actions are typical (and) represent ‘par excellence’ a culture of waste and hate. That is what was done in those days and today it is happening again.”
During the 1933-45 Nazi regime in Germany, six million Jews were killed and homosexuals and gypsies were among those sent to extermination camps.
Pope Francis did not name any politicians or countries as the targets of his criticism.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro had a history of making homophobic, racist and sexist public remarks before he took office on Jan. 1. He told one interviewer he would rather have a dead son than a gay son.
In May, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah extended a moratorium on the death penalty to incoming legislation prohibiting gay sex, seeking to temper a global backlash led by celebrities such as George Clooney and Elton John.
The United Nations had warned Brunei it would be violating human rights by implementing Islamic laws that would allow death by stoning for adultery and homosexuality.
In recent weeks, Pope Francis has also denounced a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.
On Wednesday, in improvised remarks at his general audience, he said: “Today the habit of persecuting Jews is beginning to be reborn. Brothers and sisters: this is neither human nor Christian; the Jews are our brothers and sisters and must not be persecuted! Understood?”
Last week, a Vatican cardinal said he was “disgusted” by anti-Semitic abuse directed at an 89-year-old Italian senator and Holocaust survivor, who was given police protection after receiving death threats.
In July, a European Union study said young Jewish Europeans experience more anti-Semitism than their parents, with a rise in abuse coming in emails, text messages and social media postings.
More than 80% of Jews of all ages said they felt anti-Semitism had increased on the Internet over the past five years and around 70% said they faced more hostility in public, the study found.
One priest, the principal of my high school, invited his favorite students to his cabin on the river to fish and enjoy water sports in the summer. Looking back on it all, it never once occurred to me during those outings that some of the questions he would ask about our personal lives might be an indicator of some repressed sexual desires that the church seemed to ignore with its vow of celibacy for priests.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when I read an account of the director of the film, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, James Gunn, that I realized the same priest/principal who was befriending boys in my high school was also prominent in the young life of this successful director in a parish across town from my experience. According to Gunn, that same priest would give young boys in his class alcohol and pornography.
In July 2019, the St. Louis Archdiocese would release the names of St. Louis priests with “substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor.” And there on the list was the priest that James Gunn and I encountered in our formative years. He had risen to a top administrative post in the Archdiocese, but it was only after his death that the Archdiocese would identify him as a child abuser.
He died of cancer in 2000 in retirement and was never held accountable. Like Gunn, I was never victimized by this priest, but how many young students around us were violated by this man and had their lives ruined or destroyed in the process?
Years later, when I was lieutenant governor of Illinois, the flip side of this sad tale of priestly abuse would enter my life when I was asked by Father Mike Ivers to walk the streets of the near west side of Chicago to see firsthand the impact of failed government policies on the powerless and the poor. Father Mike was pastor of a parish in Chicago’s North Lawndale community, drug- and gang-infested at the time. It was a dangerous assignment for a white priest who requested parish work on Chicago’s south and west side and who, at one point in his ministry, was threatened with a gang hit.
Father Mike fought for his parishioners before the Chicago Housing Authority to improve housing conditions. He worked with police and the courts to rescue juveniles from gangs and a criminal justice system that too often consigned them to a life of crime. He would rail against social service agencies that failed to protect children. But he saved most of his wrath for his own church and its mishandling of countless cases of priest pedophilia. He would take on the Cardinal in advocating for a tougher stance against accused priests and the system of assignment that moved pedophiles from parish to parish.
Father Mike Ivers was a man who lived his faith daily and never once strayed from his priestly vows. He officiated at our daughter’s wedding and at my father’s funeral. We attended Mass at his parish and met some of the finest people of faith we’ve met in our lives. My office staff would assist at Christmastime with the distribution of gifts to kids whose families couldn’t afford Christmas presents. Throughout our friendship, Mike talked often about the toll the celibacy vow had taken on the priesthood, about how its refusal to ordain women held back the church from being the religious and community force it could be in our lives.
In a mid-career correction, Mike realized his own need for an intimacy that he felt should only be achieved with the sacrament of matrimony. He wanted to marry. And because his church forbade married priests, he left the church and his beloved parish. He married, assumed a new life and career in social services.
What happened next you would think is the work of a novelist twisting and turning the plot. It was not. Father Mike, this arch-critic of Archdiocesan complicity in priestly child abuse, was succeeded as pastor of his parish by a priest who became the most notorious child sex-abuser in the history of the Chicago Archdiocese. In yet another failure of the Archdiocese, the priest was not removed after the first offense and went on to commit more crimes of pedophilia. He was sentenced to prison, served his term and has since been confined indefinitely to a state facility for sex offenders for his failure to even admit he has a problem.
Mike Ivers died a few years ago, a humble servant of his God, a man who lived the good life and along the way enriched the lives of his parishioners, friends and family. His life offers hope to Catholics who decry the church’s role in these scandals over the years but look to a time when priests like Mike Ivers are the stories in the news, not pedophiles and church officials who cover up.
A Catholic priests’ group has said it will continue to advocate for the ordination of women within the Church.
Speaking ahead of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests annual general meeting on Wednesday, spokesman Fr Roy Donovan from the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly said the organisation would discuss the ordination of women and married deacons.
The Catholic Church’s treatment of women as second class citizens and its failure to consider the ordination of women to the priesthood is a “massive injustice at the heart of the Church”, Fr Donovan said
A discussion around the ordination of married deacons, in light of the recommendations from last week’s Amazon synod, will also be top of the agenda at the association’s AGM in Athlone on Wednesday, confirmed Dr Donovan.
Many priests who have left the ministry to get married could bring a “huge richness and wisdom” to the Church if they were allowed to return as leaders, he said.
Despite the recent summit’s more open minded approach to the ordination of married deacons in the Amazon region, it continues to fail to address the issue of inequality for women within the Church, said Fr Donovan. “Women can’t become deacons at the moment which means there’s no opportunity to become leaders. The synod has left women as second class citizens. The Church is not treating women as human beings and it’s a massive injustice at the heart of the Church.”
While Pope Francis has shown openness towards the issue of married deacons, Fr Donovan does not expect him to be equally accepting of the ordination of women. “He doesn’t have it in him to embrace full equality for women. But we’re running out of time. The Church needs these changes now and women need these changes. Obviously he’s trying to keep a balanced approach but he’s moving very slowly, he needs to crack the egg now.”
Citing the results of a survey carried out in the Killala diocese earlier this year which found nearly 70 per cent of parishioners backed women being ordained to the priesthood, Fr Donovan said it was clear the general public wanted to see equality of the sexes within the Church. With the low number of men entering the vocation at crisis level, immediate changes are needed to ensure the survival of the Church, he said.
At present, with the collapse in numbers, priests are unable to fully retire, said Fr Donovan, adding that between 25-30 men aged over 75 had remained on as curates in his own parish to “keep the system going”.
“A lot of priests are over-worked and I think more and more priests are going to retire early rather than bolstering up this dysfunctional system. The reality is in the next 10 years there will be lots of parishes without priests.”
Wednesday’s AGM will also discuss the recently updated charter of fundamental rights for the Church which states that all Catholics should be treated equally and that there is “no place among Christ’s faithful for any discrimination on the basis of gender, nationality, language, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, age, social status, political or theological views”. The topic of how the late Fr Seán Fagan was silenced by the Church is also expected to be discussed.
The idea came to West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield while he was in Rome visiting an old friend, a powerful cardinal at the Vatican. Bransfield thought the cleric’s apartment was barren and lacked a comfortable room for watching television.
After Bransfield returned to West Virginia, in May 2017, he sent the cardinal a $14,000 check. “I fixed that room up for him,” Bransfield said in an interview with The Washington Post.
The gift, one of two Bransfield sent to Cardinal Kevin Farrell, was an extraordinary gesture from a religious leader in a state plagued by poverty. Even more unusual was how Bransfield obtained the cash he gave away.
The untold story behind those gifts illustrates how $21 million was moved from a church-owned hospital in Wheeling, W.Va., to be used at Bransfield’s discretion. It adds a new dimension to a financial scandal that has rippled through the Catholic Church since Bransfield’s ouster last year.
A Post investigation found that the money Bransfield sent to Farrell was routed from Wheeling Hospital to the Bishop’s Fund, a charity created by Bransfield with the stated purpose of helping the residents of West Virginia, tax filings show.
As Bransfield prepared to write the first of his personal checks to Farrell, a church official arranged to transfer money from the Bishop’s Fund into a diocese bank account — and then from there to Bransfield’s personal bank account, an internal email obtained by The Post shows.
“Bishop Bransfield made very specific requests,” said Bryan Minor, a Bishop’s Fund board member and diocese employee who wrote the email and arranged the transfers for the gifts to Farrell. “He wanted to have a discretionary fund.”
Bransfield used Bishop’s Fund money for a variety of purposes, including church projects in West Virginia that burnished his reputation as a generous benefactor.
The bishop also drew on it to send the second check to Farrell for the apartment, this time for $15,000, church financial records and emails show.
In all, $321,000 was sent out of West Virginia, in apparent contradiction to the stated purpose of the Bishop’s Fund, The Post found. Church officials have declined to identify the out-of-state recipients.
The hospital was the charity’s only source of funding, tax filings and hospital audits show. As a nonprofit institution that relies heavily on federal funding through Medicare, the hospital is subject to restrictions on how it uses its money.
In the interview with The Post over the summer, Bransfield defended the cash gifts to Farrell, saying they were “funds that I had raised.” He and his attorney did not respond to subsequent questions about The Post’s findings.
Bransfield stepped down in September 2018 amid allegations he misused church money and sexually harassed seminarians and young priests, claims that he has denied. He has since been stripped of his clerical authority and ordered to leave the West Virginia diocese.
During his 13-year tenure at the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield spent millions of dollars of diocese money on extravagances, including travel on chartered jets, lavish furnishings at his official residence and nearly 600 cash gifts to fellow clergymen, according to the findings of an internal church investigation previously obtained by The Post.
Church officials have declined to release the investigators’ confidential report, but a Post story in June detailed many of its findings.
To support his lavish spending, Bransfield long relied on oil revenue from land in Texas that was left to the diocese more than a century ago. The church investigators wrote that he created the Bishop’s Fund in 2014 to serve as a “vehicle” to also access and spend hospital money, a finding that has not previously been reported.
The Post determined that the money sent to Farrell and others outside the state originated at the hospital by examining tax filings and internal church documents and emails as well as other records.
Minor, the diocese’s human resources director, told The Post in an interview that he understood the transfers to be legally permissible and properly authorized.
Spokesmen for the diocese and hospital declined requests for comment about the Bishop’s Fund.
Two members of the hospital board, Sister Mary Palmer and Richard Polinsky, said in interviews that they had never heard of the Bishop’s Fund and did not recall approving multimillion-dollar transfers.
A third board member, retired FBI agent Thomas Burgoyne, questioned how any money that started in the hospital ended up passing through Bransfield’s personal account. “Based on my experience in law enforcement, this is something that needs to be looked at,” said Burgoyne.
Two tax law specialists and a former federal prosecutor who examined related documents at The Post’s request agreed, citing laws that restrict how federally funded hospitals and nonprofit groups can use money.
Under one federal law, hospitals that receive substantial federal benefits through programs such as Medicare are prohibited from directing money to any entity or person without proper authority or purpose. Under another, charity money may not be used to unduly benefit an individual.
“Lining the pockets of private citizens, even when those private citizens are priests, is a violation of charities and tax law,” said Jill Horwitz, professor and vice dean of the University of California at Los Angeles law school.
In recent weeks, the Justice Department has sought information about the transfers to the Bishop’s Fund as part of a lawsuit that accuses the hospital of defrauding the federal government of millions of dollars by filing false claims for Medicare reimbursement. Hospital officials deny the allegations.
A diocesan windfall
From the time he became bishop in 2005, Bransfield poured church money into building projects and other work, while also spending on personal luxuries for himself, according to the confidential investigative report.
But he faced mounting criticism from parishioners for his extravagances after local news accounts of his spending on his church residence, a chauffeur and a personal chef. Bransfield has defended his spending as appropriate.
By 2014, the bishop was seeking a way to continue spending on projects of his choosing without “making the subsequent donations appear to be coming from the DWC,” according to the confidential investigative report, using the shorthand for the diocese.
He found an answer in the coffers of Wheeling Hospital.
Bransfield, as bishop, served as chairman of the hospital board. Long a money-loser, the hospital experienced a financial turnaround under consultants hired to lead it after Bransfield’s arrival in Wheeling. Revenue soared and cash on hand skyrocketed, financial statements show. Much of its revenue came from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.
The hospital’s operations included a self-insurance entity, Mountaineer Freedom Risk Retention Group, which pooled hospital money to offset malpractice claims. Bransfield found “extra pockets of cash” on Mountaineer’s balance sheet, according to the confidential investigative report.
He “felt he should be able to have access to that money,” the report said.
In December 2014, Bransfield created the Bishop’s Fund. The stated purpose of the charity was “to provide for the pastoral care of the diocese” and “charitable care of the people of the diocese,” tax filings show.
Church investigators later concluded that the fund was a “vehicle for Bransfield to access [Mountaineer] money and spend on projects of his choosing,” according to their report.
The financial transfers from the hospital began in 2015. They involved multiple steps and were carried out with help from hospital administrators, Bransfield aides and allies on the boards of multiple nonprofit groups.
The first step involved the closure of Mountaineer Freedom Risk and the creation of a new self-insurance entity. During the changeover, hospital officials carved out $8 million from Mountaineer and gave it to another hospital subsidiary, a charitable group called the Medical Park Foundation, hospital audits show.
In state incorporation filings, Medical Park said it existed to raise contributions for the benefit of Wheeling Hospital and the “sick, injured, disabled, infirm, aged and poor” in the community.
Medical Park, run by several hospital executives and board members, transferred the $8 million to the Bishop’s Fund, according to state records and tax filings.
In 2016 and 2017, the hospital gave another $13 million to the Bishop’s Fund, some directly and some through Medical Park, tax filings show.
Hospital officials referred questions about those transfers, including whether the board had approved them, to an outside lawyer, David Paragas.
Paragas initially agreed to answer questions but later sent an email saying the hospital would not do so. “At this stage, it would be inappropriate for Wheeling Hospital to comment,” Paragas wrote.
n the interview with The Post, Minor said he had no knowledge of how the transfers from the hospital came about. The next day, he wrote in an email that he had checked with a hospital attorney and was told that the hospital board had approved the transfers.
“The board acted on the advice of independent counsel for the hospital, the transactions were reviewed by independent counsel for the hospital, and the transfers were approved by the board,” he wrote.
He declined to provide minutes documenting those votes and said he had no further comment.
Palmer and Polinsky, who served together on the hospital board for a decade, said they would have recalled votes for such large transfers.
“It would be unusual and eye-catching at a meeting to say, ‘We’re going to take this amount of money and send it to an open fund that the bishop would have,’ ” said Polinsky, who served on the board until late last year. “I have no recollection of anything like a Bishop’s Fund.”
Palmer said she was never told about the Bishop’s Fund. “I’m not aware of any approval, or even that it was brought up,” she said.
The lay investigators who prepared the confidential report about Bransfield wrote that they also found no indication the hospital board approved the transfers. Their work included an interview with the hospital president, Msgr. Kevin Quirk, who was also on the board of the Bishop’s Fund and served as a top aide to Bransfield in the diocese. He did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.
“We found no evidence that the Board of the Hospital was consulted or approved the establishment and funding of The Bishop’s Fund,” the investigative report said.
Msgr. Frederick Annie, who served on the hospital board, “rolled his eyes” when investigators asked about the board’s oversight role, “suggesting an absence of any meaningful review,” the confidential investigative report said.
Funding a legacy
Though few parishioners knew about the Bishop’s Fund, most of the group’s money made its way to projects and initiatives across the state. Among the beneficiaries were select Catholic schools and churches in West Virginia, tax and church records show. In local news accounts, the recipients were often quoted praising Bransfield personally for his generosity.
The largest amount by far went to a financially troubled Catholic university in Wheeling that had no formal affiliation with the diocese. Wheeling Jesuit University had asked Bransfield for financial assistance because it was buckling under massive debt and declining revenue.
Bransfield, nearing retirement, saw a chance to expand the diocese’s real estate holdings and add luster to his reputation, according to Mark Phillips, then the chief of staff at Wheeling Jesuit, who regularly met with Bransfield to discuss the school’s fate.
“Bransfield was very concerned about his legacy,” Phillips wrote to The Post. “He clearly saw the investments in the Diocese, Wheeling Hospital, and the University as his personal gifts to West Virginia.”
In 2016 and 2017, the Bishop’s Fund gave a total of $12.6 million to the university to help keep it afloat. In exchange, the diocese gained control of the university and its campus near the Ohio River. The school, now known as Wheeling University, continues to struggle financially.
Bishop’s Fund grants helped pay for a new air conditioning system at the gymnasium of Wheeling Central Catholic High School. School President Lawrence Bandi, who at the time served on the board of the Bishop’s Fund, renamed the facility after Bransfield.
“This was a great opportunity to acknowledge the generosity of the bishop,” Bandi said at the unveiling. Bandi did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. The high school stripped Bransfield’s name from the gym earlier this year.
The Bishop’s Fund also spent $400,000 on a custom-made Italian altar set that was rejected last fall by parishioners at a church in Wheeling who objected to Bransfield’s lavish spending. The altar now sits in a storage facility, a diocese spokesman said.
Bransfield also wanted to use the Bishop’s Fund to send donations and cash gifts outside of West Virginia, according to the investigative report. But there was a problem. The charity had reported to the Internal Revenue Service that its efforts were exclusively devoted to helping people in West Virginia.
Bransfield and his aides decided they could avoid that impediment by using the diocese as a “pass-through,” Minor said.
“I thought that was legal and, according to accounting, that we could make a grant to the diocese and that the diocese could make a grant as a pass-through to a Catholic entity,” Minor said during the interview at his home.
Minor provided The Post with a Bishop’s Fund document listing grants made by the group totaling $17 million. The money given to the diocese and sent out of West Virginia — including money for Farrell’s apartment — was described only as supporting “operations.”
The Post determined that some $60,000 of that was donated through the diocese to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the District, where Bransfield had worked as a finance director and rector. The donation was used to help renovate the church’s iconic dome, according to a spokesman for the National Shrine.
Disbursements related to the two gifts for Farrell’s apartment in Rome account for another $54,000.
Farrell was one of more than 130 clergymen, including more than a dozen cardinals, who received cash gifts totaling $350,000 from Bransfield during his time in West Virginia, The Post previously reported. Most of those gifts predate the creation of the Bishop’s Fund.
Bransfield wrote the checks from his personal account. The West Virginia diocese reimbursed him by boosting his compensation to cover both the value of the gifts and the taxes he would owe on the added compensation, church investigators found.
As a tax-exempt organization, the diocese is supposed to use its money only for charitable purposes and may not excessively enrich any individual, according to IRS rules.
In addition to the $29,000 that went to Farrell, the diocese paid Bransfield $25,000 to cover the income taxes Bransfield would owe, drawing all of the money from the Bishop’s Fund, according to church documents and interviews with Minor and Bransfield.
Multiple emails among diocese leaders directly link the money from the Bishop’s Fund to the Farrell gifts.
“Hey there. Just a note that I need to order a check from The Bishop’s Fund, payable to DWC, to cover a check as a gift to Abp Kevin Farrell at the Vatican,” Minor wrote on May 12, 2017.
In statements to The Post earlier this year, Farrell and more than a dozen other recipients of Bransfield’s gifts said they had presumed the money was the bishop’s. Farrell and the others pledged to repay the diocese.
A Vatican spokesman confirmed this month that Farrell had done so.
Farrell is a close adviser to the pope and an influential figure in the church. He and Bransfield became friends in the 1980s and 1990s, when both held church posts in Washington.
The men had the same mentor, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a legendary fundraiser for the church who was defrocked after the church found him guilty of sexual abuse. Bransfield and Farrell also served together on the influential Papal Foundation, a charity that raises money from wealthy American Catholics for initiatives chosen by the pope.
The gifts to Farrell and other clerics were cited in a letter by Quirk, Bransfield’s aide, as an example of his alleged misconduct.
Quirk’s August 2018 letter to Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, obtained by The Post, accused Bransfield of trying to buy influence in the church. Quirk wrote that Bransfield was seeking help from Farrell to arrange a one-on-one visit with the pope last fall.
“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Quirk wrote.
Bransfield denied Quirk’s allegation. “I didn’t do these things for people to give me something,” he told The Post in July.
Lori, as acting administrator of the diocese, announced in July that he was shutting down the Bishop’s Fund as part of a package of reforms to improve financial oversight in the wake of The Post’s revelations about Bransfield’s conduct. Lori did not detail the concerns about the charity or describe its financial link to the hospital.
“When a bishop is entrusted to care for a diocese, he is expected to be a wise and honest steward of its resources,” Lori wrote in an open letter to Catholics. “But here in Wheeling-Charleston, these procedures and policies did not prevent the bishop from misusing diocesan funds.”
A spokesman said the $4 million remaining in the charity coffers would be transferred to the diocese.
‘It is my hospital’
The Justice Department lawsuit against Wheeling Hospital, based on a whistleblower’s claim, was unsealed in March and is still in its early stages. It alleged that the hospital and its then-leader, Ronald Violi — named as a defendant and described in court records as Bransfield’s “hand-picked” chief executive — were responsible for thousands of false claims for reimbursement from the federal health-care program for the elderly.
Justice said that the hospital’s financial turnaround was driven in part by the alleged scheme.
The lawsuit said the executives “reported to and took direction from Bishop Bransfield,” who personally maintained control over hospital operations and set the pay of the chief executive.
“It is my hospital,” Bransfield often said, Violi told Justice Department lawyers in a recent deposition.
Bransfield was not named as a defendant.
The hospital has described the allegations as “an unfair attack” on its values and physicians.
Violi stepped down as chief executive earlier this year. He has denied wrongdoing. His attorney did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story.
In a filing this month, Justice Department lawyers sought information about Violi’s relationship with Bransfield and about the transfers to the Bishop’s Fund.
They alleged that Bransfield increased Violi’s compensation at the same time the hospital was directing “a large amount of its (allegedly ill-gotten) profits towards the Diocese and the now-dissolved Bishop’s Fund.”