Catholic Church Offers Cash to Settle Abuse Claims—With a Catch

A potential flood of lawsuits has spurred the Catholic Church to offer mediation, only if accusers agree not to sue

Jimmy Pliska is back living at home with his parents in Scranton, Pa.

By Ian Lovett

Four decades ago, Jimmy Pliska says, he was sexually assaulted by his local parish priest on an overnight fishing trip. Now, he has an agonizing decision to make.

Amid a recent wave of sexual-abuse investigations and allegations against the Catholic Church, Mr. Pliska wants to sue the Diocese of Scranton, which employed the priest. But the case is too old to bring to court. Although state lawmakers have proposed lifting the statute of limitations on the sexual abuse of children, it is unclear when—or if—that will happen.

The diocese, meanwhile, has set up a program to financially compensate victims of clergy sexual abuse. In exchange for accepting money from the program, the diocese won’t have to release any documents that might show what church officials knew about the alleged abuse. Mr. Pliska also would be barred from suing the church.

Time is running short for Mr. Pliska, 55 years old, to decide. The church has set a July 31 deadline. “The church shouldn’t be the judge,” he said of the program. “They should be held accountable.”

The Catholic Church has a great deal riding on whether alleged victims take part in compensation programs like the one in Scranton.

Since a widely publicized report last year from the Pennsylvania attorney general, which documented the abuse of more than 1,000 children by Catholic clergy in the state over half a century, public officials around the U.S. have looked for their own ways to pursue allegations made against the church.

More than a dozen states are considering lifting the civil statute of limitations on child sexual abuse or already have done so. The legislation, if passed, would unleash a surge of new lawsuits against the church.

A new wave of sexual abuse litigation would present a serious threat to both the church’s finances and its reputation. Large jury awards and settlements could cost the church millions, while legal discovery could make public documents showing how dioceses dealt with abuse.

*There were six other settlements in Boston at later dates †Assumes a 40% deduction for attorneys’ fees and expenses except in cases where the fees were disclosed.

As lawmakers debate the measures, Catholic dioceses in at least six states have tried to stem the tide by offering victim compensation programs.

“While no financial compensation can change the past, it is my hope that this program will help survivors in their healing and recovery process,” Joseph C. Bambera, the Scranton bishop, said when the diocese launched its program last fall.

The programs, which are run by third-party administrators outside the church, offer swifter resolution than trials, and alleged victims are less likely to walk away empty-handed. They also shield the church against lawsuits that could cause greater damage.

Payouts pale compared with what victims have won in court. Those who accept settlements must agree not to sue the church in the future.

The programs could ultimately save Catholic institutions hundreds of millions of dollars, said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who also has worked on clergy abuse cases as a lawyer.

“Settle as many cases as you possibly can, because statute of limitations reform is inevitably going to pass,” she said. “It lets them have the dual action of looking generous but protecting as many assets of the organization as possible.”

Eric Deabill, a spokesman for the Diocese of Scranton, said helping survivors of abuse was the priority. “Across the country, dioceses facing abuse litigation have been forced into bankruptcy,” he said. “This program balances the sincere desire to promote healing for sex abuse survivors while enabling the core mission of the Diocese to continue.”

But for some, the money isn’t enough, raising the prospect that the crisis could drag on for years. Many alleged victims want access to church records about their alleged abusers. Taking a case to court is a chance to make public any evidence that church officials hid the abuse.

When Paul Dunn was offered $200,000 in the Diocese of Brooklyn victim compensation fund, he rejected it. Instead, he plans to sue under New York’s new law. The priest who allegedly abused him is dead, but anyone who knew about it and did nothing should be punished, Mr. Dunn said.

“Once I go to court,” he said, “I’m sure the documents will come out on who was protecting him.”

In a statement, the diocese “denies any cover-up as to Mr. Dunn.”

Open window

After the Catholic Church scandal erupted in Boston in 2002, California became the first state to temporarily lift the statute of limitations, giving adult victims of childhood sexual abuse 12 months to file lawsuits, no matter how long ago the abuse took place.

The church is still paying off loans from the legal settlements that followed.

During the one-year window, hundreds of people filed lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which eventually settled with more than 500 plaintiffs for $660 million.

Faced with more than 140 lawsuits, the Diocese of San Diego filed for bankruptcy in 2007. The plaintiffs eventually received $198 million, less lawyers’ fees and expenses.

St Joseph’s Church/Divine Mercy in Scranton, Pa.,

In both cases, the diocese covered about half the cost. Insurance and other defendants, including religious orders, paid the rest. Documents showing how church officials covered up abuse in some instances were made public during the proceedings.

Catholic officials around the U.S. have long lobbied against lifting the statute of limitations, arguing that cases from decades ago can’t be fairly adjudicated.

Yet more states are following California’s lead. New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, Vermont and Washington, D.C., passed similar laws this year.

In August, when New York’s one-year window opens to file sex-abuse suits in older cases, hundreds of alleged victims will be unable to sue because they have already accepted settlements from one of five compensation programs in the state.

The Archdiocese of New York in 2016 became the first in the U.S. to open a victim compensation fund. The church hired Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros, who ran the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, to administer the program. Though they are hired and paid by the archdiocese, Ms. Biros said, they operate independently.

Alleged victims tell their stories to the mediators—some in person at offices, and others by phone, over video calls or through their lawyers. No church officials are present. If there is corroboration, such as a police report or another accusation against the priest, the mediators make an offer, Ms. Biros said. Settlement amounts depend on such factors as the victim’s age and the type of abuse, she said, and range from about $500,000 to “considerably lower.”

More than 400 people have submitted claims to the archdiocese, according to Ms. Biros. As of July, in cases already decided, 84% of the victims were offered compensation money. Just over $65 million has been paid to 324 victims, an average of about $200,000 each.

“Our attention and sensitivity as a state and wider community must be to the victim-survivors, not to institutions,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said of the compensation programs.

All the dioceses in New Jersey are following the model established in New York, as are seven of the eight in Pennsylvania. Every diocese is Colorado is starting a program. So are six in California, including Los Angeles, the largest archdiocese in the U.S. In each state except Colorado, the legislature is considering or already passed legislation lifting the statute of limitations.

Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who has represented hundreds of clients in legal proceedings against the Catholic institutions around the U.S., said participants in the compensation programs are often left with “a feeling of emptiness, a feeling something is missing.” Though they appreciate that past abuse is recognized by the church, he said, many are disappointed to never find out if anyone in the church knew about it and could have stopped it.

One of his clients, Thomas McGarvey, accepted a $500,000 settlement from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y. He said it was better than going to trial and being cross-examined about the abuse he endured as a teenager.

“At the trial, then you would have had their attorneys grilling me, kind of putting the blame on me,” Mr. McGarvey, 53, said. “It was a hard decision. I would have liked to have sued to express my disgust against the diocese.”

Michael Meenan accepted a settlement of $175,000 from the New York program that he called a lowball offer. He said a priest carried on an inappropriate relationship with him for years in the 1980s, an ordeal he blames, in part, for his financial and psychological problems.

“I never would have taken the settlement had I not been desperately in need of money to survive,” Mr. Meenan, 52, said. “I’m an Ivy League graduate living on food stamps.”

‘I’m very sorry’

Like many alleged victims of sexual abuse, it took Mr. Pliska decades before he discussed it with anyone. “Back then, you didn’t talk about it,” he said.

From afar, it looked like Mr. Pliska was thriving. He finished high school, worked as an auto mechanic in Scranton, got married and bought a house.

Yet the effects of the alleged abuse trailed him during his long silence, he said. After he had two children of his own, he hardly let them out of his sight. They weren’t allowed to sleep over at friends’ houses.

“When they were out in the backyard,” he said, “I was in the backyard overseeing them.”

In 2014, Mr. Pliska said for the first time that Father Michael J. Pulicare, his local parish priest, had raped him. Some members of his family didn’t believe him, and he had no way to corroborate his claim. Father Pulicare died in 1999, and Mr. Pliska didn’t know if the priest had abused anyone else.

Then, a month after the Pennsylvania grand-jury report last year, he read an article in The Wall Street Journal about John Patchcoski, who had grown up just a few blocks away in Scranton.

Mr. Patchcoski also accused Father Pulicare of abusing him on a fishing trip, and Mr. Pliska said the details were similar to his own experience. Both men recall waking up at night with the priest on top of them.

Another childhood friend of Mr. Pliska’s, Mike Heil, read the article and said Father Pulicare also had abused him on a fishing trip.

At least one other accusation has been made against Father Pulicare, according to Diocese of Scranton officials. After the Journal article, Father Pulicare’s name was added to the list of clergy credibly accused of abuse.

As they considered whether to join the victims fund, Mr. Pliska and the others who accused Father Pulicare said the money wasn’t as important as an accounting of who in the church knew about what happened to them. They hope the scrutiny would discourage other institutions from hiding abuse.

At least one diocese, in Erie, Pa., offers victims church documents about their alleged abusers. “One of the big concerns for victims was, ‘We want to see the files,’” Lawrence T. Persico, the Bishop of Erie, said. “It’s very important to be able to do what we can for these victim-survivors.”

Mike Heil said he was abused by the same priest who allegedly sexually assaulted Jimmy Pliska.

Scranton, like most other dioceses offering compensation programs, won’t open its files on accused clergy. “We chose not to engage in time consuming and contentious legal discovery,” said Mr. Deabill, the diocese spokesman.

“They’re just trying to lower their costs” in case the law changes, Mr. Patchcoski said. “They’re taking advantage of us.”

The money is hard to turn down, though. The three men said they would likely file a claim and see what the diocese offered, then decide.

Mr. Pliska, who is recently divorced and living with his parents, struggles to make child-support payments. He could use the money, he said, but would rather go to court, where the proceedings would be public.

In May, Mr. Pliska visited the Scranton cathedral. By chance, he saw the bishop outside and told him about the alleged abuse and its effects on his life, his marriage, his children and his faith in the church.

“It’s been 40 years of hell,” Mr. Pliska said. “It felt as if I could deal with it, but I couldn’t. It’s like a cancer.”

“I’m very sorry,” Bishop Bambera said. “Please know, if it’s any help, that the compensation fund is available.”

“What we would much rather see is it go to the courts,” Mr. Pliska said.

“I understand,” Bishop Bambera said. “A dollar amount never makes anything up. But there is a need for us to be able to say to you, ‘This is something that we can give you.’ ”

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Warnings about West Virginia bishop went unheeded as he doled out cash gifts to Catholic leaders

Michael J. Bransfield, then-bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., in 2015.

By Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg

Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield as far back as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.

“I beg of you to please look into this situation,” Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote in 2013 to the pope’s ambassador to the United States.

But Bransfield’s conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.

“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,” Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

At least four senior clerics outside West Virginia who received parishioner complaints about Bransfield also accepted cash gifts from him, more than $32,000 in all, according to an analysis of letters and other documents obtained by The Post.

The previously unreported Quirk letter and the complaints from parishioners raise questions about when Catholic leaders first knew of Bransfield’s conduct and why they took no action for years. They also reveal the roots of a church financial scandal that exploded into public view in June with a Washington Post account of the findings of a Vatican-ordered investigation of Bransfield.

Five lay investigators concluded early this year that Bransfield abused his authority by sexually harassing young priests and spending church money on personal luxuries, according to their final report and other documents obtained by The Post. Bransfield spent $2.4 million on travel, often flying in private jets, as well as $4.6 million in all to renovate his church residence, church records show. His cash gifts to fellow clergymen totaled $350,000, the records show.

Bransfield drew on a little-known source of money for the diocese: millions of dollars in annual revenue from oil wells in west Texas, on land that was donated to the diocese a century ago. The wells have yielded an average of about $15 million annually in recent years.

Bransfield wrote more than 500 checks to other clerics during his 13 years in West Virginia, gifts for which he was reimbursed by the diocese. The recipients who also received parishioner complaints include Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, then the nuncio, the pope’s ambassador to the United States; Cardinal Raymond Burke, then the leader of the church’s judicial authority in Rome; Archbishop Peter Wells, then a senior administrator in the pope’s Secretariat of State at the Vatican; and Lori, the archbishop in Baltimore who later oversaw the Vatican investigation launched after Quirk’s account.

Bransfield’s generosity with church money extended beyond the cash gifts. In 2013, Viganò accepted a half-hour ride on a jet chartered by Bransfield at a cost to the West Virginia diocese of about $200 a minute, documents and interviews show.

In statements, Wells, Burke and Lori said the gifts did not influence how they responded to parishioners’ complaints.

Viganò said he did not recall receiving complaints and did not give Bransfield favorable treatment. He said he gave the monetary gifts to charity shortly after receiving them. He said he did not know the private jet provided by Bransfield to an event in West Virginia was paid for by the diocese.

In a phone interview, Bransfield defended his spending as bishop, saying it was justified and approved by financial managers at the diocese. He said many of his accomplishments in West Virginia, including expanding a church-owned hospital and renovating schools, had been overshadowed by the scandal.

Bransfield denied that the monetary gifts were an effort to buy influence. He said he was already successful and did not need favors or special treatment.

“They could do nothing for me,” he said. “I was at the top of my game.”

Quirk did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Raising concern for years

Parishioners provided their emails and letters about Bransfield following The Post’s story in early June. In interviews, some said they had long wondered why no one had acted on their complaints.

“We felt like there was something up,” said Kellee Abner, an anesthesiologist from Charleston, W.Va. “It is difficult to understand how all the attempts to expose conduct in the diocese could have been ignored by so many for so long.”

Since the Post story was published, at least a dozen Catholic clerics, including Lori, have pledged to return money to the diocese of West Virginia. Many said they had not been aware that the money came from church coffers.

In 2005, soon after Bransfield arrived in Wheeling, W.Va., concerns about his spending became public. The Charleston Gazette-Mail wrote articles in 2006 and 2013 that drew attention to some of his extravagances, noting that Bransfield had a driver, personal chef and a fondness for architectural refinements, such as cherry-wood paneling.

The 2013 story said parishioners accused Bransfield of “living too profligate a lifestyle” and failing to follow Pope Francis’s prescription of a modest life for clerics. The next year, the New York Times cited that account in a broader story about financial excesses in the church.

At the time, Bransfield spokesman Bryan Minor described the bishop’s spending as reasonable. He said that Bransfield’s chef saved the diocese money because he also catered church events.

In the interview with The Post, Bransfield defended the spending on his residence, saying water damage related to a fire in a bathroom was greater than what is reflected in the lay investigators’ report. “I did a restoration,” he said, adding that from his prior position in Washington he was accustomed to living in a finely appointed home.

Through it all, Bransfield maintained a prominent, sometimes controversial public profile.

He regularly traveled to the Vatican while serving as treasurer of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and president of the board of trustees for the Papal Foundation, a group that channels money from wealthy Catholic contributors into charitable projects favored by the pope.

In 2012, news accounts reported that Bransfield was mentioned by a witness in a Philadelphia sexual abuse trial involving a local priest. The witness testified that the priest on trial once told him that Bransfield had sex with a teenage boy. Bransfield issued a statement vehemently denying the claim. That same year, Bransfield was the subject of news stories when authorities in Philadelphia reopened an investigation into a separate allegation that he had fondled a teenage boy decades earlier while working as a teacher at a Catholic high school. Bransfield denied ever sexually abusing anyone. No charges were brought.

Bransfield told The Post a diocese investigation into the allegations cleared him of wrongdoing.

Some parishioners grumbled about Bransfield from the start. But their anger boiled over in 2012, when Bransfield ordered that a pastor, the Rev. Jim Sobus, be relocated from Our Lady of Fatima Church in Huntington to a remote parish.

Sobus had criticized the church and Bransfield’s management, and a handful of parishioners had complained to the diocese about the way Sobus managed a Catholic school and meted out discipline.

Scores of parishioners wrote to Bransfield or signed petitions praising Sobus in unsuccessful appeals to keep him at his home parish, documents show. Sobus was later suspended for failing to report to his new assignment.

Complaints to the Vatican

Parishioners also reached out to Lori, Viganò and clerics at the Vatican, in letters that sometimes contrasted Bransfield’s spending with the modest lifestyle of “Father Jim.”

On Nov. 5, 2012, a Catholic activist named Christine Pennington wrote to Lori to complain that Bransfield had a rectory “renovated in high style — granite kitchen, stainless steel appliances, tile floor, all new high end (Thomasville style) furniture,” the letter shows.

“At the very least, he has not been a good steward & these are perfect examples,” Pennington wrote.

Six days later, Kellee Abner, the anesthesiologist, sent an email to Lori with the subject line: “Confidential and Urgent for Archbishop William Lori.” The note said she had a matter of “utmost and urgent” need.

Abner said she received a call back from a Lori spokesman, Sean Caine, and the two discussed her concerns about relocating Sobus. Abner said they also spoke about Bransfield’s spending on personal luxuries — such as the lavish renovation of his residence and offices.

“It was, ‘This guy is corrupt’ and he was trying to crush us,” Abner recalled.

Caine told her that Lori had no authority to investigate or discipline Bransfield, she said. “He told me, ‘Take it to Rome,’ ” she said.

Caine told The Post he does not recall the details of that conversation.

In an interview, he acknowledged that Lori received a long, detailed letter from a parishioner about Bransfield’s spending on home renovations. Lori considered the complaints “speculative in nature” and beyond his authority to investigate, Caine said.

Even so, Caine said, Lori called Bransfield and raised the concerns with him. “Nothing in that conversation led [Lori] to believe there was anything like the extent of spending, or the potential misuse of church funds, that would be revealed” by the later investigation, Caine said.

Lori began receiving checks from Bransfield in May 2012, the same month he became archbishop, and accepted them annually through 2017. He received a total of $10,500, church records show. After The Post raised questions about the gifts, Lori said he would return $7,500. He said the other $3,000 was paid as stipends and travel reimbursements for celebrating two Masses in the West Virginia diocese.

Abner did take her complaints to Rome, sending Cardinal Burke a 10-page fax about an alleged campaign by Bransfield’s team against Sobus, according to receipts she provided to The Post.

“I beg for help from you Father,” she wrote in February 2013. “We need to stand up for the Truth as Jesus would want us, but we also need those who will stand with us.”

Burke did not respond to her appeals, she said.

“I’m sure that people within the church knew about Bransfield,” she told The Post. “There was a whole year of pressure and communication.”

Burke received 15 checks from 2008 to 2017 worth a total of $9,700, church records show.

Burke said in a statement that he did not know Bransfield well but that Bransfield regularly asked him to meet with priests who accompanied Bransfield to Rome. Burke said some of the checks were honoraria for these talks about his work at the Vatican. Others were gifts Bransfield sent on holidays or to mark Burke’s ordination as a cardinal, he said.

He said he donated the money to charity. “A Cardinal makes an oath not to accept any gift from someone seeking a favor pertaining to his office and work,” Burke said in the statement. “In the case of the gifts of Bishop Bransfield, I never had any reason to suspect that anything was awry.”

Alerting the pope’s ambassador

Viganò, the pope’s representative in Washington, received multiple letters in 2013 that raised questions about Bransfield’s lavish life amid the poverty of West Virginia, documents show.

In March 2013, Christine Pennington, who had earlier written to Lori, sent Viganò a short letter about “the life of luxury, self-centeredness, & abuse of power by Bishop Michael Bransfield, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.”

“To verify my facts, below is a news article from the Charleston, Gazette (WV) outlining the beginning of a ‘spending spree,’ ” she wrote.

The article’s headline reads: “Renovations to Bishop’s House Top $1 Million.”

“West Virginia’s Catholic diocese has spent well over $1 million this year on renovations to houses for Bishop Michael Bransfield, including the addition of a 13-foot-long sunken bar and a 100-square-foot wine cellar,” says the story’s first sentence.

In May, Viganò received a blunt but less detailed letter from Joanna Brown, a parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima Church.

“Bishop Bransfield has been enjoying a self-indulgent lifestyle,” Brown wrote in a letter that was copied to two other clerics in Rome. “I want to know why this is being allowed when Pope Francis is preaching the opposite.”

In a letter that same month sent to Viganò and copied to cardinals in Rome, parishioners Robert and Virginia Hickman echoed Brown’s complaint.

“There are so many ‘stories about the lifestyle of the hierarchy of our Diocese that one should investigate for themselves to verify facts,” the Hickmans wrote. “Your inquiry and review of all matters in the DIOCESE OF WHEELING/CHARLESTON would be a blessing for all parishioners.”

In July 2013, during the flurry of letters, Viganò joined Bransfield in Mount Hope, W.Va., to celebrate Mass at a Jamboree attended by 10,000 Boy Scouts. Viganò told The Post that he had been stranded at an airport in Charlotte on his way to the event and called Bransfield to let him know. Bransfield sent a chartered jet to pick him up.

Church documents and flight records show a seven-seat Learjet was dispatched to pick up Viganò in North Carolina, flying him 35 minutes to Charleston, W.Va. The flight cost the diocese $7,687, church financial records show.

Viganò told The Post that he had no reason to suspect the private jet travel was improper. He said he assumed “a generous benefactor” had paid for the jet, citing Bransfield’s role as president of a nonprofit that raises millions of dollars from prominent laypeople, the Papal Foundation.

“Given these facts, there was no reason for me to investigate or report anything to the Vatican,” Viganò said.

Viganò received two checks worth $1,000 each that year, one in March and the other in December, and $6,000 in all from Bransfield from 2011 to 2015, church records show.

Viganò said he does not recall receiving letters about Bransfield’s conduct during his time as nuncio.

“That said, the Nunciature receives many complaints about all sorts of matters every day,” he wrote, adding that it was possible letters about Bransfield were not brought to his attention.

The Nunciature in Washington did not return several messages and emails requesting comment.

Viganò’s predecessor Pietro Sambi received $20,500 in cash gifts from Bransfield before his death in 2011.

Viganò added that he had heard “rumors” that Bransfield was harassing young priests and misusing diocese money on personal expenses but that those rumors were “never substantiated.”

Without elaborating, he said Bransfield once called directly to preempt a rumor of sexual misconduct. “On one occasion,” Viganò said, “he called me to alert me that I might hear about possible accusations against him. He denied any wrongdoing.”

Caine, Lori’s spokesman, offered a different account, citing internal documents he would not release. He said “that as early as May 2013 that the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, was aware of concerns about spending by Bishop Bransfield.”

In August 2015, Sobus himself wrote a three-page letter to Pope Francis to complain about Bransfield’s “unjust administration of our diocese.” Sobus raised concerns about a custom-made fireplace in the bishop’s office, personal companions who traveled first-class with Bransfield abroad at church expense and other luxuries.

“You spoke about the lavish lifestyles of clergy and the poor witness they give. Bishop Bransfield has remodeled and renovated several properties owned by this diocese to use as his mansions. He has spent millions of dollars doing so,” Sobus wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Post. “Newspaper reporters have spoken out against his lavish lifestyle. Please note, this diocese is located in the poorest state in the US!”

A few weeks later, Sobus received a brief note from Wells, the chief of staff at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. “I assure you that a copy of your letter has been forwarded to the Congregation for the Clergy, which has competence over such matters,” Wells wrote.

A spokesman for Wells told The Post his involvement ended there.

Wells accepted $6,500 from Bransfield in 13 checks from 2009 to 2015, records show.

“Archbishop Wells, then Monsignor Wells, never knew, nor suspected, that the gifts in question — usually received around Christmas and Easter by personal check — were derived from diocesan funds. Archbishop Wells had absolutely no knowledge that Church patrimony was being harmed by receipt of these gifts,” the spokesman said. “Importantly, Bishop Bransfield neither requested nor received favored treatment of any kind from Archbishop Wells.”

In a February 2016 letter, an archbishop from the Congregation of the Clergy urged Sobus to show obedience to the church and, as a solution to his problem, to reach out to Bransfield for “the good of your soul.”

“The bishop of Wheeling-Charleston appears quite ready to make some provisions for you,” wrote Archbishop Joel Mercier.

The inside account

In August 2018, the claims against Bransfield took on a new significance when Monsignor Quirk, a vicar and one of Bransfield’s closest aides, became a whistleblower. Quirk wrote a scathing eight-page letter to Lori, the Baltimore archbishop, that drew on years of close observations of Bransfield’s conduct.

“I present the following as reason for this request, which I realize to be extraordinary in nature but which I judge to be in keeping with the demands for justice, as a means to repair scandal already caused and to prevent its further spread, and to protect the faithful of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston from further harm,” Quirk wrote on Aug. 8, in a letter that was ultimately distributed to multiple people.

Quirk, 52, is a canon lawyer who served as Bransfield’s judicial adviser and played a prominent role in church operations and Bransfield’s personal affairs.

In his letter to Lori, Quirk justified his decision to turn on Bransfield, citing his firsthand accounts of drug and alcohol abuse and sexual harassment, along with Bransfield’s excessive personal spending.

“The effects of alcohol abuse appear to be increasing, impairing his Excellency’s ability to function, such that it can be said that he is impaired from dinner time each evening until lunch time the next day,” Quirk wrote. “[H]e is intentionally using Vicodin so that he is at least medicated if not high while exercising the Pontificals.”

Quirk said he witnessed Bransfield inappropriately hugging young priests and caressing their faces, and he alleged that Bransfield “takes a prurient interest in certain men, even coaxing shirtless photographs of them, which he retains on his cellphone.”

Quirk provided inside financial documents to support his claims that Bransfield spent excessively on personal luxuries, the letter said. That included almost $134,000 over five years on flowers for friends and $55,000 in other gifts such as hams and fruit baskets, according to the letter. Quirk also wrote that Bransfield installed a $161,000 custom-made floor for two rooms in a townhouse that was being renovated for his use in his retirement — and later decided to live elsewhere because the townhouse was too small.

Bransfield told The Post that he did not abuse alcohol or prescription medicine, adding that “no one has seen me inebriated.” He said any photographs of shirtless men on his cellphone had been sent to him and were innocuous. He acknowledged ordering the custom floors and sending flowers, hams and other gifts but said he did not know the costs involved.

In describing the cash gifts Bransfield gave to other clergy, Quirk used the term “simony” — the buying or selling of church offices or positions. Quirk wrote that Bransfield’s gifts to Catholic leaders and young priests “were corrupting these relationships into utilitarian bonds of dependence.”

He asked Lori to help arrange for Bransfield to be removed and replaced by someone from outside the state.

The lay investigative team was appointed by Lori one month later. Their report, delivered to Lori in February, faulted Quirk and two other vicars for enabling Bransfield’s conduct and called for their dismissal.

Before sending it to the Vatican in March, Lori ordered that the names of recipients of cash gifts, including his own name, be removed.

Lori told The Post that including the names of senior clerics who received money from Bransfield might have suggested that “there were expectations for reciprocity,” adding that “no evidence was found to suggest this.”

Several days after the Post story about the Bransfield investigation, the diocese announced that Quirk and two other vicars had resigned.

In a recent video statement, Lori acknowledged that “Bishop Bransfield engaged in a pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending.”

Lori said he could not explain how it happened.

“Friends, there is no excuse, nor adequate explanation that will satisfy the troubling question of how Bishop Bransfield’s behavior was allowed to continue for as long as it did without the accountability that we must require for those who have been entrusted with so much, both spiritual and material,” Lori said.

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Indianapolis Archdiocese criticized after calling for firing of two gay Catholic schoolteachers

One school fires teacher at archbishop’s request, while another chooses to sever ties with the archdiocese

Indianapolis Archbishop Charles Thompson

The Indianapolis Catholic Archdiocese is currently in the midst of purging gay teachers in same-sex marriages from its schools.

The Archdiocese has been criticized for forcing schools to fire the individuals in question, or otherwise revoke the schools’ ability to identify as “Catholic.”

Most recently, Cathedral High School was forced to fire a married gay teacher after Archbishop Charles Thompson ordered them to do so or risk forfeiting their “Catholic identity.”

In a letter to the community, Cathedral High’s board of directors explained their decision to “separate from” the teacher.

“Archbishop Thompson made it clear that Cathedrals continued employment of a teacher in a public, same-sex marriage would result in our forfeiting our Catholic identity due to our employment of an individual living in contradiction to Catholic teaching on marriage,” the board wrote in the letter. “If this were to happen, Cathedral would lose the ability to celebrate the Sacraments as we have in the past 100 years with our students and community.

“Additionally, we would lose the privilege of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel’s tabernacle, we could no longer refer to Cathedral as a Catholic school, our diocesan priests would no longer be permitted to serve on our Board of Directors, and we would lose our affiliation with The Brothers of Holy Cross,” the letter continues. “Furthermore, Cathedral would lose its 501(c)(3) status thus rendering Cathedral unable to operate as a nonprofit school.”

The decision to comply with Thompson’s demands by firing the teacher came one week after the archdiocese severed ties with Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School over its refusal to fire a similarly situated teacher in a same-sex marriage.

Last year, two teachers in same-sex marriages who taught at a third school, Roncalli High, were fired under similar circumstances, reports The New York Times.

In a statement on its website referring to the firing of one of the Roncalli employees posted last August, the archdiocese explained that the issue surrounding the dismissed teachers had nothing to do with their sexual orientation, but Catholic Church teaching that marriage is a covenant, blessed by God, between a man and a woman.

The statement said that employees of the archdiocese’s Catholic schools are expected, and obligated, to act as “ministers of the faith” who must “convey and be supportive” of the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. The archdiocese released a similar statement this week echoing those sentiments.

By choosing to retain the openly gay married teacher, thus forfeiting its “Catholic” identity, Brebeuf will no longer be formally recognized by the archdiocese as a Catholic school, bringing the number of formally recognized high schools down to 10. In a short video message posted to Facebook, School President Father Bill Verbryke announced the archdiocese’s decision to sever its relationship with the school, but assured members of the school community that Brebeuf would continue to operate as an “independent, Catholic” school.

What makes Brebeuf unique from its fellow Catholic schools is that it is sponsored and run by the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order with a liberal reputation known for their emphasis on intellectual curiosity and questioning authority. Additionally, Brebeuf was never financially dependent on the archdiocese, thus allowing it a degree of freedom to defy the archbishop’s orders, whereas Roncalli and Cathedral were forced to comply when the archdiocese threatened to withdraw financial and institutional support.

Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School

Catholic League President Bill Donohue, a conservative firebrand who frequently appears on television to defend the Catholic Church’s stance on various issues, including its opposition to same-sex marriage, issued a statement praising Thompson’s decision to revoke Brebeuf’s Catholic status, arguing he acted “wisely and with great restraint.”

“Archbishop Thompson did not act impulsively. Two years ago, the teacher’s gay marriage became known on social media. It was therefore no longer a private matter,” Donohue said in a statement posted on the Catholic League’s website. “It is important to note that the archbishop did not demand that the teacher be fired, though he could have: the teacher flagrantly violated the terms of his contract. Thompson simply asked that his contract not be renewed.”

Donohue also criticized Fr. Brian Paulson, S.J., the head of the Jesuits’ Midwest Province, for his comments in support of allowing Brebeuf to make its own decision to retain the teacher.

“Those who defend the insubordination of the Jesuit school argue that lots of teachers in Catholic schools violate Church teachings in one way or another, yet they are not treated the way those who are in same-sex marriages are. That’s a lame defense,” Donohue wrote. “The difference is that in most cases Church officials would have to monitor the private lives of every teacher, often violating their privacy rights, or subject them to an inquisition. In the instance of the teacher in the gay marriage — and this is typical of such cases — the contractual violation was made public, thus inviting a showdown. That’s not a small difference.”

Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, Ind.

New Ways Ministry, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ reconciliation and inclusion within the Catholic Church, praised Brebeuf for its “courageous” stance and decision to follow its conscience, even at the risk of being penalized by the archdiocese.

“In Catholic teaching, violation of conscience is one of the most serious errors one can commit, certainly more serious than any violation of sexual ethics,” Francis DeBernardo, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “They were faced with a choice: lose the name ‘Catholic’ or lose what it really means to be Catholic. They chose the path of conscience, integrity, and justice.”

DeBernardo, who notes that New Ways Ministry has catalogued over 80 similar cases of LGBTQ employment disputes in the Catholic Church, dating back to 2008, also criticized the archdiocese for its “punitive policies.”

“What the archdiocese, and many other church officials, don’t get, is that firing LGBTQ teachers and pastoral ministers is a losing and self-defeating policy,” DeBernardo said. “Instead of accomplishing the task of defending a narrow orthodoxy focused solely on sexuality and gender issues, firing LGBTQ church workers causes more and more Catholics to see that the Church’s teaching on these matters does not reflect human reality or the mercy of God.  And these leaders ignore the demands of the Church’s social justice teaching, so clear to Catholics in the pews, that every person’s human dignity must be respected.”

DeBernardo added that the move could potentially alienate Catholics, particularly those of younger generations who value tolerance for LGBTQ individuals.

“Having already faced an uproar from the Brebeuf situation, the archdiocese would have been wise to avoid a second conflagration by having another LGBTQ employee fired. They did not,” he said of the decision to fire the Cathedral High teacher. “They should have chosen the path of pastoral reconciliation with a community already hurting, instead of exacerbating the wounds and extending them to yet another school community. Grave pastoral harm has been done, and it is now up to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to reverse its decisions, and help heal the damage that they have created.”

Complete Article HERE!

Why Catholic bishops need a year of abstinence on preaching about sexuality

A view of St. Peter’s Square during a Pentecost Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, at the Vatican, Sunday, June 9, 2019.

By

If Catholic bishops hope to reclaim their moral credibility after revelations about covering up clergy sexual abuse, the hierarchy might start by sending a simple but potent message: Church leaders should take a year of abstinence from preaching about sex and gender.

It might seem obvious that a church facing a crisis of legitimacy caused by clergy raping children would show more humility when claiming to hold ultimate truths about human sexuality

Instead, in the past month alone, a Rhode Island bishop tweeted that Catholics shouldn’t attend LGBTQ pride events because they are “especially harmful for children”; a Vatican office issued a document that described transgender people as “provocative” in trying to “annihilate the concept of nature”; and a Catholic high school in Indianapolis that refused to fire a teacher married to a same-sex partner was told by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis that it can no longer call itself Catholic

There is an unmistakable hubris displayed when some in the church are determined to make sexuality the linchpin of Catholic identity at a time when bishops have failed to convince their flock that they are prepared to police predators in their own parishes.

Even before abuse scandals exploded into public consciousness a decade ago and more, many Catholics were tuning out the all-male hierarchy’s teachings on sexuality. Surveys show the vast majority of Catholics use birth control and nearly 70 percent now support same-sex marriage.

This isn’t simply a matter of the church’s image, however. When the Catholic Church describes sexual intimacy between gay people as “intrinsically disordered,” it fails to take into account how this degrading language contributes to higher rates of suicide among LGBTQ people; when it condemns even civil recognition of same-sex unions that don’t impede the church’s ability to define marriage sacramentally, bishops appear indifferent to the roadblocks committed couples without marriage licenses face in hospitals and other settings.

Unless church leaders are content to drive away a generation of young people, these positions are self-inflicted wounds. Millennial Catholics understandably ask why centuries of Catholic teaching on human dignity and justice about don’t apply fully to their LGBTQ friends, family members and teachers. Those who are raised Catholic are more likely than those raised in any other religion to cite negative religious treatment of gay and lesbian people as the primary reason they leave, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

A document on gender identity released earlier this month from the Vatican’s congregation for Catholic education, titled “Male and Female He Created Them,” underscores why we need a break from lofty church pronouncements on these issues. The document is right in its call for respectful dialogue with LGBTQ people, but the work itself fails to reflect that ideal.

The authors clearly didn’t spend time with transgender Catholics. There was no apparent effort to engage with modern science or contemporary medical insights about gender development. It feels as if it was written in a bunker sealed off from the world in 1950.

Ray Dever, a Catholic deacon who has a transgender daughter and who ministers to Catholic families with transgender members, called the document “totally divorced from the lived reality of transgender people.”

Dever added, “Anyone with firsthand experience with gender identity issues will confirm that for an authentically transgender person, being transgender is not a choice, and it is certainly not driven by any gender theory or ideology.”

While abstract Vatican musings on sex and gender are unhelpful, the church faces a more urgent crisis in the making in the firing of LGBTQ employees at Catholic schools. In a rare display of defiance, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis clashed with Archbishop Charles Thompson, who wanted the independently operated school to terminate an employee who is civilly married to a person of the same sex. The school refused, and the archbishop now says the school can no longer call itself Catholic. Brebeuf Jesuit’s supervisory body, the Midwest Province of Jesuits, said the decision will be appealed through a church process all the way to the Vatican if necessary.

“We felt we could not in conscience dismiss him from employment,” the Rev. William Verbryke, president of Brebeuf, told the Jesuit publication America magazine earlier this week, explaining that the teacher in question does not teach religion and is not a campus minister.

After the Jesuit school’s decision became national news, another Indiana Catholic high school announced it was complying with the archdiocese and dismissing a teacher in a same-sex marriage. Administrators at Cathedral High School called it “an agonizing decision” and wrote a letter to the school community. “In today’s climate we know that being Catholic can be challenging and we hope that this action does not dishearten you, and most especially, dishearten Cathedral’s young people.”

In recent years, more than 70 LGBTQ church employees and Catholic school teachers have been fired or lost their jobs in employment disputes. Heterosexual Catholics who don’t follow church teaching that prohibits birth control or living together before marriage, for example, are not disciplined the same way by Catholic institutions. The scrutiny targeting gay employees alone is discriminatory and disproportionate.

Efforts to narrow Catholic identity to a “pelvic theology” hyperfocused on human sexuality raise questions about what Christians should be known for as we seek to live the gospel. Are Catholic employees at schools and other Catholic institutions evaluated for how often they visit the imprisoned, care for the sick, treat the environment, confront inequality? All of these moral issues are central to papal encyclicals, centuries of Catholic social teachings and the ministry of Jesus.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis said in one of his first interviews after his election. “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”

A year of abstinence for church leaders preaching about sex would demonstrate a symbolic posture of humility that could substantively show those of us still left in the pews that the hierarchy isn’t completely clueless to the stark reality of the present moment.

During their silence on sex and gender, Vatican and local Catholic leaders should get out of their comfort zones and conduct listening sessions with married, divorced, gay, straight and transgender people. They should step away from the microphone and take notes. There would be disagreement, but the simple act of flipping the script — priests and bishops quietly in the back instead of holding forth up front — might help clergy recognize there is a wisdom in lived reality and truth not found solely in dusty church documents.

Taking risks and sitting with discomfort is part of a healthy faith. It’s time for our bishops to lead by taking a step back.

Complete Article HERE!

She’s 83 and a Famous Nun. Australia’s Catholic Leaders Want Her to Stay Away.

Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known American feminist, was planning to speak at a Catholic conference in Melbourne, but the archbishop apparently intervened.

Sister Joan Chittister with Maria Shriver in Erie, Pa., in 2015.

By Damien Cave

Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known American nun, feminist and scholar, was looking forward to speaking at a Catholic education conference in Australia next year, figuring there would be plenty to discuss in a country where Catholic schools educate roughly one in five children.

But then Sister Joan, 83, received an email a few weeks ago effectively telling her not to come, saying that the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, had not endorsed the invitation.

No reason was given, she said. But to Sister Joan and her supporters, the message was clear: The leaders of the church don’t like her ideas — especially her call to empower women and laypeople — so they plan to suppress them.

“It is pathetic,” Sister Joan said on Monday in an interview from Erie, Pa., where she has lived and worked with the needy for most of her life. “These teachers for the next generation of thinkers are being denied the right to pursue ideas.”

“I see it as a lot bigger than one conference,” she added. “I see it as an attitude of mind that is dangerous to the church.”

The dispute over her invitation, unreported until now, arrives at a time of division and tension for Australia’s Catholic Church.

Cardinal George Pell, a former archbishop of Melbourne who also served as the Vatican’s treasurer, will soon learn whether the appeal of his conviction in December for molesting two choir boys in 1996 has been successful. Cardinal Pell, the highest-ranking Catholic official found guilty of criminal charges in the church’s child sexual-abuse crisis, was sentenced to six years in prison.

But close observers suggest the cardinal has a good chance of winning his appeal, which would ignite another round of anger among Catholics who believe the church is not doing enough to loosen priests’ grip on authority, contributing to a culture of secrecy that allowed the sexual abuse problem to fester.

The rejection of Sister Joan is fuel for the fire.

“The archbishop has made a serious mistake,” said Gail Grossman Freyne, a family therapist, author and friend of Sister Joan’s in Melbourne. “This ban will in no way hinder Sister Joan in pursuing her apostolate. In fact, it will only increase the number of people in Melbourne, in all of Australia, who will come to hear her speak and buy her books. What kind of threat is this 83-year-old Benedictine who has spent her life preaching the gospel?”

The Archdiocese of Melbourne did not respond to requests for comment.

Jim Miles, acting executive director of Catholic Education Melbourne — one of the groups organizing the National Catholic Education Commission’s annual conference, where Sister Joan had expected to speak in September 2020 — characterized the dispute as a communications failure. He said no one, including Sister Joan, had yet been formally invited to address the gathering.

“It is regrettable that Sister Joan Chittister may have been given the impression that she was invited to speak at the conference,” he said. “The conference organizing committee is working to ensure that this type of miscommunication does not occur again.”

The archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli.

Sister Joan, however, said that she had clearly been invited, and that she later received an apologetic email rescinding the invitation.

“I am very saddened to say that while our organizing committee strongly supported the inclusion of Sr Joan as a speaker at the conference, the Archbishop of Melbourne has failed to endorse her inclusion,” the email said.

Catholic scholars said they were not surprised by the dispute; Archbishop Comensoli is a conservative moral theologian who previously served as an auxiliary bishop in Sydney under Cardinal Pell when he was the archbishop there.

His views generally reflect the widening divide between the church’s leadership and many everyday Catholics. On issues like the role of women and acceptance of homosexuality, priests and bishops steeped in the doctrinal and social conservatism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI continue to be opposed by Catholics who have moved to the left, and want to see the church change with the times.

The current pontiff, Pope Francis, has tried to bridge this divide, calling for the church to be more inclusive, while upholding church teachings that prohibit gay marriage and ordaining women as priests or deacons. He has taken only modest steps on both the sexual abuse crisis and broader reforms. On Monday, he cracked open the door to ordaining married, elderly men as priests in remote areas of the Amazon, where the shortage of priests is dire.

In Australia, as in many countries, the divisions have contributed to the faith’s steep decline: Just over 10 percent of Catholics in Australia attend church weekly, down from 74 percent in the 1950s. And while the country’s Catholic schools are still well attended, thanks in part to government funding, they are also the forum where the Church’s generational and cultural rifts are most apparent.

Young Australians who identify as Catholic, for example, are far more liberal than the leaders of their faith. According to an independent study from the Australian National University, eight in 10 Catholic teenagers in Australia support same-sex marriage, and roughly the same percentage support the right of L.G.B.T. students to express their sexuality in schools.

“There is often a misalignment between the laity and the hierarchy, particularly with anything considered socially progressive,” said Andrew Singleton, an associate professor of sociology at Deakin University near Melbourne who worked on the study. “The hierarchy takes its lead from Rome, whereas the laity takes its lead from a wide array of sources, not just the Church.”

Sister Joan is familiar with the fault line. In 2001, Vatican officials directed her order, the Benedictines, to keep her from speaking at a Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin. Her religious community refused, and she spoke anyway.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Ballarat, near Melbourne. Just over 10 percent of Catholics in Australia attend church weekly, down from 74 percent in the 1950s.

She has gone on to say that the ordination of women — which is not allowed in the Catholic Church — is not her main concern. But for educators in particular, Sister Joan’s acts of resistance make her a rich source of discussion about both the Church and activist faith in general.

For more than 50 years, she has combined Scripture with stories of modern inspirational figures and demands for equality. Friendly and relentless, she rose to prominence in the 1980s with her opposition to nuclear proliferation. Through countless lectures and more than 50 books, she has developed a worldwide following for highlighting the role of women in religious orders, for calling on the church to change and reconnect with the faithful, and for providing a model of spiritual leadership focused on social justice.

Her most recent book, “The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage,” is in many ways a cri de coeur against the status quo and for a bold spirituality to fight injustice.

Oprah Winfrey, who recently interviewed Sister Joan on her cable channel, said it was a wake-up call. “I read this and I thought, gee, I am not doing enough,” she said.

Sister Joan, who still hopes to come to Melbourne, said her critics in the church did not seem to grasp the book’s message, or the danger of denying information to the public.

“That’s exactly the way the church got into trouble over the sex scandals,” she said. “They did everything alone.”

She paused and sighed. “It’s the last act of a dying mentality,” she said. “All we can do is go on, go on.”

Complete Article HERE!