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.

Complete Article HERE!

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!

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!

There is an obvious way for the Catholic Church to reduce child sex abuse, but bishops refuse to do it

By Jennifer Haselberger

America’s Catholic bishops are gathering this week to debate new measures to hold bishops and cardinals more accountable in cases of clergy sex abuse. They’ll likely say the problem is largely in the church’s past. What they won’t say is that they already know how to largely eliminate sexual misconduct with minors but won’t do it: Get out of youth ministry.

During the nearly 10 years I spent working as a canon lawyer in different dioceses in the United States, I saw firsthand that the U.S. church accepts the sexual abuse of minors as the cost of doing business the American way.

The American church’s business model relies on programs aimed at children and young males who might become priests. Those youth ministry programs, which happen outside the core worship experience, are where abuse happens. U.S. church officials know this, and they could reduce the abuse that still happens by getting out of the youth ministry business, but they won’t.

It is well established that Catholic scouting, summer camps, retreats, youth days and other programming designed to, as one upcoming Wisconsin program’s brochure called Totally Yours puts it, “ignite the hearts” of young Catholics, create contexts in which young people are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment. There is ample evidence that, even in the post-Spotlight era, predators among the clergy and the laity seek out these opportunities to connect with Catholic youth.

The Vatican’s own press kit for the pope’s global “Meeting On the Protection of Minors” in February described a timeline of the church’s response to abuse. It noted that in Slovenia’s communist dictatorship, from 1945 to 1992, “Catholic education was almost nonexistent and for this reason the potential abusers did not have direct contact with minors.”

Yet, since 2002 the Catholic Church has doubled down on these forms of outreach, prioritizing its need to evangelize and develop the next generation of Catholics over the safety and well-being of the same.

It also turns a blind eye to the ongoing problem of clergy singling out some children for special attention under the guise of fostering vocations to the priesthood or religious life.

This remains a concerning factor in many of the cases of abuse that have occurred post-2002. Yet, the church does little, if anything, to combat this. Instead, it uses wording like this on a Seattle archdiocesan vocations blog, telling priests to “draw a young man aside” and use praise and “sincerity” to encourage him to consider the priesthood.

In any other context, this would be labeled grooming.

However, the church needs to address its priest shortage. As a result, parents and other guardians are socialized to relinquish oversight and even good judgment when it is a question of encouraging a child along this path.

There are countless other examples of the Catholic Church prioritizing its methods of operating over the safety of children.

The lack of willingness to confront the problem of clergy sex abuse of minors, and yet the drive to cover it up, are what led me to resign in 2013 as the chancellor for canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul and bring everything I saw into the light as a whistleblower.

Dioceses like my own could delay expanding youth programming until it has fully functional, empirically supported and evidence-based methods in place for ensuring the safety of these programs. Instead, it continues to create new programs, like the annual archdiocesan Youth Day, which was first held in 2013. The archdiocese had learned about abuse by the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer in 2012, and although it had years worth of information about the potential danger the priest posed, it pretended that it had no indication of any potential for harm. I went public with my information the week before the event, and the county attorney launched an investigation that resulted in charges.

We don’t know if expanding the priesthood beyond an all-male, celibate clergy would eliminate sexual abuse, but the Catholic Church has made it clear that it won’t consider it even if it did. Likewise, the church is unwilling to embrace a shared-governance model including its laity, even though the primary agenda item for this week’s meeting is developing a means of addressing the frequent abuses and misuses that result from its current narrow concentration of power. Also, advocates for children continue to be outraged by the Catholic Church’s refusal to embrace seemingly common-sense reporting requirements because of some competing evangelization goal. For example, the church is fighting state laws requiring clerics to report sexual abuse they hear in the confessional, claiming such proposals violate religious freedom. As a canon lawyer, I can tell you such proposals can be easily accommodated within Catholic theology.

The Catholic Church is a religion, not a business, and therefore its operations must conform to higher considerations than merely profit and loss. Which in this case revolves around evangelization and recruiting priests.

To be clear, the issue isn’t about making or saving money. Safe environment training programs like Virtus, created by insurance providers, offer financial incentives for dioceses to participate as well as an affirmative defense in litigation. No, the currency here are souls, which the church argues it is saving by putting evangelization and priest-recruiting at the very top of the priority list, above child safety.

In an open, competitive religious American marketplace, the Catholic Church too must convince consumers that its product is the best on offer. To this end, its efforts at transparency and accountability would be greatly enhanced if its leaders would publicly acknowledge that eliminating sexual abuse by clergy is not the institution’s top priority and, furthermore, that its current efforts might reduce the frequency but are insufficient to eradicate the problem.

Statements like this would do more to deter coverups like the one I brought to light in 2013 that any other plan that is being put forward this week.

Complete Article HERE!

Sexuality and the End of the Catholic Church

Reality Asserts Itself With Matthew Fox

The refusal of the Church to purge abusers and pedophiles from the clergy and accept human sexuality as a blessing, is leading to the end of the Church as we know it, says Matthew Fox on Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay

Matthew Fox