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.’ ”

Complete Article HERE!

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!

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

U.S. Catholic bishops, under fire, meet to consider proposals to police themselves

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in Houston on June 1.

By Michelle Boorstein and Julie Zauzmer

Facing double-barreled criticism of their handling of clergy sexual abuse and church finances, America’s Catholic bishops began their annual spring meeting Tuesday vowing to codify for the first time rules to hold themselves accountable for misconduct.

The strong possibility that the U.S. Church will vote this week to create a system of bishop oversight is historic, though critics and watchdogs remain worried about a possible weakness: In the measures under consideration, all future probes will remain in-house. Lay people can be involved, but it’s not mandatory, and the pope retains full power over whether to keep or how to punish bishops.

“This week we continue a journey that will not end until there is not one instance of abuse in our church,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in opening the meeting Tuesday morning.

The past year has seen church leaders — especially in the Northeast — enmeshed in scandals involving cardinals and bishops accused of engaging in sexual harassment and financial abuse, or looking the other way when their fellow, high-ranking peers did so. Last week, The Washington Post reported that a Baltimore archbishop investigating sexual and financial misconduct by a West Virginia bishop edited out part of the investigative report that included the archbishop himself.

Under global pressure, Pope Francis issued a sweeping new law last month requiring dioceses worldwide to create a system of some kind for bishops and other higher-ups to be investigated — a move that comes nearly 20 years after the bishops made it mandatory to remove priests who were accused of child sexual abuse.

Debate about what kind of oversight is needed and how far it should go is expected to be intense on the floor at the Marriott Waterfront in Baltimore, where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will meet from Tuesday through Thursday. The broader questions behind specific policies that will be under debate include: What do transparency and accountability really mean to this 2,000-year-old global church run out of Rome? And if theology holds that only the pope oversees bishops and cardinals, is there still room for modern-day transparency best practices?

“I think that’s a question many are asking. And one that needs to be further studied, if you will. What can be done within the parameters of canon law and the structures of the church to allow for the kind of transparency and accountability that would give people confidence in what’s being done?” said Francesco C. Cesareo, chair of the National Review Board, a body created by the bishops to monitor their work preventing clergy sex abuse of minors.

Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, a group that tracks the church’s handling of child sex abuse cases, said he was discouraged that the proposals on the table this week leave the power in the hands of the bishops.

He noted the case of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, bishop emeritus of West Virginia, who was at the center of an internal church report made public by The Post last week. The report alleges sexual and financial misconduct by Bransfield, including excessive personal spending into the millions. McKiernan noted that Bransfield was a former treasurer of the bishops’ conference and wrote a recent version of the U.S. Church’s financial best-practices guidelines.

“He’s obviously not acting in compliance with the guidelines he himself drew up,” McKiernan said. “The big problem is these people have never behaved as they know they ought to and as they’re saying they’re supposed to. So where’s the teeth?”

James Rogers, spokesman for the bishops’ conference, said the bishops with whom he has spoken are expressing a feeling of urgency. They “want to get something done. They’re hearing from people in the pews who want to know the church is doing something about [the lack of bishop accountability]. And bishops want to be responsive. On the one hand, they realize we aren’t going to solve everything this week, but we have to have a good start building upon the foundation of child protection already in place.”

A new poll released Tuesday found that almost all Americans — Catholics and non-Catholics — are aware of reports related to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church but are split on whether the problem is ongoing and on whether it’s more common among Catholic leaders.

The Pew Research Center study finds that 48 percent of Americans believe sex abuse is more common among Catholic clerics than among other religious leaders, while 47 percent say it’s equally common among leaders of all faiths.

Catholic Americans are less likely to see sexual misconduct as particularly tied to their denomination, the country’s largest. According to the Pew survey, conducted in the spring, 33 percent say abuse is more common among Catholic priests and bishops, while a majority — 61 percent — believe that abuse is equally common among all religious leaders.

The reports of misconduct are spurring debates and decisions inside and outside Catholic sites of worship across the nation. Nearly half (46 percent) of Catholics say they have discussed the subject with family members, friends or acquaintances, while roughly a quarter of Catholics say they began attending Mass less frequently as a result of the accounts. A similar percentage — 26 percent — of Catholics say they reduced their parish donations in response to the reports of misconduct.

Still, American Catholics retain relatively positive views of their religious leaders’ response to the scandals. More than half — 55 percent — of Catholics believe that Francis has done an “excellent” or “good” job responding to reports of abuse, and 49 percent say the same of their own bishop. Thirty-six percent, however, believe that U.S. bishops as a whole have done an “excellent” or “good” job handling the allegations.

Opinions varied according to level of engagement with the church. U.S. Catholics who attend Mass weekly were less likely to reduce their attendance or donations as a result of the reported misconduct and were more likely to hold favorable views of religious leaders.

There is a tentative agenda for the week, but bishops Tuesday morning can propose adding — or deleting — things from the schedule.

The U.S. bishops nearly voted in the fall on a plan for self-oversight but the Vatican told them to hold off until a February global meeting could be held, and the pope issued new rules in May calling for all countries by June 2020 to have some system in place. When bishops are accused of misconduct, the pope’s rules call for them to be investigated by the “metropolitan” — the archbishop of the nearest large diocese. The rules allow for, but don’t mandate, involvement of lay people.

Francis said it violated church teaching for anyone but the pope to discipline or oversee a bishop.

“There is no role for the laity to play in terms of disciplining a bishop. They can only be in the probe and make recommendations as to penal consequences,” Cesareo said. “But in the end, it’s in the pope’s hands.”

But there’s a lot more in the mix than just decisions about discipline. For example, can laypeople lead investigations in partnership with the metropolitan and make decisions such as releasing results of the investigation to the public?

U.S. Catholics have only two examples, total, of bishop investigations — both in the past year, under Francis. The Archdiocese of New York investigated sexual abuse allegations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom Francis defrocked this year. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori investigated Bransfield in an investigation that began in the fall and whose work was done by a small group of laypeople.

Post reporting last week revealed that Lori, while overseeing the Bransfield investigation, asked that his name — and those of other top clerics — be removed from the investigative report, after lay investigators found Bransfield had given hundreds of thousands in cash gifts to clerics, including $10,500 to Lori. Lori’s was among the names removed.

Under Vatican rules, church officials who get a complaint of misconduct about a bishop must meet all civil reporting requirements, such as telling police. Those vary widely depending on the country.

U.S. bishops will consider this week how to structure the independent system that will receive the complaint. They may create a single, national 800-number run by a private vendor, or they may have metropolitan bishops around the country each run one.

They also will consider allowing the conference to ban retired bishops or cardinals from national meetings if they have misconduct findings against them.

The meeting’s centerpiece is on creating a sex abuse reporting and investigative process, but the Bransfield scandal that erupted just days ago is expected to push financial accountability into the conversation mix.

The Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference, the industry group for diocesan finance officials, has asked bishops to also create systems for financial misconduct, said Pat Markey, executive director of the fiscal group.

“Understanding that safeguarding children is of the highest importance, I’m hopeful at one point they’ll take up other kinds of abuse. The only way you can restore trust is by looking at that aspect. I think the bishops who cover up, there’s a financial component,” Markey said Monday.

Bishops aren’t likely to spend a lot of time looking at the core data around abuse complaints. Catholic leaders frequently claim that the days of widespread sexual abuse in the church are in the distant past, and that even new allegations made today relate to decades-old secrets, not current priests’ behavior.

In many cases, that is correct. The latest analysis of abuse reports, commissioned by the U.S. bishops and published this year, says that 1,385 survivors and others informed dioceses of previously undisclosed abuse of minors in 2018. The incidents they reported were largely in the past, some from the 1940s.

The number of credible allegations made in 2018 were “significantly higher than in 2017,” according to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a church-run research group. The increase was largely the result of numbers from four dioceses, CARA reported. Those are in New York, where survivors were spurred to come forward by a new offer of compensation.

CARA also published results in the spring from its first study of all U.S. bishops, done in 2016. It offers a snapshot of the men at the helm of the church.

According to CARA’s spring newsletter, which excerpted the study, there are 430 active and retired bishops in the country. When asked their general theological leanings, 42 percent said traditional, 41 percent said moderate and 17 percent said progressive.

The average bishop is age 65, non-Hispanic white and born in the United States. Forty-seven percent of the bishops, CARA’s survey found, watch Fox News, while 35 percent watch CNN. Ninety-five percent agree “strongly” or “somewhat” that “secular U.S. culture is hostile to the values of Catholicism,” CARA found.

“Seven percent explicitly mentioned the clergy sexual abuse crisis as one of the greatest challenges the church faces,” the CARA newsletter said.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who represents many clergy abuse survivors and was featured in the movie “Spotlight,” on Tuesday told The Post that the bishops should advocate for one thing in any case of alleged abuse, regardless of what civil laws require: Call the police.

“It would be folly to think that the culture of sexual abuse and coverup within the Catholic Church is going to change because of written rules made by the Catholic bishops who thrive in that culture and practice self-acclaim,” he said. “History is getting tired of the deception and criminality within the Catholic Church.”

Complete Article HERE!

Vatican cardinal, other priests to return cash gifts from ousted West Virginia bishop Michael Bransfield

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

By Shawn Boburg, Robert O’Harrow Jr.

A cardinal at the Vatican and eight other Catholic clerics pledged on Friday to return money to the diocese of West Virginia after revelations that the bishop there used church funds to give cash gifts of $350,000 to fellow clergymen.

Over 13 years, until his recent ouster for alleged sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield wrote personal checks to clerics and was reimbursed with church money, according to a Washington Post investigation published Wednesday. Bransfield sent the checks, many for amounts in the four figures, to 137 clergymen, including two young priests he is accused of mistreating and more than a dozen cardinals.

Among those returning money is Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who said through a Vatican spokesman Friday that he would give back $29,000 that Bransfield sent for renovations to his apartment in Rome.

The checks have angered many parishioners in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation. They have also raised concerns about the prevalence of clerics giving such gifts to those who hold sway over their careers, as well as about the propriety of accepting those gifts. The gifts were given during years when Bransfield was building a reputation in West Virginia for living a life of opu­lence and allegedly sexually harassing young priests and seminarians.

“The first thing I feel is just anger and that it suddenly makes sense why there was no ability to have accountability here,” Molly Linehan, a Catholic school administrator in Charleston, W.Va., said Friday about the cash gifts clerics received from Bransfield. “And although anger is the immediate thing, almost just as immediate is sorrow.”

Several recipients of the checks denied in interviews that the money was intended to buy their silence or pliability. Some said they received checks — described in diocese records obtained by The Post as gifts — after delivering sermons or writing speeches. Other checks marked special occasions, such as birthdays or holidays, they said.

Their decisions to return the money followed Archbishop William E. Lori’s announcement Wednesday, after receiving questions from The Post, that he would return $7,500 he had received from Bransfield.

Lori oversaw an investigation of Bransfield that was ordered by the Vatican in September after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. A team of lay investigators detailed their findings in a confidential draft report to Lori in February, recommending that Bransfield be removed from ministry for alleged sexual harassment and financial abuses.

Lori ordered that the names of senior clerics who received gifts — including himself — be edited out of the final report to the Vatican, The Post reported Wednesday. He said he thought inclusion of the names would be a distraction.

On Friday, Lori said he regretted that decision.

“If I had to do it over again, especially at a time when we’re trying to create greater transparency and accountability, the report would have included the names of those bishops who received gifts, including my own, with some notation that there was no evidence to suggest that those who received gifts reciprocated in any way that was inappropriate,” he said in a video statement posted to the archdiocese’s website. “Transparency also includes admitting when a mistake in judgment has been made and that is certainly the case here.”

In an interview with The Post, he said such gifts are unusual. “I don’t get a lot of gifts like that,” he said.

Several recipients said they believed Bransfield was sending his own money.

“I had absolutely no idea that he was submitting these checks to people and getting reimbursed by the diocese,” said Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, who received three checks totaling $3,000 from Bransfield, money he said he would return. “I thought it was a kind thing to do. I just assumed it was from his account.”

Murry said he does not send checks to fellow clerics as gifts.

Bransfield, 75, drew on revenue from oil-rich land in Texas that had been donated to the diocese more than a century ago and that has generated annual revenue averaging nearly $15 million in recent years. Bransfield spent lavishly on chartered jets, luxury hotels, a private chef and a $4.6 million renovation to his church residence, the investigators found.

Bransfield has denied the allegations, telling The Post in a brief interview that “none of it is true” and that critics are “trying to destroy my reputation.”

It is Bransfield’s cash gifts that are raising questions about prelates outside West Virginia.

Through a spokesman, Farrell told The Post that, in addition to Bransfield’s gifts, he received “voluntary donations” from laity, priests and bishops for the renovation of his apartment in the Vatican.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò — who served as the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, from 2011 to 2016 — said he received checks from Bransfield and a handful of other bishops during his tenure. He described the practice as unique to the United States in his experience.

“Around the Christmas holiday, I started receiving gift checks from several bishops in the United States,” he said in an email, recalling his arrival in 2011. “I had worked in nunciatures around the world and had never seen anything like that.”

The checks were typically between $100 and $1,000, he said. Aides told him “money gifts among bishops were customary in the United States, and not accepting them would be an affront to the donors,” Viganò told The Post.

Viganò received $6,000 from Bransfield. He said he donated the money to charities shortly after he received it.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who the report says was given $23,600, said through a spokesman Friday that he received honoraria for speaking invitations and other events, in addition to gifts to mark personal celebrations. The biggest single gift to Wuerl — $10,000 — was for the renovation of a church in Rome, he said.

Wuerl has not said whether he intends to return the money, the spokesman said.

The spokesman did not respond to questions about whether Wuerl has given any cash gifts or received them from other clerics.

Monsignor Kevin Irwin, former longtime head of the theology department at the Catholic University of America in Washington, received $6,500 from Bransfield, according to diocese records. Irwin said Friday that the money was in exchange for writing and teaching he did and that he didn’t feel obliged to return it.

Irwin said Bransfield’s large gifts to clerics who apparently performed no service seemed out of the norm.

“I was sickened by it,” Irwin said, describing his reaction to disclosures in The Post’s report.

“Money corrupts. If you follow the money, whether in the church or out of the church, it can corrupt. A big check for doing nothing? Use it on yourself? I don’t know where that came from. Mine came from working in my office. And I’ve never been given a check for something I didn’t do.”

The Rev. Michael Weston and monsignors Walter Rossi and Vito Buonanno at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Bransfield was stationed before he was sent to West Virginia, are returning $10,800 collectively, a spokeswoman said.

“Over the course of the past few years, the priests of the Basilica have received modest financial gifts from Bishop Bransfield for their assistance with diocesan pilgrimages and to celebrate significant days such as birthdays and anniversaries,” said spokeswoman Jacquelyn Hayes.

“The priests have never had cause to question the source of the funds,” she wrote in a statement. “As other clergy have pledged, the priests at the Basilica will return the personal gifts from Bishop Bransfield to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, where the money can be used to serve the needs of the community.”

The most frequent recipient of checks, the Rev. Richard Mullins of the District of Columbia, said Bransfield had encouraged him to become a priest and was a longtime friend. Mullins, who received 38 checks from 2013 to 2018, said they were generally for birthdays or holidays, according to the records obtained by The Post.

“I’m deeply saddened that church funds would be used for personal activities,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!