Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone resigned in December 2019 after intense public criticism for his handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York.
His departure came three months after the Vatican announced what’s called an “apostolic visitation” – a religious investigation that allows the pope to swiftly audit, punish or sanction virtually any wing of the Roman Catholic Church – into Malone’s diocese, or region.
In my research on clergy sexual abuse, I’ve learned that these investigations are still shrouded in secrecy.
Visitations for clergy sexual abuse
When clergy abuse cases first emerged in the 1980s, the Vatican used apostolic visitations to punish Catholic institutions who had attracted negative press for their role in the scandal.
After lawmakers in Ireland, Canada and the U.S. suggested that seminary training was a potential cause of the clergy sex abuse crisis, for example, the Vatican ordered visitations to investigate the entire network of seminaries in those countries.
Though the full results of these investigations are rarely made public, resignations of troublesome clergy typically follow.
Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, for example, refused to leave office even after he was convicted in 2012, by the circuit court of Jackson County, Missouri, for his failure to report child sexual abuse. After awaiting his resignation for two years, the Vatican pressured Finn by opening a visitation in 2014. He promptly resigned after the Vatican’s investigation.
In the ancient church, popes used apostolic visitations to govern far-flung regions. But since the creation of separate political delegates in the 16th century, visitations have been used more for emergency situations.
A biblical approach to managing scandals
The theology underpinning apostolic visitations comes from the Christian Bible, particularly passages from the Gospel of Mark and St. Paul’s Letters, which urged early Christians to supervise one another.
The medieval Catholic empire was so diffuse that bishops had to travel long distances to “visit” their communities. Those yearly visits are still called “canonical visitations” because they are described in canon law, the regulations that govern clergy.
Unlike mundane canonical audits, apostolic visitations are special investigations ordered by the pope, who chooses a delegate, or “visitor,” to lead the inquiry. The Vatican has sole discretion over the purpose, scale and duration of the investigation.
In theory, apostolic visitations need not be punitive. They could instead serve as a constructive way for the pope to delegate bishops to work as internal consultants or executive coaches for struggling units within the church, which oversees an estimated 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide.
However, Catholic laws define visitations in explicitly judicial terms, and scholars have concluded that the investigations are nearly always a form of discipline.
Visitations are highly secretive. Even when the Vatican acknowledges that an visitation is underway, it seldom discloses the pope’s reasoning for opening the inquiry, let alone the full findings of the investigation.
This lack of transparency has been condemned by some Catholics who expect the modern church to hold fair and open trials.
The Vatican was widely criticized, for example, for its inability to articulate why it investigated all 60,000 nuns in the United States. Pope Benedict initiated that controversial visitation in 2008, only to have it quietly closed in 2014 by his successor, Pope Francis, who did not impose any changes on American nuns.
Resigning in a more dignified way
In the case of Bufallo’s Bishop Malone, none of the visitation’s findings have been shared publicly. In his official statement, Malone defended his handling of clergy abuses before explaining that “prayer and discernment” had led him to resign.
Malone admitted that the apostolic visitation was “a factor” in his decision, but he was also adamant that the pope had not forced him to retire.
The authoritarian and top-secret nature of apostolic visitations makes it impossible to know whether the Vatican discovered any new allegations of child sexual abuse in Buffalo. The integrity of the visitation has also been called into question, because the inquiry was led by a bishop who is himself now under investigation for allegations of child sexual abuse.
As a result of all this secrecy, the public cannot know whether Pope Francis is being proactive in his outreach to survivors, especially to victims from dioceses where the bishop is suspected of having concealed the church’s crimes.
The Vatican women’s magazine is blaming the drastic drop in the number of nuns worldwide in part on their wretched working conditions and the sexual abuse and abuses of power they suffer at the hands of priests and their own superiors.
“Women Church World” dedicated its February issue to the burnout, trauma and exploitation experienced by religious sisters and how the church is realizing it must change its ways if it wants to attract new vocations.
The magazine published Thursday revealed that Pope Francis had authorized the creation of a special home in Rome for nuns who were kicked out of their orders and all but left on the street, some forced into prostitution to survive.
“There are some really tough cases, in which the superiors withheld the identity documents of the sisters who wanted to leave the convent, or who were kicked out,” the head of the Vatican’s religious orders congregation, Cardinal Joao Braz di Aviz, told the magazine.
“There were also cases of prostitution to be able to provide for themselves,” he said. “These are ex-nuns!”
“We are dealing with people who are wounded, and for whom we have to rebuild trust. We have to change this attitude of rejection, the temptation to ignore these people and say ‘you’re not our problem anymore.’’”
“All of this must absolutely change,” he said.
The Catholic Church has seen a continuing free fall in the number of nuns around the world, as elderly sisters die and fewer young ones take their place. Vatican statistics from 2016 show the number of sisters was down 10,885 from the previous year to 659,445 globally. Ten years prior, there were 753,400 nuns around the world, meaning the Catholic Church shed nearly 100,000 sisters in the span of a decade.
European nuns regularly fare the worst, Latin American numbers are stable and the numbers are rising in Asia and Africa.
The magazine has made headlines in the past with articles exposing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and the slave-like conditions sisters are often forced to work under, without contracts and doing menial jobs like cleaning for cardinals.
The drop in their numbers has resulted in the closure of convents around Europe, and the ensuing battle between the remaining sisters and diocesan bishops or the Vatican for control of their assets.
Braz insisted the assets don’t belong to the sisters themselves, but the entire church, and called for a new culture of exchange, so that “five nuns aren’t managing an enormous patrimony” while other orders go broke.
Braz acknowledged the problem of nuns being sexually abused by priests and bishops. But he said in recent times, his office has also heard from nuns who were abused by other nuns — including one congregation with nine cases.
There were also cases of gross abuses of power.
“We’ve had cases, not many thank goodness, of superiors who once they were elected refused to step down. They went around all the rules,” he was quoted as saying. “And in the communities there are sisters who tend to blindly obey, without saying what they think.”
The international umbrella group of nuns has begun speaking out more forcefully about the abuses of nuns and has formed a commission with its male counterpart to take better care of their members.
Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in church money to powerful Catholic clerics over nearly two decades, according to financial records obtained by The Washington Post, while the Vatican failed to act on claims he had sexually harassed young men.
Starting in 2001, McCarrick sent checks totaling more than $600,000 to clerics in Rome and elsewhere, including Vatican bureaucrats, papal advisers and two popes, according to church ledgers and former church officials.
Several of the more than 100 recipients were directly involved in assessing misconduct claims against McCarrick, documents and interviews show. It was not until 2018 that McCarrick was removed from public ministry amid allegations of misconduct decades earlier with a 16-year-old altar boy, and this year he became the first cardinal known to be defrocked for sexual abuse.
The checks were drawn from a little-known account at the Archdiocese of Washington, where McCarrick began serving as archbishop in 2001. The “Archbishop’s Special Fund” enabled him to raise money from wealthy Catholic donors and to spend it as he chose, with little oversight, according to the former officials.
McCarrick sent Pope John Paul II $90,000 from 2001 to 2005. Pope Benedict XVI received $291,000, most of it a single check for $250,000 in May 2005, a month after he was elevated to succeed the late John Paul.
Representatives of the former popes declined to comment or said they had no information about those specific checks. A former personal secretary to John Paul said donations to the pope were forwarded to the secretary of state, the second most powerful post at the Vatican. Experts cautioned that such gifts may also have been directed to papal charities.
A Vatican spokesman declined to comment. In statements, Vatican clerics who received checks described them as customary gifts among Catholic leaders during the Christmas season or as a gesture of appreciation for their service. They said the gifts from McCarrick were directed to charity or used for other proper purposes.
The gifts “never had any effect on the Cardinal’s decision-making as an official of the Holy See,” said a spokesman for Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, a high-ranking cleric who received $6,500 from McCarrick in the 2000s, the ledgers show.
The checks from McCarrick’s fund add a new dimension to a scandal over how he rose to the highest levels of the U.S. Catholic Church and remained there despite complaints of misconduct that reached the Vatican as early as 2000. A Post investigation earlier this year found that another cleric, a McCarrick ally who was a bishop in West Virginia, also gave cash gifts to influential clergy in the United States and at the Vatican while facing allegations of sexual misconduct and financial abuses.
McCarrick, a legendary fundraiser for the church, was defrocked in February after Vatican officials found him guilty of two charges: soliciting sex during confession and committing “sins” with minors and adults “with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”
The Vatican plans to release a report about its handling of the allegations against McCarrick in the coming months, church officials have said. The financial records from the Archbishop’s Special Fund are among the documents church officials in Washington sent to Rome for that examination, according to one former archdiocese official. The former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
An attorney for McCarrick did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In his only public statements about the misconduct allegations, McCarrick recently told a reporter, “I do not believe that I did the things that they accuse me of.”
In a statement to The Post, the Archdiocese of Washington said McCarrick had sole control of the tax-exempt fund.
“The funds in the account came from donations sent personally to Mr. McCarrick to direct in his sole discretion,” the archdiocese said. “During his tenure in Washington, Mr. McCarrick made contributions to many charitable and religious organizations and members of leadership in the Church.”
The ledgers obtained by The Post show names of beneficiaries, check numbers, amounts and dates of disbursement. The ledgers also contain the names of donors for the years 2010 to 2016.
McCarrick’s fund took in more than $6 million over 17 years. Among the biggest contributors was Maryanne Trump Barry, the sister of President Trump and a former federal appellate judge. She gave him at least $450,000 over four years, the records show. She declined to comment.
McCarrick directed millions of dollars from the fund to Catholic charities in the United States and in Rome, as well as organizations in countries stricken by poverty and conflict, the ledgers show.
Yet nearly 200 checks were sent to fellow clerics, including more than 60 archbishops and cardinals.
The leader of a foundation that made substantial contributions to McCarrick’s fund said he was surprised to learn that checks went to clerics. Tom Riley, president of the Connelly Foundation, based outside Philadelphia, said in a statement that his group’s contributions were meant to help “the poor, the needy, refugees, and the mission of the Catholic Church.”
“Everything about the current situation is a source of terrible sadness for us,” he said.
Checks to key figures
McCarrick, 89, became one of the most recognizable church figures in America during a career spanning a half-century. He traveled the world for the Vatican and became the U.S. Catholic Church’s de facto spokesman nearly two decades ago as it reeled from a sex-abuse crisis that began in Boston. In Washington, he presided over funerals of the city’s political elite, including Edward M. Kennedy, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, and hosted dinners for President George W. Bush and other dignitaries.
Behind the scenes, McCarrick’s alleged conduct so alarmed some of his fellow clerics that they reported it to superiors, according to documents that have been posted online in recent years and interviews with some of those involved.
One of those who came forward was the Rev. Boniface Ramsey, a teacher in the late 1980s and early 1990s at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in the Archdiocese of Newark. McCarrick was leader of the archdiocese for more than a decade.
Ramsey said publicly last year that he called the Vatican’s U.S. diplomat, known as the apostolic nuncio, in 2000 to sound the alarm when McCarrick was announced as the next archbishop in Washington.
“I was just shocked,” Ramsey said in a recent interview with The Post.
Ramsey said he told the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, that McCarrick routinely took students from the seminary to his New Jersey beach house and pressured them to sleep with him in his bed. Ramsey told Montalvo he was not aware of any sexual contact but considered McCarrick’s behavior inappropriate.
Montalvo instructed Ramsey to put his claims in writing so they could be forwarded to the Vatican, and Ramsey did so, he said. Ramsey heard nothing back until 2006, when he received a letter from Sandri, then an archbishop in the Vatican secretary of state’s office. The letter briefly acknowledged his warning from several years earlier, according to a copy he posted online.
The ledgers obtained by The Post show that McCarrick was writing checks in those years to Montalvo, Sandri and other senior prelates responsible for managing clerics or handling sex-abuse allegations.
Montalvo accepted three checks from McCarrick worth a total of $5,000 before his death in 2006, the ledgers show, while Sandri received the $6,500 from 2002 to 2008.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who until 2006 served as secretary of state, received $19,000 from 2002 to 2016, the records show.
Sodano did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The Rev. J. Augustine Di Noia, an American who in 2001 started working in the Vatican office that assessed sex-abuse claims, accepted six checks worth a total of $9,500 from 2001 to 2009, the records show.
In a statement, a spokesman for Di Noia, now an archbishop, said the first check was for expenses related to his move to the Vatican. Others were “Christmas-time offerings” or were given to support him as he transferred to another Vatican post in 2009.
“Archbishop Di Noia affirms categorically that Theodore McCarrick never attempted to influence him in his work for the Holy See,” he said. “Whatever were Theodore McCarrick’s tragic personal failures, it is nevertheless a sad day when improper motives are reflexively assigned to assistance given and received in good faith.”
Told by The Post of McCarrick’s checks, Ramsey said he was not surprised.
“I assumed something like this was going on,” he said. “But I didn’t know checks were going to individual clerics.”
Lack of action
A retired bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., said in a statement last year that in December 2005 he contacted Montalvo with new allegations about McCarrick. Bishop Emeritus Paul Bootkoski said he called the apostolic nuncio and then followed up in writing to relay two former seminarians’ claims of sexual misconduct by McCarrick.
Officials in the Metuchen Diocese deemed one claim so significant that they had already secretly paid an $80,000 settlement, according to recent news accounts. They would pay $100,000 to the second seminarian a short time later.
While leaders in Rome considered how to proceed, McCarrick reached retirement age. In May 2006, he stepped down from his post in Washington, his public reputation untarnished. He remained prominent in church affairs and in his capacity as archbishop emeritus was allowed to maintain control of the special fund.
At least one Vatican official has said he was infuriated by the lack of action against McCarrick. Late in 2006, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wrote a memo urging Sandri and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then the secretary of state, to sanction McCarrick, according to a public letter Viganò released through Catholic publications in 2018.
Viganò wrote that his superiors never responded to the memo he sent in 2006. He accused Vatican officials of protecting McCarrick and asserted that McCarrick “had the financial means to influence decisions” at the time. He did not elaborate in the letter and did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Viganò’s August 2018 letter was published soon after the church announced that McCarrick was being removed from public ministry.
Critics of Viganò have accused him of using the letter to undermine progressive adversaries within the church. In public statements, some top Vatican officials have disputed details of Viganò’s account, including his claim that Pope Francis was aware of detailed allegations against McCarrick years ago but ignored them. Francis does not appear among the list of check recipients, according to the ledgers obtained by The Post.
At the same time Viganò says he was urging sanctions, McCarrick continued sending checks to key church figures. The checks were often clustered around Christmas, with just over half recorded in the ledgers in December or January, according to a Post analysis. In some cases, McCarrick started giving clerics money when they took on new jobs with more authority.
In 2007, among the new beneficiaries was Bertone, who had recently been named secretary of state. Records show that Bertone received seven checks worth a total of $7,000 before he stepped down in 2013.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni began receiving checks in 2008, soon after he was elevated to be a top aide to Bertone. Filoni received $3,500 through 2013, the records show.
Viganò said in his public letter that he shared his concerns about McCarrick with Filoni in 2008. Once again, nothing came of it, Viganò said.
“I was greatly dismayed at my superiors for the inconceivable absence of any measure against the Cardinal,” Viganò wrote.
Bertone and Filoni did not respond to messages seeking comment.
McCarrick also gave to lower-level officials in Rome.
American Archbishop Peter Wells started receiving checks in 2010, the year after he took a key Vatican job under Filoni. Wells had received $2,500 by the time the checks stopped in 2016, the year he left the post for an assignment outside the Vatican.
Other recipients included the longtime head of the papal household, Cardinal James Harvey, and at least two priests working as personal assistants to Benedict and John Paul.
Wells did not respond to messages seeking comment.
In an interview, Harvey said numerous bishops from big cities in the United States sent him monetary gifts to show appreciation for his office’s help, including in making arrangements for visits to the pope.
“It never occurred to me that this would be in some way improper,” he said.
“It wasn’t about currying favor,” Harvey said. “It wasn’t some parallel system of nefarious activity.”
A spokesman for Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, called such gifts common and said they do not influence how Parolin exercises his official responsibilities. He received $1,000 from McCarrick shortly after becoming secretary of state in 2013.
“To send and receive such gifts is customary during the Christmas season, including between Bishops, as a sign of appreciation for work carried out in the service of the universal Church and for the Holy Father,” the spokesman said in a statement.
Some experts, told of The Post’s findings, said cash gifts can create the appearance of a conflict.
“It raises questions about whether McCarrick was buying access or protection,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a columnist at Religion News Service and author of a book about Vatican politics and operations. “This doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Former West Virginia bishop Michael J. Bransfield gave $350,000 in cash gifts to clerics in the United States and at the Vatican from 2005 to 2018, The Post reported in June. He used church money that was routed through his personal account.
The church began investigating Bransfield last year after one of his top aides wrote in a confidential letter to church leaders that the gifts, many of them sent around the Christmas season, were an attempt to “purchase influence.” The investigation later faulted Bransfield for the gifts and found that he inappropriately spent millions of dollars in church money on personal extravagances and engaged in sexual misconduct with seminarians and young priests. Bransfield, who was removed from public ministry in July, has denied wrongdoing.
More than a dozen recipients of Bransfield’s gifts pledged to return the money after The Post reported that it was drawn from church accounts.
At least 17 clerics who received cash gifts from Bransfield also received checks from McCarrick, records show.
The donors to the Archbishop’s Special Fund include wealthy and well-known figures.
Among them are novelist Mary Higgins Clark; John B. Hess, chief executive of oil giant Hess Corp.; and a foundation run by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), who previously served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, the ledgers show.
“For many years I have supported a long list of Catholic charities and causes because I believe in the work they do,” Clark said in a statement. “If the money I donated to Cardinal McCarrick was misused in any way, it was without my knowledge, and I am shocked and saddened.”
Hess and Rooney did not respond to requests for comment.
Another donor was William McIntosh, a former Wall Street executive. McIntosh said he got to know McCarrick in the 1990s when both served on the board of the Papal Foundation, a Philadelphia-based charity that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for initiatives favored by the pope. McCarrick was a founder of the charity and its first president.
McIntosh said he began sending contributions to McCarrick when he was archbishop in Newark for a discretionary charitable account he controlled at the time. McIntosh said he trusted McCarrick’s judgment and was unaware that money he sent him over the years went to other clerics.
“Based on my work with him at the Papal Foundation, I considered him excellent at what he did and tried to be helpful,” McIntosh said. “I had no idea what he was doing with it. I assumed he was doing good things.”
A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Newark, Maria Margiotta, declined to answer questions about the fund McCarrick controlled there. “Since matters involving former Cardinal McCarrick are under review by law enforcement and/or involve litigation, it would be inappropriate for us to discuss publicly,” she said.
The current archbishop of Newark, Joseph W. Tobin, received a $1,000 check from McCarrick in 2016, the ledgers show. Margiotta said that the check was a gift marking Tobin’s elevation as a cardinal and that he believes he deposited it “in a personal account, where it was used to defray the expenses incurred by his new responsibilities or for charitable purposes.”
Some of the money that flowed into McCarrick’s fund came from a foundation that he advised as a board member.
McCarrick directed at least $250,000 to his fund from the Loyola Foundation between 2011 and 2016, as he sat on the foundation’s board, said Executive Director Gregory McCarthy. Each foundation board member was allowed to designate an annual allotment to a favored charity, McCarthy said.
“In this case, the funds went to the Archbishop’s Fund, which was overseen by the Archdiocese of Washington,” McCarthy said. “Frankly I did not know where the funds would go from there.”
McCarthy said foundation officials received assurances from the Archdiocese of Washington that McCarrick’s account was a legitimate charitable fund.
According to two former archdiocese officials, the fund was reviewed yearly to account for expenditures and deposits but otherwise received minimal oversight.
Meanwhile, the number of people claiming to have been abused by McCarrick continues to expand. Early this year, U.S. church officials sent the Vatican allegations involving at least seven boys and dating from 1970 to 1990, The Post has reported.
Amid the fallout, the Catholic Church has been under pressure to explain how it ignored or missed years of warnings. The Vatican report addressing those issues is expected to be released as early as January. In announcing the review in 2018, the Vatican said in a statement that “both abuse and its cover-up can no longer be tolerated.”
Pope Francis has abolished the “pontifical secret” used in clergy sexual abuse cases, after mounting criticism that the high degree of confidentiality has been used to protect pedophiles, silence victims and keep law enforcement from investigating crimes.
In a new document, Francis decreed that information in abuse cases must be protected by church leaders to ensure its “security, integrity and confidentiality.” But he said “pontifical secret” no longer applies to abuse-related accusations, trials and decisions under the Catholic Church’s canon law.
The Vatican’s leading sex crimes investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, called the reform an “epochal decision” that will facilitate coordination with civil law enforcement and open up lines of communication with victims.
While documentation from the church’s in-house legal proceedings will still not become public, Scicluna said, the reform now removes any excuse to not cooperate with legitimate legal requests from civil law enforcement authorities.
Prominent Irish survivor Marie Collins said the reform was “excellent news” that abuse survivors and their advocates had been pressing for. “At last a real and positive change,” she tweeted.
Francis also raised from 14 to 18 the cutoff age below which the Vatican considers pornographic images to be child pornography.
The new laws were issued Tuesday, Francis’ 83rd birthday, as he struggles to respond to the global explosion of the abuse scandal, his own missteps and demands for greater transparency and accountability from victims, law enforcement and ordinary Catholics alike.
The new norms are the latest amendment to the Catholic Church’s in-house canon law — a parallel legal code that metes out ecclesial justice for crimes against the faith — in this case relating to the sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable people by priests, bishops or cardinals. In this legal system, the worst punishment a priest can incur is being defrocked, or dismissed from the clerical state.
Pope Benedict XVI had decreed in 2001 that these cases must be dealt with under “pontifical secret,” the highest form of secrecy in the church. The Vatican had long insisted that such confidentiality was necessary to protect the privacy of the victim, the reputation of the accused and the integrity of the canonical process.
However, such secrecy also served to keep the scandal hidden, prevent law enforcement from accessing documents and silence victims, many of whom often believed that “pontifical secret” prevented them from going to the police to report their priestly abusers.
While the Vatican has long tried to insist this was not the case, it also never mandated that bishops and religious superiors report sex crimes to police, and in the past has encouraged bishops not to do so.
According to the new instruction, which was signed by the Vatican secretary of state but authorized by the pope, the Vatican still doesn’t mandate reporting the crimes to police, saying religious superiors are obliged to do so where civil reporting laws require it.
But it goes further than the Vatican has gone before, saying: “Office confidentiality shall not prevent the fulfillment of the obligations laid down in all places by civil laws, including any reporting obligations, and the execution of enforceable requests of civil judicial authorities.”
The Vatican has been under increasing pressure to cooperate more with law enforcement, and its failure to do so has resulted in unprecedented raids in recent years on diocesan chanceries by police from Belgium to Texas and Chile.
But even under the penalty of subpoenas and raids, bishops have sometimes felt compelled to withhold canonical proceedings given the “pontifical secret,” unless given permission to hand documents over by the Vatican. The new law makes that explicit permission no longer required.
“The freedom of information to statutory authorities and to victims is something that is being facilitated by this new law,” Scicluna told Vatican media.
The Vatican in May issued another law explicitly saying victims cannot be silenced and have a right to learn the outcome of canonical trials. The new document repeats that, and expands the point by saying not only the victim, but any witnesses or the person who lodged the accusation cannot be compelled to silence.
Individual scandals, national inquiries, grand jury investigations, U.N. denunciations and increasingly costly civil litigation have devastated the Catholic hierarchy’s credibility across the globe, and Francis’ own failures and missteps have emboldened his critics.
In February, he summoned the presidents of bishops conferences from around the globe to a four-day summit on preventing abuse, where several speakers called for a reform of the pontifical secret. Francis himself said he intended to raise the age for which pornography was considered child porn.
The Vatican’s editorial director, Andrea Tornielli, said the new law is a “historical” follow-up to the February summit and a sign of openness and transparency.
“The breadth of Pope Francis’ decision is evident: the well-being of children and young people must always come before any protection of a secret, even the ‘’pontifical secret,’” he said in a statement.
Also Tuesday, Francis accepted the resignation of the Vatican’s ambassador to France, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, who is accused of making unwanted sexual advances to young men.
Ventura turned 75 last week, the mandatory retirement age for bishops, but the fact that his resignation was announced on the same day as Francis’ abuse reforms didn’t seem to be a coincidence.
The idea came to West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield while he was in Rome visiting an old friend, a powerful cardinal at the Vatican. Bransfield thought the cleric’s apartment was barren and lacked a comfortable room for watching television.
After Bransfield returned to West Virginia, in May 2017, he sent the cardinal a $14,000 check. “I fixed that room up for him,” Bransfield said in an interview with The Washington Post.
The gift, one of two Bransfield sent to Cardinal Kevin Farrell, was an extraordinary gesture from a religious leader in a state plagued by poverty. Even more unusual was how Bransfield obtained the cash he gave away.
The untold story behind those gifts illustrates how $21 million was moved from a church-owned hospital in Wheeling, W.Va., to be used at Bransfield’s discretion. It adds a new dimension to a financial scandal that has rippled through the Catholic Church since Bransfield’s ouster last year.
A Post investigation found that the money Bransfield sent to Farrell was routed from Wheeling Hospital to the Bishop’s Fund, a charity created by Bransfield with the stated purpose of helping the residents of West Virginia, tax filings show.
As Bransfield prepared to write the first of his personal checks to Farrell, a church official arranged to transfer money from the Bishop’s Fund into a diocese bank account — and then from there to Bransfield’s personal bank account, an internal email obtained by The Post shows.
“Bishop Bransfield made very specific requests,” said Bryan Minor, a Bishop’s Fund board member and diocese employee who wrote the email and arranged the transfers for the gifts to Farrell. “He wanted to have a discretionary fund.”
Bransfield used Bishop’s Fund money for a variety of purposes, including church projects in West Virginia that burnished his reputation as a generous benefactor.
The bishop also drew on it to send the second check to Farrell for the apartment, this time for $15,000, church financial records and emails show.
In all, $321,000 was sent out of West Virginia, in apparent contradiction to the stated purpose of the Bishop’s Fund, The Post found. Church officials have declined to identify the out-of-state recipients.
The hospital was the charity’s only source of funding, tax filings and hospital audits show. As a nonprofit institution that relies heavily on federal funding through Medicare, the hospital is subject to restrictions on how it uses its money.
In the interview with The Post over the summer, Bransfield defended the cash gifts to Farrell, saying they were “funds that I had raised.” He and his attorney did not respond to subsequent questions about The Post’s findings.
Bransfield stepped down in September 2018 amid allegations he misused church money and sexually harassed seminarians and young priests, claims that he has denied. He has since been stripped of his clerical authority and ordered to leave the West Virginia diocese.
During his 13-year tenure at the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield spent millions of dollars of diocese money on extravagances, including travel on chartered jets, lavish furnishings at his official residence and nearly 600 cash gifts to fellow clergymen, according to the findings of an internal church investigation previously obtained by The Post.
Church officials have declined to release the investigators’ confidential report, but a Post story in June detailed many of its findings.
To support his lavish spending, Bransfield long relied on oil revenue from land in Texas that was left to the diocese more than a century ago. The church investigators wrote that he created the Bishop’s Fund in 2014 to serve as a “vehicle” to also access and spend hospital money, a finding that has not previously been reported.
The Post determined that the money sent to Farrell and others outside the state originated at the hospital by examining tax filings and internal church documents and emails as well as other records.
Minor, the diocese’s human resources director, told The Post in an interview that he understood the transfers to be legally permissible and properly authorized.
Spokesmen for the diocese and hospital declined requests for comment about the Bishop’s Fund.
Two members of the hospital board, Sister Mary Palmer and Richard Polinsky, said in interviews that they had never heard of the Bishop’s Fund and did not recall approving multimillion-dollar transfers.
A third board member, retired FBI agent Thomas Burgoyne, questioned how any money that started in the hospital ended up passing through Bransfield’s personal account. “Based on my experience in law enforcement, this is something that needs to be looked at,” said Burgoyne.
Two tax law specialists and a former federal prosecutor who examined related documents at The Post’s request agreed, citing laws that restrict how federally funded hospitals and nonprofit groups can use money.
Under one federal law, hospitals that receive substantial federal benefits through programs such as Medicare are prohibited from directing money to any entity or person without proper authority or purpose. Under another, charity money may not be used to unduly benefit an individual.
“Lining the pockets of private citizens, even when those private citizens are priests, is a violation of charities and tax law,” said Jill Horwitz, professor and vice dean of the University of California at Los Angeles law school.
In recent weeks, the Justice Department has sought information about the transfers to the Bishop’s Fund as part of a lawsuit that accuses the hospital of defrauding the federal government of millions of dollars by filing false claims for Medicare reimbursement. Hospital officials deny the allegations.
A diocesan windfall
From the time he became bishop in 2005, Bransfield poured church money into building projects and other work, while also spending on personal luxuries for himself, according to the confidential investigative report.
But he faced mounting criticism from parishioners for his extravagances after local news accounts of his spending on his church residence, a chauffeur and a personal chef. Bransfield has defended his spending as appropriate.
By 2014, the bishop was seeking a way to continue spending on projects of his choosing without “making the subsequent donations appear to be coming from the DWC,” according to the confidential investigative report, using the shorthand for the diocese.
He found an answer in the coffers of Wheeling Hospital.
Bransfield, as bishop, served as chairman of the hospital board. Long a money-loser, the hospital experienced a financial turnaround under consultants hired to lead it after Bransfield’s arrival in Wheeling. Revenue soared and cash on hand skyrocketed, financial statements show. Much of its revenue came from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.
The hospital’s operations included a self-insurance entity, Mountaineer Freedom Risk Retention Group, which pooled hospital money to offset malpractice claims. Bransfield found “extra pockets of cash” on Mountaineer’s balance sheet, according to the confidential investigative report.
He “felt he should be able to have access to that money,” the report said.
In December 2014, Bransfield created the Bishop’s Fund. The stated purpose of the charity was “to provide for the pastoral care of the diocese” and “charitable care of the people of the diocese,” tax filings show.
Church investigators later concluded that the fund was a “vehicle for Bransfield to access [Mountaineer] money and spend on projects of his choosing,” according to their report.
The financial transfers from the hospital began in 2015. They involved multiple steps and were carried out with help from hospital administrators, Bransfield aides and allies on the boards of multiple nonprofit groups.
The first step involved the closure of Mountaineer Freedom Risk and the creation of a new self-insurance entity. During the changeover, hospital officials carved out $8 million from Mountaineer and gave it to another hospital subsidiary, a charitable group called the Medical Park Foundation, hospital audits show.
In state incorporation filings, Medical Park said it existed to raise contributions for the benefit of Wheeling Hospital and the “sick, injured, disabled, infirm, aged and poor” in the community.
Medical Park, run by several hospital executives and board members, transferred the $8 million to the Bishop’s Fund, according to state records and tax filings.
In 2016 and 2017, the hospital gave another $13 million to the Bishop’s Fund, some directly and some through Medical Park, tax filings show.
Hospital officials referred questions about those transfers, including whether the board had approved them, to an outside lawyer, David Paragas.
Paragas initially agreed to answer questions but later sent an email saying the hospital would not do so. “At this stage, it would be inappropriate for Wheeling Hospital to comment,” Paragas wrote.
n the interview with The Post, Minor said he had no knowledge of how the transfers from the hospital came about. The next day, he wrote in an email that he had checked with a hospital attorney and was told that the hospital board had approved the transfers.
“The board acted on the advice of independent counsel for the hospital, the transactions were reviewed by independent counsel for the hospital, and the transfers were approved by the board,” he wrote.
He declined to provide minutes documenting those votes and said he had no further comment.
Palmer and Polinsky, who served together on the hospital board for a decade, said they would have recalled votes for such large transfers.
“It would be unusual and eye-catching at a meeting to say, ‘We’re going to take this amount of money and send it to an open fund that the bishop would have,’ ” said Polinsky, who served on the board until late last year. “I have no recollection of anything like a Bishop’s Fund.”
Palmer said she was never told about the Bishop’s Fund. “I’m not aware of any approval, or even that it was brought up,” she said.
The lay investigators who prepared the confidential report about Bransfield wrote that they also found no indication the hospital board approved the transfers. Their work included an interview with the hospital president, Msgr. Kevin Quirk, who was also on the board of the Bishop’s Fund and served as a top aide to Bransfield in the diocese. He did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.
“We found no evidence that the Board of the Hospital was consulted or approved the establishment and funding of The Bishop’s Fund,” the investigative report said.
Msgr. Frederick Annie, who served on the hospital board, “rolled his eyes” when investigators asked about the board’s oversight role, “suggesting an absence of any meaningful review,” the confidential investigative report said.
Funding a legacy
Though few parishioners knew about the Bishop’s Fund, most of the group’s money made its way to projects and initiatives across the state. Among the beneficiaries were select Catholic schools and churches in West Virginia, tax and church records show. In local news accounts, the recipients were often quoted praising Bransfield personally for his generosity.
The largest amount by far went to a financially troubled Catholic university in Wheeling that had no formal affiliation with the diocese. Wheeling Jesuit University had asked Bransfield for financial assistance because it was buckling under massive debt and declining revenue.
Bransfield, nearing retirement, saw a chance to expand the diocese’s real estate holdings and add luster to his reputation, according to Mark Phillips, then the chief of staff at Wheeling Jesuit, who regularly met with Bransfield to discuss the school’s fate.
“Bransfield was very concerned about his legacy,” Phillips wrote to The Post. “He clearly saw the investments in the Diocese, Wheeling Hospital, and the University as his personal gifts to West Virginia.”
In 2016 and 2017, the Bishop’s Fund gave a total of $12.6 million to the university to help keep it afloat. In exchange, the diocese gained control of the university and its campus near the Ohio River. The school, now known as Wheeling University, continues to struggle financially.
Bishop’s Fund grants helped pay for a new air conditioning system at the gymnasium of Wheeling Central Catholic High School. School President Lawrence Bandi, who at the time served on the board of the Bishop’s Fund, renamed the facility after Bransfield.
“This was a great opportunity to acknowledge the generosity of the bishop,” Bandi said at the unveiling. Bandi did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. The high school stripped Bransfield’s name from the gym earlier this year.
The Bishop’s Fund also spent $400,000 on a custom-made Italian altar set that was rejected last fall by parishioners at a church in Wheeling who objected to Bransfield’s lavish spending. The altar now sits in a storage facility, a diocese spokesman said.
Bransfield also wanted to use the Bishop’s Fund to send donations and cash gifts outside of West Virginia, according to the investigative report. But there was a problem. The charity had reported to the Internal Revenue Service that its efforts were exclusively devoted to helping people in West Virginia.
Bransfield and his aides decided they could avoid that impediment by using the diocese as a “pass-through,” Minor said.
“I thought that was legal and, according to accounting, that we could make a grant to the diocese and that the diocese could make a grant as a pass-through to a Catholic entity,” Minor said during the interview at his home.
Minor provided The Post with a Bishop’s Fund document listing grants made by the group totaling $17 million. The money given to the diocese and sent out of West Virginia — including money for Farrell’s apartment — was described only as supporting “operations.”
The Post determined that some $60,000 of that was donated through the diocese to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the District, where Bransfield had worked as a finance director and rector. The donation was used to help renovate the church’s iconic dome, according to a spokesman for the National Shrine.
Disbursements related to the two gifts for Farrell’s apartment in Rome account for another $54,000.
Farrell was one of more than 130 clergymen, including more than a dozen cardinals, who received cash gifts totaling $350,000 from Bransfield during his time in West Virginia, The Post previously reported. Most of those gifts predate the creation of the Bishop’s Fund.
Bransfield wrote the checks from his personal account. The West Virginia diocese reimbursed him by boosting his compensation to cover both the value of the gifts and the taxes he would owe on the added compensation, church investigators found.
As a tax-exempt organization, the diocese is supposed to use its money only for charitable purposes and may not excessively enrich any individual, according to IRS rules.
In addition to the $29,000 that went to Farrell, the diocese paid Bransfield $25,000 to cover the income taxes Bransfield would owe, drawing all of the money from the Bishop’s Fund, according to church documents and interviews with Minor and Bransfield.
Multiple emails among diocese leaders directly link the money from the Bishop’s Fund to the Farrell gifts.
“Hey there. Just a note that I need to order a check from The Bishop’s Fund, payable to DWC, to cover a check as a gift to Abp Kevin Farrell at the Vatican,” Minor wrote on May 12, 2017.
In statements to The Post earlier this year, Farrell and more than a dozen other recipients of Bransfield’s gifts said they had presumed the money was the bishop’s. Farrell and the others pledged to repay the diocese.
A Vatican spokesman confirmed this month that Farrell had done so.
Farrell is a close adviser to the pope and an influential figure in the church. He and Bransfield became friends in the 1980s and 1990s, when both held church posts in Washington.
The men had the same mentor, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a legendary fundraiser for the church who was defrocked after the church found him guilty of sexual abuse. Bransfield and Farrell also served together on the influential Papal Foundation, a charity that raises money from wealthy American Catholics for initiatives chosen by the pope.
The gifts to Farrell and other clerics were cited in a letter by Quirk, Bransfield’s aide, as an example of his alleged misconduct.
Quirk’s August 2018 letter to Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, obtained by The Post, accused Bransfield of trying to buy influence in the church. Quirk wrote that Bransfield was seeking help from Farrell to arrange a one-on-one visit with the pope last fall.
“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Quirk wrote.
Bransfield denied Quirk’s allegation. “I didn’t do these things for people to give me something,” he told The Post in July.
Lori, as acting administrator of the diocese, announced in July that he was shutting down the Bishop’s Fund as part of a package of reforms to improve financial oversight in the wake of The Post’s revelations about Bransfield’s conduct. Lori did not detail the concerns about the charity or describe its financial link to the hospital.
“When a bishop is entrusted to care for a diocese, he is expected to be a wise and honest steward of its resources,” Lori wrote in an open letter to Catholics. “But here in Wheeling-Charleston, these procedures and policies did not prevent the bishop from misusing diocesan funds.”
A spokesman said the $4 million remaining in the charity coffers would be transferred to the diocese.
‘It is my hospital’
The Justice Department lawsuit against Wheeling Hospital, based on a whistleblower’s claim, was unsealed in March and is still in its early stages. It alleged that the hospital and its then-leader, Ronald Violi — named as a defendant and described in court records as Bransfield’s “hand-picked” chief executive — were responsible for thousands of false claims for reimbursement from the federal health-care program for the elderly.
Justice said that the hospital’s financial turnaround was driven in part by the alleged scheme.
The lawsuit said the executives “reported to and took direction from Bishop Bransfield,” who personally maintained control over hospital operations and set the pay of the chief executive.
“It is my hospital,” Bransfield often said, Violi told Justice Department lawyers in a recent deposition.
Bransfield was not named as a defendant.
The hospital has described the allegations as “an unfair attack” on its values and physicians.
Violi stepped down as chief executive earlier this year. He has denied wrongdoing. His attorney did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story.
In a filing this month, Justice Department lawyers sought information about Violi’s relationship with Bransfield and about the transfers to the Bishop’s Fund.
They alleged that Bransfield increased Violi’s compensation at the same time the hospital was directing “a large amount of its (allegedly ill-gotten) profits towards the Diocese and the now-dissolved Bishop’s Fund.”