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
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.
Five clergy-abuse survivors, including three brothers abused by former St. Paul parish priest Curtis Wehmeyer, plan to sue the Vatican to release the names and files of all clergy who have sexually abused children.
The charges against Wehmeyer, who sexually abused the boys in his trailer parked at Church of the Blessed Sacrament, led to unprecedented criminal charges filed against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for failure to protect children.
It also led to the resignation of former archbishop John Nienstedt, who was sharply criticized for failing to take disciplinary action against a priest with a history of sexual misconduct.
The brothers will speak publicly for the first time at a news conference Tuesday in the office of St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who has several lawsuits pending against the Vatican. The brothers are expected to demand greater sanctions against Nienstedt, who resigned in good standing.
Anderson announced plans to file the lawsuit and the Tuesday news conference in a news release Monday.
The lawsuit, to be filed Tuesday, asks that the Vatican release the names of more than 3,000 priests who have sexually abused children, as well as evidence and documentation. It is one of several lawsuits that abuse survivors represented by Anderson have filed against the Vatican.
At the news conference, Anderson said he will provide details of the lawsuit and introduce the plaintiffs. They include the brothers, who have not yet been named, as well as Twin Cities abuse survivor Jim Keenan and survivor Manuel Vega of California.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of an announcement by Pope Francis that the Roman Catholic Church now would require that clergy report any sexual abuse to their superiors. The new rules have been criticized by victims of child sexual abuse, who say that any incidents need to be reported to law enforcement, not to church officials.
Wehmeyer plead guilty to criminal sexual misconduct in connection with the abuse of two of the boys, and is serving five years in prison.
Pledging that clerical sexual abuse should “never happen again,” Pope Francis on Thursday issued a sweeping new law aimed at holding leadership more accountable while overhauling how the Roman Catholic Church deals with accusations of abuse and coverup.
The rules — a mix of common-sense requirements and more technical provisions — are the church’s first major step to formalize all stages of fielding and investigating abuse claims, a process that has previously been subject to improvisation.
When the rules come into force June 1, priests and nuns will be required for the first time to report abuse accusations to church authorities. Dioceses will be given a year to set up offices or other systems for receiving abuse complaints while offering protection for victims and whistleblowers. And perhaps most significantly, a new method will be used to investigate complaints of abuse or coverup against bishops and other higher-ups — an attempt to address one of the scandal-plagued church’s long-standing trouble spots.
“We must continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past,” Francis wrote in the introduction to the edict.
The rules are Francis’s latest attempt to contend with an abuse crisis that has eroded the reputation of the church and his papacy. The Vatican document comes nearly three months after Francis hosted a landmark clerical abuse summit in Rome and pledged concrete action to address the scourge.
“This is a very strong signal,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a Vatican official who has investigated abuse cases. “Nobody in the leadership is above the law.”
But some church watchdogs said the new rules fall short, because they keep the handling of cases in-house.
Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the church erred in thinking it could eradicate abuse by changing the rules but still relying on “the very same church structures that have been receiving and routing abuse allegations for years.”
The rules also do not address the contentious question of how to punish clerics convicted of abuse or coverup in church trials.
The law is in place for a three-year trial run and could be changed after that, depending on how the new rules play out. It is unclear, for instance, how the church will safeguard whistleblowers and whether an institution known for protecting its own can alter a culture through legal changes.
Predictions among experts on Thursday ranged widely over which aspects of the law, if any, would be most transformative.
One major aspect, though, regards the policing of bishops — an issue that has long confounded the church. Bishops are answerable only to the pope, and for decades they have been able to escape rigid oversight.
The new provisions outline a way in which bishops can help police their own ranks, the first time such a system has been put in place.
The rules lean on a miniature, de facto hierarchy within regions. If a bishop is accused of abuse or coverup, a metropolitan bishop — the figure who heads the largest regional diocese — can begin looking into the case with the backing of the Holy See. The metropolitan bishop is supposed to work on a set timetable and deliver his findings to the Vatican.
But there are exceptions to this system. If a metropolitan bishop himself is accused, another bishop in the region is chosen to investigate, based on seniority. And the Vatican has the option to choose somebody else entirely. In all cases, lay experts can be involved, though it is not a requirement.
The steps for handling complaints of abuse and coverup against bishops borrow heavily from a proposal made by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago during February’s summit on abuse. Cupich is a close Francis ally.
In presenting his ideas, Cupich said that “this past year has taught us that the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible are due in large measure to flaws in the way we interact and communicate with each other in the college of bishops.”
The laws also require all priests and nuns to swiftly report allegations of abuse or coverup to religious authorities. Previously, there was nothing on paper mandating them to report, though some were compelled by their conscience.
Although the clerics aren’t explicitly required to report abuse allegations to police — a contentious issue within the church — the laws do state that church officials should comply with “any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities.”
The guidelines cover cases of sexual abuse not only against minors, but also against vulnerable adults and seminarians who are abused by someone in power. Over the past year, the church has faced an onslaught of cases in which higher-ups have been implicated — a notable shift from earlier decades, when the focus was primarily on individual priests.
In the United States, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was defrocked earlier this year after a church trial found him guilty of abuse. In Australia, Cardinal George Pell is appealing his criminal conviction for the sexual assault of two boys. In France, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was convicted in March of failing to report abuse accusations, the first time a church higher-up has faced criminal punishment in such a case
The guidelines released Thursday could provide a starting point for discussions among U.S. bishops, who are preparing for an assembly in June. At a prior meeting in November, those U.S. Catholic leaders were set to vote on measures that would improve the handling of abuse cases. But the Vatican, controversially, intervened to stop the vote.
In a statement Thursday, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the United States already has a framework in place that involves zero tolerance, the use of lay experts and a stipulation for reporting abuse to civil authorities. U.S. Catholics, he said, are positioned “readily to bring the Holy Father’s instructions to action.”
DiNardo said national-level bishops’ conferences still have the “latitude” to enact their own measures.
“In publishing this new law, which is applicable to the Church throughout the world, Pope Francis has made clear that protection and healing must reach all of God’s children,” DiNardo said.
On Holy Thursday, a solemn day in the most sacred week in the Catholic calendar, St. Miriam’s felt like any other Catholic church: The altar featured a crucifix draped with white fabric and a tabernacle, and the Rev. James St. George, also known as Father Jim, was preparing the Flourtown church for a foot-washing ceremony, with towels and washbasins placed on the altar.
But St. Miriam’s is not Roman Catholic, nor affiliated with the Vatican: It’s catholic — with a lowercase c.
It’s one of at least four independent Catholic parishes that cropped up around Philadelphia between 2005 and 2010, nourished in part by the advantages of social media and email. Now with more than 600 parishioners, St. Miriam’s has become perhaps the largest such congregation; like the others, drawing Catholics eager for new ways to practice an old faith.
Its pastor last week noted the sad parallels between the worldwide Roman Catholic Church and the Paris blaze that seemed to rage untouched until it had already consumed part of its historic Notre Dame Cathedral.
“They don’t admit they’re on fire until it’s too late,” St. George said. “And now the whole church is burning.”
The Roman Catholic Church is still the biggest religious institution in the United States — and the world, with about 1.3 billion adherents, according to the Vatican. But fewer and fewer Americans are identifying as Catholic. The clergy sex-abuse scandals, conversion to other faiths, and declining religiosity in general all play a role, according to polls. A Pew study found that between 2007 and 2014, the Catholic Church lost more members than any other religious institution, by a wide margin.
“If ex-Catholic was a religion, it’d be the third-largest in the United States,” said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University whose book, The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion, explores independent catholicism.
Alternative Catholic churches have existed for centuries. The Orthodox Catholic Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 and today maintains its seat of power in Istanbul, has more than 100 million members.
And not all are alike. Some are conservative, offering Mass in Latin. Others are characterized by an openness to concepts and stances that the Roman Catholic Church eschews, including female priests and gay marriage — both of which a majority of U.S. Catholics support, according to the Pew poll.
But most independent Catholic churches are filled with congregants steeped in the traditions of the religion. Byrne said 60 percent to 70 percent of parishioners at the independent Catholic churches she studied had come from Roman Catholic churches.
She said such a conversion comes at a price: The Rome-led Catholic Church has made sure to convey that independent parishes aren’t “the real thing,” suggesting that joining one could jeopardize a Catholic’s salvation.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last week declined to wade into the debate, instead noting that though the church has been “uneven in fidelity to Christ and His word,” it is “the only place where Christ and His word continue to be passed on in all of its fullness and clarity.”
St. George said he encountered that sort of resistance in St. Miriam’s first year, when a listing for the church’s Catholic services in a local Roxborough paper triggered a letter from Roman Catholic clergy suggesting its use of the word Catholic might “mislead” people. Instead, attention from Roman Catholic churches only helped grow his congregation, he said.
Almost every year since, members of St. Miriam’s have worked to build its infrastructure — painting walls, restoring the stained glass windows, and maintaining the graves on the 12-acre campus along Bethlehem Pike that it inherited from a Lutheran church.
St. George began his path to priesthood at a Roman Catholic seminary, St. Mark’s in Erie, but said he had long felt unsettled by parts of church doctrine, including its positions on LGBT people and women. Such stances had even resonated inside his family’s Italian Catholic home in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“My sister couldn’t serve the altar or read at Mass,” St. George said, “and she would come home and cry.”
Now he’s a bishop in Old Catholic Churches International, part of an independent Catholic movement that split from Rome in 1870 and dates to an 18th-century Dutch separatist movement.
Mother JoEllen Werthman confronted the same kind of conflicts when she grew up Catholic on Long Island decades ago and then, in the 1980s, felt a religious calling.
“I couldn’t figure out how to have a boyfriend and be a nun,” said Werthman.
When it became clear the Roman Catholic Church would not accept women as clergy in her lifetime, Werthman began to look elsewhere, and found a seminary at the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch to ordain her.
“What will I say to God when I die?” she asked. “Did I follow the rules, or did I answer the call?”
These days, the 73-year-old cleric is married, and leads St. Mary Magdalen in Bensalem, a congregation of about two dozen people out of a building owned by an Episcopal church.
At Werthman’s church, her homily is followed by an open discussion with parishioners. The congregants appreciate being treated “like adults,” Werthman said.
“Most people have never been given the opportunity to explore their questions once they get past being a kid,” she said.
St. George said his church saw an increase in attendance after the wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s. His parish, which also runs a preschool and kindergarten, has a program called KidSafe, a set of policies concerning child welfare.
Lorraine Cuffey joined the Flourtown church on Palm Sunday six years ago after learning that the church she had been attending failed to remove two priests accused of child abuse. Now, she’s the president of St. Miriam’s board of directors.
Her Episcopalian husband used to avoid Sunday Mass because he couldn’t receive communion with Cuffey. But now that they can receive communion together, “he comes every Sunday,” she said.
For Lewis Salotti and his wife, Ramona, who joined St. Miriam’s three years ago, the independent Catholic church is a perfect mix of tradition and flexibility.
“It was comforting to come here and see the same service and be familiar with it,” Salotti said. But with clergy who can marry and have families, he said, “they are living in the world just like us, and I think that really makes a difference.”
St. George says his church is about bringing everyone together under the “Catholic fold.”
“When the doctrine of the church harms people, you need to look at it again,” he said. “The church shouldn’t hurt people.”