Debunking the ‘tradition argument’ against female ordination

Fr Kevin Hegarty

Ally Kateusz is a research associate at the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research. Earlier this year, she published a thought provoking book entitled ‘Mary and Early Christian Women – Hidden Leadership’. It punctures a hole in the Vatican argument against female ordination on the basis of tradition.

In the book, Kateusz shows how early-Christian documents revealing women in leadership positions were later censored to exclude them. She concludes that (i) there was a significant gender role modelled by Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the first phase of the Christian church; (ii) that women who were called apostles evangelised, preached, baptised and performed exorcisms and (iii) that women who presided at the altar table were called president, bishop, priest, presbyter, deacon and minister.

She also outlines the lives of four extraordinary women in the early church – Marianne, Irene, Nino and Thekla.

Nino, for example, baptised 40 women on her missionary journey to Iberia, where she preached and baptised several tribes, including their queen. Thekla was instructed by St Paul to preach and baptise. A later document censored the baptismal part of the instruction.

On July 2, at a conference of the International Society of Biblical Literature, which was held in the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Dr Kateusz outlined her research to the participants. She drew on iconography from ancient Christian art to buttress her argument that, in the early church, women served as deacons, priests and bishops.

One of the artefacts is an ivory reliquary box, kept in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, dating from the fifth century. It shows a man and women standing on either side of the altar, each raising a chalice. Two other artefacts – a stone sarcophagus front in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and an ivory hyx in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, dating respectively from the fifth and sixth centuries – demonstrate similar female prominence.

Dr Kateusz believes that these images are significant because they show women and men in parallel roles, their bodies and gestures mirroring one another. She argues that this parallelism indicates their equality in liturgical roles, saying that the images ‘illustrate that early Christian women routinely preformed as clergy in Orthodox churches’. “The art speaks for itself because women are seen at the Church altar in three of the most important churches in Christendom,” she says.

No specific texts about male or female ordination exist for the first seven centuries of Christianity. Female ordination had been prohibited. The artefacts survived because they were buried and dug up in the 20th century. They provide ‘precious windows through which we can see the early Christian Liturgy as it was once performed’.

One of the participants at the conference, Miriam Duignan, was impressed by the research. She commented: “The Vatican will undoubtedly be reluctant to engage with these findings because they have led a campaign to exclude women via the current argument of tradition. But for most Catholics, the research will confirm what they suspected all along – that the ban on female clergy has always been about the silencing and suppression of women and never about the tradition.”

Complete Article HERE!

Vatican bans W.Va. bishop accused of sexual and financial misconduct from public ministry

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

By Michael Brice-Saddler

The Vatican on Friday announced sanctions against retired West Virginia bishop Michael Bransfield, but stopped short of defrocking him, after investigating accusations of sexual harassment and financial misconduct.

The sanctions, ordered by Pope Francis and detailed in a letter posted to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s website, prohibit Bransfield from public ministry and from residing in his former West Virginia diocese Bransfield also has “the obligation to make personal amends for some of the harm he caused,” the nature of which will be decided by the new bishop.

Bransfield stepped down in September when an aide came forward with an inside account detailing years of alleged sexual and financial misconduct, including a claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders. News of the allegations rocked parishioners in Wheeling-Charleston diocese, which Bransfield has led since 2005, and left over Catholics in the state feeling betrayed.

The Friday statement, under the letterhead of the Apostolic Nunciature United States of America, said the sanctions were determined based on the findings of the investigation of “allegations of sexual harassment of adults and of financial improprieties by Bishop Bransfield.”

The Washington Post previously reported that senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican had received warnings about Bransfield as early 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.

The Vatican on Friday announced sanctions against retired West Virginia bishop Michael Bransfield, but stopped short of defrocking him, after investigating accusations of sexual harassment and financial misconduct.

The sanctions, ordered by Pope Francis and detailed in a letter posted to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s website, prohibit Bransfield from public ministry and from residing in his former West Virginia diocese Bransfield also has “the obligation to make personal amends for some of the harm he caused,” the nature of which will be decided by the new bishop.

Bransfield stepped down in September when an aide came forward with an inside account detailing years of alleged sexual and financial misconduct, including a claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders. News of the allegations rocked parishioners in Wheeling-Charleston diocese, which Bransfield has led since 2005, and left over Catholics in the state feeling betrayed.

The Friday statement, under the letterhead of the Apostolic Nunciature United States of America, said the sanctions were determined based on the findings of the investigation of “allegations of sexual harassment of adults and of financial improprieties by Bishop Bransfield.”

The Washington Post previously reported that senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican had received warnings about Bransfield as early 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.

[W.Va. bishop gave powerful cardinals and other priests $350,000 in cash gifts before his ouster, church records show]

Church records showed Bransfield spent more than $2.4 million in church money on travel, including chartered jets and luxury hotels. Documents also revealed Bransfield spent $182,000 in daily fresh flower deliveries and doled out $350,000 in cash gifts to powerful cardinals, in addition to young priests who had accused him of sexual harassment.

The Post found that Bransfield wrote checks from his personal account and was reimbursed by the West Virginia diocese, which boosted his compensation in accordance with the value of the gifts. Bransfield has defended his spending as bishop, previously telling The Post it was justified and approved by financial managers at the diocese.

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 denying the claim. That same year, Bransfield was the subject of news reports when authorities in Philadelphia reopened an investigation of 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 that a Philadelphia archdiocese investigation into the allegations cleared him of wrongdoing.

Complete Article HERE!

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!

A priesthood of all believers?

Ireland’s Catholic bishops have been too slow to address the problems of a clericalised Church and a laity that often feels disconnected or is absent altogether.

Pope Francis, pictured praying inside St Mary’s Pro Cathedral in Dublin during his visit to the World Meeting of Families last year, has repeatedly called for the Church to be more humble and less clerical. He is allowing Brazil’s bishops to consider the ordination of mature married men.

by Sean O’Conaill

“WE have a lot of priests in Ireland who are in their seventies, who are working right now. Some are in their eighties… We’re at the edge of an actuarial cliff here, and we’re going to start into a free fall.”

So said the Pope’s representative in Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, in March 2017. Back then it was still possible to believe that Irish bishops could reappraise a clericalised Church system that has scandalised most Irish people – and left many unanswered questions for those who still go to Church.

By the summer of 2019, however, it seems that not even a majority of Irish bishops has absorbed the most important lessons of the scandals that began in Ireland in 1992.

Though Pope Francis is allowing Brazil’s bishops to consider the ordination of mature married men, most Irish bishops still apparently believe that Irish Catholic families must somehow be persuaded to encourage their young people to head for seminaries and convents and celibate lives.

Consider, for example, To Follow Jesus Closely, a pastoral letter published in the Diocese of Down and Connor in April 2019, and covered extensively in Faith matters.

It tells us that young people cannot do without the ordained celibate priest to “reassure them that life does make sense, that there is a God who loves them, and that in the end, all will be well”.

Given that this is basic Christian wisdom – and that ordained priests can also suffer from depression, addiction and loss of faith – what does this assert about the Christian competence, gifts and potential of Irish Catholic lay people, parents especially?

In all but one instance the word “priest” is used in this document to denote solely the ordained priest.

Only once are we reminded that by baptism all Christians – including all teenagers – already also have a priestly calling; but here again, according to the pastoral letter, only the seminary-trained priest can explain this to us.

Otherwise we would never know how to exercise “faithfully and fully the common priesthood… received in baptism”.

Nowhere in this document is the role of this “common priesthood” – the priesthood of all of the faithful – explained.

This does not surprise me. In over seven decades of Massgoing I have never heard an Irish diocesan priest express the slightest interest in it.

The word ‘priest’ derives from the Latin ‘pontus’ – a bridge – so a ‘priest’ in the religious sense is one whose calling is to bridge for others the distance between themselves and God.

The priesthood of Jesus was unique in the ancient world. He not only initiated the sacred Christian sacrificial ritual – the Eucharist – but he was also himself the sacrificial gift, in his surrender to judgement and crucifixion.

According to the Gospels, Jesus had provoked his own crucifixion by challenging an abusive religious system that privileged the well-to-do and therefore distanced the poorest from God.

It follows that all of us Catholics are called not only to attend Mass but to offer ourselves in that same cause – the closing of the distance between the poorest and God, a distance obviously growing in Ireland.

Members of the St Vincent de Paul and of other Catholic charities are therefore faithfully exercising their priestly calling, as are all who answer the call to social justice and to service of the needy.

And so were those Catholic parents who blew the whistle on the most devastating spiritual abuse ever perpetrated against Irish Catholic children – sexual abuse by professedly celibate Catholic ordained clergy.

In exercising the most elemental duty of a Christian parent – the protection of the child’s right to believe in their own sacred dignity – those parents were protesting against the abuse of that right by ordained men, a possibility they had never been warned about by their bishops.

In many cases those parents then suffered what Jesus suffered – isolation within their own communities.

Have the bishops taken time to consider what ‘help’ those parents had ever received from ordained clergy in understanding and exercising their Christian duty – their priesthood – in that way?

Do they remember that Irish bishops first gave priority to the cause of protecting Catholic children from clerical abuse only in 1994 – at precisely the moment that the whole island first learned, from those injured parents – and that Irish bishops had until that very moment given a higher priority to the sheltering of abusive priests?

Other obvious questions follow:

  • If criminally abusive breaches of priestly celibacy did not bar ordained men from celebration of the Eucharist in Ireland until those breaches were publicly known, why is Christian marriage still a barrier to that ordained Eucharistic role in Ireland?
  • Why should a religious life deliberately sundered from any parental role continue to have higher status in the Church than the witness of married lives of integrity – especially those of mothers whose self-sacrificing love, as Pope Francis has observed, is indeed often the best witness a child will ever have of the Father’s unconditional love?
  • If the ordained priest is indeed best placed to help lay people to understand their common priesthood, why has Catholic social teaching always been a closed book for most diocesan clergy in Ireland?
  • From Confirmation on, why can young people expect to be bored rigid at Mass, instead of reminded of their own priesthood and challenged to pray to the Holy Spirit for the courage, wisdom and whatever other spiritual gifts are needed to meet together the dangers of their young lives – everything from schoolyard bullying, substance abuse, internet trolling and climatic collapse to media celebrity culture, institutional corruption, sexual harassment and white supremacist ideology?
  • Why have Irish bishops not yet initiated and published reliable research into the reasons for the widescale abandonment of religious practice here, especially among the young, by the Irish majority that still identifies as Catholic?
  • Why are there still no regular opportunities to raise such questions openly in Irish Catholic parishes and dioceses, when they could be asked by any alert teenager contemplating a life calling?
  • If seminaries are truly the best places to train men to be ‘in persona Christi’, why was no Catholic bishop anywhere in the world a whistleblower against clerical child abuse before parents and victims had to act?

To Follow Jesus Closely suggests that some Irish bishops believe that Catholic parents and grandparents have no access to reliable news media, no powers of observation or reflection, no memory, no access to the many gifts of the Holy Spirit and – after all that has happened in their own lifetimes – no such questions.

And it might also suggest that Irish teenagers who can qualify for university are naïve when it comes to recent Irish history. Are we all thought to be living in a 1944 bubble, preserved by nightly amazement at Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way?

How can Irish Catholic parents ever forget that it was other parents – never their bishops – who alerted them to the deadly danger of believing that seminaries and ordination would make men incapable of harming children?

It is from whistleblowers against institutional abuse and other men and women of integrity that we Catholic laypeople best learn the meaning of the common Christian priesthood of all of the faithful – people such as Marie Collins, Mary Raftery, Peter McVerry, Gordon Wilson, Michael McGoldrick, Martin Ridge, Catherine Corless, Maurice McCabe, Tom Doyle, Veronica Guerin, Ian Elliott, the founding CEO of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, and Sister Consilio of Cuan Mhuire.

That understanding, guided by the Holy Spirit, will in time reshape the ordained Catholic ministry and renew the Irish Church, when all Irish bishops have fully accepted what is plainly visible to all.

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.

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