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.
In the years before he was ousted for alleged sexual harassment and financial abuses, the leader of the Catholic Church in West Virginia gave cash gifts totaling $350,000 to fellow clergymen, including young priests he is accused of mistreating and more than a dozen cardinals in the United States and at the Vatican, according to church records obtained by The Washington Post.
Bishop Michael J. Bransfield wrote the checks from his personal account over more than a decade, and the West Virginia diocese reimbursed him by boosting his compensation to cover the value of the gifts, the records show. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the diocese must use its money only for charitable purposes.
The gifts — one as large as $15,000 — were detailed in a draft of a confidential report to the Vatican about the alleged misconduct that led to Bransfield’s resignation in September. The names of 11 powerful clerics who received checks were edited out of the final report at the request of the archbishop overseeing the investigation, William Lori of Baltimore.
Lori’s name was among those cut. He received a total of $10,500, records show.
The Post obtained both versions of the report, along with numerous emails and financial records.
On Wednesday, in response to inquiries from The Post, Lori said he is returning money he received from Bransfield, and asking that it be donated to Catholic Charities, “in light of what I have come to learn of Bishop Bransfield’s handling of diocesan finances.”
He acknowledged that the names of senior clerics were cut from the final report. “Including them could inadvertently and/or unfairly suggest that in receiving gifts for anniversaries or holidays there were expectations for reciprocity,” Lori wrote. “No evidence was found to suggest this.”
The investigation was launched by the Vatican last fall after clerics in West Virginia raised concerns about Bransfield’s behavior. Five lay investigators concluded that the cash gifts were part of a broader pattern of abuse of power by the bishop, including harassing young priests and spending church money on personal indulgences.
“Bishop Bransfield adopted an extravagant and lavish lifestyle that was in stark contrast to the faithful he served and was for his own personal benefit,” they wrote in the final report.
During his 13 years as bishop in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation, Bransfield spent $2.4 million in church money on travel, much of it personal, which included flying in chartered jets and staying in luxury hotels, according to the report. Bransfield and several subordinates spent an average of nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol, it says. The West Virginia diocese paid $4.6 million to renovate Bransfield’s church residence after a fire damaged a single bathroom. When Bransfield was in the chancery, an administrative building, fresh flowers were delivered daily, at a cost of about $100 a day — almost $182,000 in all.
Bransfield, 75, drew on a source of revenue that many parishioners knew little about, oil-rich land in Texas donated to the diocese more than a century ago. He spoke of church money as if it were his to spend without restriction, according to the report.
“I own this,” he is quoted as saying on many occasions.
In an interview with The Post, Bransfield disputed the allegations, saying “none of it is true,” but declined to go into detail because attorneys had advised him not to comment. One of his attorneys said Lori has not responded to Bransfield’s request for a copy of the report.
“Everybody’s trying to destroy my reputation,” Bransfield said by phone without elaborating. “These people are terrible to me.”
According to the report, he spoke with investigators in February and “emphatically denied engaging in any sexual harassment or sexual activity with any priest or seminarian, either verbally or suggestively by his conduct.” The report does not include responses from Bransfield to many of the spending allegations, but he told investigators that aides oversaw the renovations at his residence and that back problems left him unable to fly in economy class.
Lori told members of the diocese in a statement Wednesday that he received permission “as of today” to sell the bishop’s residence in Wheeling and use the proceeds to support victims and survivors of sexual abuse.
Just hours after The Post’s inquiries, the statement also addressed the gifts he received from Bransfield. “In the spirit of full disclosure I feel it necessary to acknowledge that I was periodically a recipient of financial gifts in varying amounts by Bishop Bransfield,” Lori wrote.
The documents obtained by The Post provide a rare inside look at the finances of one diocese at a time when Catholic leaders, buffeted by criticism over their handling of clergy sex-abuse cases, have pledged to reform a church hierarchy that gives virtually unchecked power to bishops and cardinals. The records also offer the deepest insight yet into the circumstances surrounding Bransfield’s resignation in September — when church authorities announced an investigation into unspecified sexual harassment allegations — and his subsequent suspension from ministry in March.
Bransfield wrote at least 565 checks that were recorded as “gifts” and made out to the clerics by name. The documents obtained by The Post do not make clear why Bransfield gave the gifts, though the recipients of the largest amounts were among the most influential members of the Catholic Church, clerics whose opinions carry weight with the Vatican.
Among them was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who recently retired as Washington’s archbishop; Cardinal Tim Dolan of New York; Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who sits on the Vatican Supreme Court, and Archbishop Carlo Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States known for his calls for more accountability. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, a high-ranking Vatican official who served for years in the District, received two checks totaling $29,000 for expenses related to an apartment in Rome, documents show.
The report does not comment on the propriety of accepting such gifts.
The gifts came as a succession of younger male clerical assistants complained to church officials in West Virginia that Bransfield was sexually harassing them. Similar concerns were raised about Bransfield’s conduct in Philadelphia, where he taught at a Catholic high school, and in the District of Columbia, where he was head of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from 1990 to 2005, the report says.
At least six of Bransfield’s clerical assistants in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston “were broken by the experience,” Vicar for Clergy Anthony Cincinnati told investigators. Seminarians or young priests appealed to leaders in the diocese, to no avail, the report says. They were instructed to “make your boundaries clear,” it says, or told that they had no choice but to join Bransfield in such activities as sleepovers at his residence and on trips.
“Your presence is required,” the report quotes another of Bransfield’s top aides, the Judicial Vicar Rev. Kevin Quirk, telling a young priest.
In a statement, a spokesman for Wuerl said the cardinal had “received honoraria for speaking invitations in the Diocese of Wheeling and other commemorative events, as well as modest gifts to mark personal celebrations, such as an ordination anniversary.”
A Vatican spokesman confirmed that Farrell received “voluntary donations” from Bransfield and others for the renovation of his apartment in the Vatican and said that Bransfield “received nothing in exchange.”
“Cardinal Farrell was not aware of the accusations against Bishop Bransfield for abuses and mismanagement of the financial funds of his diocese,” the spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, said in a statement.
Spokesmen for Dolan and Burke did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Nor did Vigano.
Cincinnati declined to comment.
Asked for comment on behalf of him and Quirk, a spokesman for the diocese forwarded the statement from Lori. The statement cast blame on Bransfield, claiming that the judgment of some diocesan personnel was “impacted by the culture of fear of retaliation and retribution that the former bishop fostered.”
The roots of the West Virginia diocese’s unusual wealth date back to the late 1800s, to a friendship struck on a transatlantic cruise ship between a bishop from Wheeling and a New York heiress. When she died in 1904, Sara Catherine Aloysia Tracy left the majority of her estate to the diocese, including a large tract of land in west Texas. Oil was discovered there decades later.
The income from the mineral rights generates annual revenue averaging nearly $15 million in recent years and has funded an endowment now valued at $230 million, according to financial documents. As a result, West Virginia’s parishes are largely supported by the diocese — unlike across the rest of the country, where dioceses must be supported by local parishes.
The state has 78,000 Catholics — just 4 percent of the population, among the lowest per capita in the country.
Bransfield arrived at the Wheeling-Charleston diocese in 2005. He was known to prefer an opulent lifestyle, the report says. Investigators wrote that “a reputation for a party atmosphere attached to Bransfield’s tenure” in Washington.
Three months into his time in West Virginia, documents show, Bransfield began dipping into the diocese’s fortune, sending to some clerics what would be the first of many checks.
In 2006, Bransfield gave $4,800 to Cardinal Bernard Law, who had by then been ousted from Boston for his role covering up clergy sex abuse. Cardinal Edmund Szoka got $500 after retiring that year as a top Vatican administrator.
In 2011, shortly after Wuerl was elevated to cardinal in the Archdiocese of Washington, Bransfield appeared with him at a ceremony in Rome. Bransfield walked just behind Wuerl in a procession of global dignitaries, video of the event shows. Two weeks later, Bransfield wrote a check to Wuerl for $10,000.
The following year, Bransfield sent a $5,000 check to the newly appointed archbishop of Baltimore, William Lori.
The Rev. Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, known as the Apostolic Nuncio, received checks totaling $28,000 before his death in 2011, the draft report shows. Vigano, his successor, got checks worth $6,000, it shows.
Checks totaling $9,175 were sent to his nephew the Rev. Sean Bransfield, vice chancellor of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, financial records show. His cousin Monsignor Brian Bransfield, general-secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, received $1,350, the records show.
During these years, fellow clerics elected Michael Bransfield president of the Papal Foundation, a nonprofit that distributes millions of dollars to charitable projects on the pope’s behalf. The foundation is run by U.S. cardinals, and its board included Wuerl and Theodore McCarrick, both recipients of Bransfield’s cash gifts.
Bransfield also became a regular visitor to the Vatican. In 2010, he presented a cake to Pope Benedict on the pontiff’s 83rd birthday.
Law, Sambi and Szoka are deceased.
An attorney for McCarrick said he has no immediate comment.
In separate statements, Brian and Sean Bransfield said they were unaware that Michael Bransfield had been reimbursed for the checks. “They always seemed like a typical gift from a family member,” Brian Bransfield said.
Records show that the diocese’s finance officials adopted a method to reimburse Bransfield for the checks. His compensation was increased by an amount that covered the gifts, plus the tax burden that resulted from the increased compensation, a practice known as “grossing up,” according to the report and emails among top diocesan officials. The documents do not describe who initiated the arrangement, but internal emails indicate it became common practice.
“His Excellency would like to receive a check in the amount of $500.00 prepared according to the usual gross-up method,” Quirk wrote to diocese financial officials in a 2016 email regarding a gift that Bransfield sent to Vigano’s successor as nuncio, Christophe Pierre.
In the six years before Bransfield left West Virginia, the same method was used to reimburse him $324,129 for a portion of his personal expenses — clothing, jewelry and “personal services,” the report says. Among the charges paid for by the diocese were 87 purchases totaling $61,000 from Ann Hand, a D.C. jewelry boutique specializing in patriotic items such as gold and sapphire eagles, records show. The report does not say whether the church paid for the jewelry directly or reimbursed Bransfield to cover the cost.
As Bransfield lived in opulence, seminarians and young priests who assisted him complained to church officials that he was sexually harassing them.
The report cites nine men in the Wheeling-Charleston diocese who accused Bransfield of touching or groping them, kissing or exposing himself to them or of commenting on their bodies. Diocesan leaders witnessed Bransfield’s “predatory” behavior toward altar servers, behavior troubling enough that one church leader tried to make sure no altar server was left alone with him, the report says.
The text of the report does not name the alleged victims, and it is often vague about when the incidents took place.
There were “troubling hugs” from Bransfield, the seminarians and young priests told investigators. On some of these occasions, they alleged, Bransfield appeared to be intoxicated. Others said he warned them not to “get fat.”
One said Bransfield slapped him on the buttocks at Castel Gandolfo in Italy, the summer residence of the pope. On another occasion, the alleged victim said, Bransfield summoned him into his bedroom and began kissing his neck.
Another said Bransfield let him drink alcohol before he was legally of age, exposed himself, pulled the young man against him and ran his hands over the seminarian’s genitals.
One seminarian recalled sitting on Bransfield’s lap, being kissed by the bishop and thinking: “I either do this, or I have to completely reinvent my life.” Bransfield asked him to take his pants off, but he refused, the seminarian told investigators. The seminarian later suffered an emotional breakdown and became deeply depressed, the report says.
At least two of the men now accusing Bransfield of misconduct received checks from him, typically for between $50 and $300, according to the report and financial records. Those gifts were given during and after the alleged misconduct, the records show.
Throughout his tenure, Bransfield abused alcohol, oxycodone and other prescription drugs, which “likely contributed to his harassing and abusive behavior,” the report says. The report does not include a response from Bransfield on the drug use allegations.
In the interview with investigators in February, Bransfield denied sexual misconduct with the seminarians or young priests, the report says. “He said that at most he would hug these individuals (using the term “embrazzio” to describe the hugs), but there was never any sexual intent with anyone he came into contact with while bishop or during his time at the National Shrine,” it says.
Despite the growing number of people in the diocese who had concerns about Bransfield’s conduct and spending, the few internal checks that existed failed to stop it, according to the report.
The diocese had a finance board made up of officials and lay people who were responsible for overseeing spending, including Bransfield’s compensation. The board was “extremely passive,” the report says.
“There was an almost complete absence of any meaningful review of financial decisions,” the investigators wrote.
Told of the findings, Dwight M. Keating, a longtime member of the finance board, said: “Wow. I didn’t know any of this.”
Keating said the board never discussed or approved reimbursing Bransfield for cash gifts. “Why would we be giving gifts to people outside the diocese? We have enough poor people in the state,” he said.
In 2013, a new finance director, Michael Deemer, noticed the “extreme level” of Bransfield’s spending and concluded that it might violate IRS rules, the report says.
Instead of confronting Bransfield, Deemer arranged for some of those personal expenses to be added to the bishop’s compensation, using the “gross-up” method that had been in place for years to reimburse him for cash gifts.
Tax experts contacted by The Post said the decision to reimburse Bransfield by boosting his income could raise questions at the IRS about whether there was an effort to mask the true source of the money.
Outside auditors also avoided addressing the spending patterns, the report says. A partner at the auditing firm hired by Bransfield told investigators he was “afraid to challenge Bishop Bransfield’s decisions because of the Bishop’s position and his overall demeanor.”
Quirk and Bransfield’s most senior aide, Vicar General Rev. Frederick P. Annie, discussed concerns about the bishop’s conduct with young men but did nothing to stop it, the report says.
“Tell it to the Nuncio,” Annie said when Quirk raised the issue, according to Quirk, referring to the conduit for complaints to the Vatican about bishops.
During his time in West Virginia, Bransfield gave three people who held that role checks totaling $38,000, records show. Annie told investigators that taking a complaint about the bishop to the nuncio would have been “career ending.”
In the spring of 2018, two young priests who had worked as assistants to Bransfield, along with a third priest who had been offered that job, delivered incendiary letters to Quirk. They alleged that Bransfield “had subjected them to unwanted sexual advances, sexual contact, and sexual harassment,” church documents show.
Quirk took the allegations to Lori, along with documents detailing Bransfield’s cash gifts. The Vatican launched an investigation.
On Sept. 13, Pierre, the nuncio, announced that Bransfield had resigned. On the same day, the Archdiocese of Baltimore released a statement saying Pope Francis had directed Lori to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against Bransfield. The statement offered few details.
Within days, Lori named a team that included two attorneys from the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder: former Baltimore prosecutor Gregg L. Bernstein and Caroline Judge Mehta. The team also included Diane Barr, the chancellor of the Baltimore diocese; Christopher Helmrath, a financial consultant; and John Moore, a retired lay person in West Virginia. Lori gave them permission to access any relevant documents.
They all declined to comment, referred questions to Lori or did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The team began interviewing dozens of people and waded through years of credit card reports detailing Bransfield’s purchases, as well as personal banking records maintained on his computer.
On Feb. 13, the lay investigators delivered a scathing 60-page report recommending that Bransfield be stripped of his powers as bishop, removed from ministry and forced to pay unspecified restitution.
It also recommended that his three closest aides — Annie, Quirk and Cincinnati — be removed. “By failing to take any action, the Chancery Monsignors enabled the predatory and harassing conduct of Bishop Bransfield, and allowed him to recklessly spend Diocesan funds for his own personal use,” the report said.
The investigators suggested reforms that would enable priests, church workers and parishioners to report sexual and financial abuses without fear of repercussions. They also recommended that the diocese’s external auditors be fired.
Bransfield was removed from ministry in March. Only his successor would be able to remove the three Bransfield aides, Lori said Wednesday. And he said only the Vatican can make a decision about forcing Bransfield to pay restitution.
“My focus is on the healing of the people of the diocese and on preventing such abuses from occurring in the future,” Lori wrote.
When God died, the official cause was elderly enfeeblement; after reading Frédéric Martel’s exposé of infamy in the Catholic church, I suspect that the old boy committed suicide in remorse, aghast at the crimes and un-Christian sins of organised religion.
Although Martel’s book is published just in time to spoil a pious conference on clerical paedophilia convened by the pope, the abuse of minors is not all that St Peter’s pharisaical heirs have to answer for. The Vatican combines a venality that the mafia might envy with a bigotry worthy of Steve Bannon (who not coincidentally was in Rome for last week’s gathering), and to this already foul mixture it adds an unctuous hypocrisy. The moral fraudulence of the church is Martel’s subject: having spent four years sleuthing in all corners of the Catholic world, he establishes that during the past few papacies the fieriest critics of homosexuality – the cardinals who regarded Aids as a divine judgment, condemned the distribution of condoms in Africa, called gender theory an abomination, and ignored peccadilloes like those of the Cuban priest who administered a special blessing to the penises of little boys – were themselves unabashedly gay.
Some of them cruised in Roman parks, claiming diplomatic immunity whenever they were bothered by the police; others used their smartphones to summon Arab hustlers. Many attended infernally red-lit orgies in the Vatican, with party drugs and strapping seminarians on tap, and quite a few rejoiced in drag-queen nicknames. One financially canny episcopal plutocrat added Rome’s busiest gay sauna to his bulging property portfolio. Martel includes a single incongruously heterosexual anecdote, about a prince of the church who died of a heart attack in Paris while having overenergetic sex with a prostitute called Mimi. Jesuitical spin doctors claimed he’d paid her a visit in the hope of persuading her to repent, which didn’t explain why he was naked when the ambulance arrived.
Is all this a symptom of bad faith, or perhaps of closeted self-disgust? No, it simply reveals the convenient duplicity of Catholicism: as André Gide put it, after the theologian Jacques Maritain failed to dissuade him from publishing his memoir of romps with Arab boys, “I hate lying. That’s where my Protestantism takes refuge. Catholics don’t like the truth.” The scale of the Vatican’s sanctimonious mendacity reminds Martel of the Third Reich, where the euphemisms and evasions of an entire society destroyed “the reality of a common world”.
Visiting a cardinal who is “refined and well pomaded”, Martel is “submerged in a cloud of scent” when he makes a detour to the man’s bathroom and checks his medicine cabinet; inside the Vatican, his astute French nose detects expensive traces of “amber, violet, musk, champaca” when his perfumed interviewees waft towards him. But the prevailing odour in his book is sulphur, a metaphorical stink that alerts Martel to the presence of the devil.
He flinches when introduced to George Pell, the Australian cardinal recently found guilty of sexual abuse in Melbourne (he will be sentenced later this month), whose colleagues in the Vatican treasury called him “Pell Pot” in homage to the bloodthirsty Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. Martel manages not to feel frightened on this occasion, but is glad never to have encountered two Latin American priests who strike him as unequivocally “evil”. In Mexico, the “diabolical” Marcial Maciel amassed “insane levels of wealth” and indulged in systematic “sexual violence”, while of course exhibiting pious meekness on public occasions; in Colombia, López Trujillo – like Maciel, now defunct – connived at the murder of dozens of priests and bishops, who were eliminated by paramilitary brigades after he fingered them for their progressive opinions.
Among all this villainy, Martel has a sneaky fondness for Pope Benedict XVI, who railed against homosexuals while flouncing about in natty ermine-lined bonnets and lipstick-red Prada slippers. In one decadent episode, Benedict moons over his hunky chamberlain Georg Gänswein during the younger man’s consecration as an archbishop, caressing his Clooneyesque salt-and-pepper curls for all of 19 enraptured seconds. Despite such florid displays of an apparently platonic affection, Martel sees Benedict as a victim of wishful self-neutering. As Nietzsche remarked, “The saint pleasing to God is the ideal castrato”.
It’s a pity that Martel’s book is so preposterously long and lazily repetitive; lacking an index, it will be useless as a reference work. I also worry a little about its methods. Some highly placed informants are given the benefit of anonymity, and others are lured into confiding or confessing by the flirty signals Martel transmits. “He employs guile with me,” he says during a teasing duel with Pope John Paul II’s former secretary, “and I play with him.” Stray comments reveal a double standard. Thus he denounces Catholic potentates for the luxury in which they live, yet grimaces like a snooty interior decorator when he visits one residence: “The furniture is horrible, as it often is in the Vatican,” he sniffs. The tone falters because Martel seems unsure whether to be horrified by the church’s corruption or to let out a gasp of high-camp amazement at its excesses. Given the evidence that he has uncovered, I’d say that outrage is the better option.
The New York Times published an extraordinary article this week based on interviews with two dozen gay Catholic priests and seminarians in 13 states. “Out” men and women today are often widely admired, but most of the interviews had to be conducted anonymously because the Vatican still treats homosexuality as “objectively disordered” — a policy that persists even though the representation of gay men in the priesthood is higher, probably far higher, than in the general population.
The relevant catechism about sexuality does not condemn people with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” just those who act on those tendencies. In other words, you can be gay so long as you don’t do anything about it. The Times article rightly presents this distinction as a trial for the priests involved — one of the last major throwbacks to the era of “the love that dare not speak its name” (as Oscar Wilde’s partner, Lord Alfred Douglas, put it). But I wondered how the church’s policy on homosexuality affects men and women, as well as boys and girls, who are not priests.
The gay priest is required, generally, to uphold the official teaching of his church and of his superiors, making him a collaborator in the suppression of his gay brothers and sisters outside the clergy. In this way, without intending to, the victimized become victimizers. How does that play out, to take an example, in the confessional? If a penitent confesses homosexual activity to a gay priest, does the priest channel God’s forgiveness of a sin that he does not himself consider a sin? This is just one of the many ways in which we Catholics, if we refrain from criticizing this particular stance of our church, contribute to the persecution of the LGBTQ community.
The deepest irony is that a priest who is required to go against his nature is told that he must do this because of “natural law.” The church’s quaint theory of natural law is that the first biological use of an activity is the only permissible use of that activity. If the biological use of sex is for procreation, any other use is “against nature.”
The absurdity of this view is made clear by considering the first biological use for eating: the sustenance of life. If every other use of nutrition is against nature, then any diet beyond what is consumed for life-maintenance is a sin — in other words, no wedding cakes, no champagne toasts. Yet the church continues to adhere to so-called natural law because it underpins doctrine on all sexual matters, including the condemnations of abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization and stem-cell research.
Given the stakes in these and other matters, the ban on gay sex involves a larger “church teaching” than the single matter of homosexuality.
Priests and bishops who cover up male homosexuality are prone to a mutual blackmail with those who commit and conceal heterosexual acts by the clergy — sometimes involving women, including nuns, who have been victimized by priests. The Times’s portrait of gay priests was followed by a powerful Feb. 18 article revealing that the church has internal policies for dealing with priests who father children. The Vatican confirmed, apparently for the first time, that a priest with progeny is encouraged to ask for release from his ministry “to assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child” — there being no requirement in canon law that a priest perform this basic act of love for his offspring and the child’s mother.
Secrecy in one clerical area intersects with secrecy in others. There is an implicit pledge that “your secret is safe with my secret.” If there are gay nuns — and why would there not be? — that adds another strand to the interweavings of concealment.
The trouble with any culture that maintains layer upon layer of deflected inspections is that, when so many people are guarding their own secrets, the deep examination of an institution becomes nearly impossible. The secrecies are too interdependent. Truly opening one realm of secrecy and addressing it may lead to an implosion of the entire system. That is the real problem faced this week by Pope Francis and the church leaders he has summoned from around the world for a conference at the Vatican to consider the labyrinthine and long-standing scandals of clerical sex abuse.
The man who was at the helm of the Twin Cities Catholic church during the clergy abuse scandals is now officially banned from celebrating mass in his former archdiocese.
Former Archbishop John Nientstedt, who resigned from the archdiocese in 2015, is no longer free to “exercise public ministry” there, per an order from his successor, Archbishop Bernard Hebda.
The reason? Nienstedt is himself facing unresolved allegations of abuse involving minors.
According to a Friday announcement from Archbishop Hebda, the alleged incident is said to have occurred in 2005, when Nienstedt was bishop of New Ulm. He is alleged to have undressed in front of two “unaccompanied minors” in his hotel room at a World Youth Day event in Germany.
As the announcement points out, Nienstedt denies this ever happened.
However, he has also been accused of “inappropriate conduct with adult males,” and according to documents that surfaced in 2016, Neinstedt has been dogged by allegations from fellow priests and rumors of a “promiscuous gay lifestyle” for years.
In his letter, Hebda points out that “any effort by the Vatican” to address these latter allegations was suspended in 2015 when Nienstedt resigned, leaving the matter “unresolved for the accusers, for Archbishop Nienstedt and for the public.”
Hebda says he is “troubled by the failure to bring closure” to an investigation into the matter, and that he shares the frustration of all involved that the situation has been left in limbo.
The archbishop added that he believes “this situation highlights the need for a better-defined process and independent mechanism to resolve allegations made against bishops.”
Hebda’s Friday declaration, he points out, “is not intended to convey an indication or presumption of guilt,” which is true of all “similar cases involving our priests and deacons.”
Nienstedt’s current status
Earlier this year, Nienstedt stepped down from his consulting duties at the Napa Institute, a Catholic organization.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, the resignation came amid a wave of criticism against the Napa Institute for employing Nienstedt despite its “stance against bishops accused of mishandling sexual abuse.”
Indeed, Nienstedt was heavily criticized for his leadership during the high-profile sex abuse cases that rocked the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.