Confessions of a Gay Priest – Book Review

by Linda LaScola

Editor’s Note: Last autumn, Alexis Record and Tom Rastrelli appeared together in one of many blog posts here that commemorated The Clergy Project’s 1000 Member Milestone. I thought they were a good example of the variety of religious backgrounds that people who leave religion come from. Now they are back together in what I think is even a more interesting way – a former fundamentalist reviewing the memoir of a former Catholic priest.  /Linda LaScola, Editor

First, with permission from the publisher, Alexis starts with excerpts from the prologue:

            The Church needed something new. In January, the Boston Globe had exposed Cardinal Bernard Francis Law for covering up the sexual abuse of minors by priests. As the months before my ordination passed, a mounting number of bishops fell in shame. I doubted my calling. But the Church was different in Dubuque. My archbishop hadn’t harbored pedophiles. He’d turned them over to the police. He’d offered their victims support and healing. I would do the same. 

            After the archbishop completed the prayer, a priest lifted the deacon’s stole from my shoulder and replaced it with a priest’s stole. Over my head, he lowered a chasuble with gold-and-blue embroidery matching the archbishop’s. I crossed from the center of the sanctuary to the cathedra, the ornately carved oak throne where the archbishop sat. I knelt before him. From a crystal pitcher, he poured syrupy chrism–holy oil scented with balsam–over my upturned hands. Pressing his palms against mine, the archbishop smeared large crosses as he prayed: “The Father anointed Our Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. May Jesus preserve you to sanctify the Christian people and to offer sacrifice to God.” He folded his glistening hands around mine. His dark eyes were absolution. I would sacrifice myself for him, for God.

            Hands dripping with chrism, I stood, turned, and walked to my spot at the foot of the altar. I glanced at the front row into my parents’ eyes. They were crying, grinning. I smiled through tears. I was a priest. 

[—]

            Less than two years later, I turned my back on the archbishop. This time, I held my tears. I rushed from his office into February’s darkness. The frigid night air burned my cheeks. In the corner of the icy parking lot, my black pickup offered refuge. My only private space, it was where I retreated to sing, talk on my phone, and cry–all the things a young priest didn’t want his pastor or cleaning lady to witness. I drove through blocks of Catholic neighborhoods, people who trusted the archbishop. Now, I had to obey his command by covering up sexual abuse.

[…] 

            On the north end of town, a boat ramp would provide easy access to the frozen Mississippi. My plan: drive until the ice buckled under the weight of the truck. 

Tom Rastrelli

Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary

By Alexis Record

For half a decade now I have been a Free Hugs Mom at our local Pride parade with Sunday Assembly San Diego. I become everyone’s mom despite age differences and embrace hundreds of people while making sure they’re drinking water and wearing sunscreen in the summer sun, you know, Mom concerns. Most importantly of all, I tell folks I’m proud of them. Most laugh or smile at my apron, some cry, and a few collapse into my arms as if a stranger’s acceptance might squeeze their fractured parts into some semblance of wholeness. As our group discussed doing an emotionally exhausting two-day Pride event this year, I was still recovering from finishing my tear-stained advanced copy of Tom Rastrelli’s book, Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary. It solidified my resolve to love on those kids.

Recently it felt as if an additional child was in my home: young Tom Rastrelli. I poured my love and support into him as he navigated pure hell. “Oh baby,” I’d tell him as he doubled down on homophobic lessons and planted deeper roots into his own victimization, like a vulnerable plant choosing the darkest corner where growth was promised.

What makes Rastrelli’s story so compelling are his flourishes of detail. His experiences are incredibly visceral–a real strength of his writing–which in turn make the abuses he suffered that much more excruciating. Each page is pure beauty and heartbreak. I found myself unable to put it down, needing to know what happens next. Needing to know Tom would be okay.

Rastrelli excavates the darker parts of his theology and clerical experiences without being anti-Catholic. In fact, I was struck with the humanity of his fellow seminarians and priests. The religious boy’s club included drinking, swearing, smoking, sexism, and jokes about pedophilia as the topic of the day which would not look out of place among a group of men in any other part of society. These boys grow through spiritual practice into priests. They are portrayed with a fair hand, not as monsters, but as loving servants of congregants who become unwitting facilitators of abusive and inhumane doctrines. They encouraged counseling, but not from women who pointed out sexism within the system. They practiced forgiveness, but used it to sweep grievous abuses under the rug. They offered real friendship, but caused their friends to hate their sexualities. They were real people, good people, doing the best they could with the tools they had. It made me want to take my local priest out to coffee to see how he’s holding up.

I’ve never been Catholic. The closest I’ve come is years ago working as a priest’s sign language interpreter during Mass. I outed myself as protestant by signing each word of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” instead of crossing myself and as a result wasn’t asked back. Yet, I did not need to be completely familiar with all aspects of Catholic tradition to follow this story. Any conservative Christian will recognize, as I did, the strong desire to be lost in God’s presence, the pressure to cover up for the sins of godly men, and the deep self loathing after every masturbatory orgasm.

Rastrelli takes the reader on a unique journey most of the faithful never see. Like many of the other wide-eyed liberal students who loved the Church, he set out to affect change from within it only to be gradually and incessantly chiseled into the very shape of those hard beliefs he did not think reflected Christ. Seminarians during this process swallowed larger and larger boluses of cognitive dissonance until they were either consumed from within or vomited out of God’s presence. They were told not to make waves and not to confuse the faithful with their own doubts about the system. It was amazing to me just how so many good people became unwilling participants in facilitating horrific evils. Offering a holy profession for homosexual men who would never be allowed to have sex within the confines of that system and then laying all the blame for child predation upon the gays is just one of those evils.

The brutal parts of this story include the author’s homophobia recounted from his early years and directed selfward like a knife at his own throat, the sexual abuse the reader voyeuristically shares, and, almost worse, the excusing and minimizing of that abuse by the very men supposedly speaking and acting for God himself. Worshipping a tortured savior meant suffering throughout the story was almost always mistaken for love. Oh baby.

Silent no longer, Tom Rastrelli bravely reopens wounds and lays bare scars for all to see. His memoir is a breathtaking, priceless treasure–a bright light in the darkness. I’m proud to recommend it to believers and unbelievers alike. For victims of abuse, I suggest being gentle with yourself while reading. Also, drink some water, wear your sunblock, and avoid hazardous religious systems.

Confessions will be available April, 2020. Preorders available now, from Amazon.

Complete Article HERE!

Sing a new song unto the Lord:

the transgender, nonbinary Rev. Kori Pacyniak

The Rev. Kori Pacyniak, pastor of San Diego’s Mary Magdalene Catholic Community.

The Rev. Kori Pacyniak is believed to be the first transgender, nonbinary priest in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement

By Peter Rowe

The conversation began in typical fashion, with a question many grandparents ask: “When you grow up,” Kori Pacyniak’s grandmother wondered, “what would you like to be?”

At that point, the chat took an atypical turn.

“I want to be a priest,” said Kori, then an 8-year-old girl from a devout Polish Catholic family.

Grandmother: “Only boys can be priests.”

Kori: “OK, I want to grow up to be a boy.”

Now 37, Kori Pacyniak no longer wants to be male — or female. Pacyniak now identifies as nonbinary, someone who is not strictly feminine or masculine. (And someone who has abandoned gender-specific pronouns like “he” or “she” in favor of the more inclusive, if sometimes confusing, “they.”)

While Pacyniak left behind standard gender roles, the youthful fascination with the priesthood never faded. On Feb. 1, Pacyniak was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement.

The Rev. Kori Pacyniak is now pastor of San Diego’s Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community, a Serra Mesa church that preaches “A New Way to be Catholic.” For this parish, Pacyniak also represents a new way, as they are believed to be the first transgender, nonbinary priest.

Founded in 2005 by Jane Via and Rod Stephens, Mary Magdalene celebrates the Mass with a liturgy that, aside from some tweaks in the wording, would be familiar to most Roman Catholics. The church is not recognized by the San Diego diocese, however, and the Vatican has excommunicated several of the women ordained in what has become a global movement.

Mary Magdalene now has about 120 registered parishioners; 60 to 70 regularly attend 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at the church’s temporary home, Gethsemane Lutheran Church. Most in the congregation were raised as Catholics, yet were disillusioned by the church’s refusal to ordain women. Even among these believers, though, there was some initial hesitation about a nonbinary cleric.

“For some congregants,” said Esther LaPorta, president of Mary Magdalene’s board, “I think at first it might have been something to get used to.”

Among those who have had to adjust: Via, the 73-year-old pastor emeritus.

“I’m struggling to refer to Kori as ‘they,’” Via said. “When there is a single person and we know that is just one person, well, I’ve never used the word ‘they’ for a single person. I know Kori gets frustrated with me at times.”

Usually, though, the priest responds to this confusion with a charitable laugh.

“This is hard?” Pacyniak said. “Learning to spell my last name as a child was hard. Welcome to my world!”

A restless search

Kori Pacyniak grew up in Edison Park, a neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side. The tightly-knit Polish community shared a common language, customs and beliefs. Friends, neighbors and family, Kori’s comrades in the Polish Scout troop and Polish folkdancing troupe — all were Catholic.

Like many children, Kori daydreamed about careers. Some days, the goal was to become a Navy SEAL. On other days, a professional soccer goalie. Or a Catholic nun. Always, though, there was the hope that the impossible dream Kori had shared with a grandmother would, somehow, become possible.

“As they went through college and started studying theology, this really became a topic of conversation,” said Basia Pacyniak, 67, Kori’s mother. “It was very much what Kori wanted to do.”

Majoring in religious studies and Portuguese — “no employable skills,” Kori cracked — the undergraduate came out as bisexual. Pacyniak was still searching, though, still examining gender identity and career paths. Although president of Smith’s Newman Association, an off-campus Catholic organization, Pacyniak was frustrated by the church’s positions on women and sexuality.

Pacyniak, center, is applauded by Bishop Jane Via, left, and Bishop Suzanne Avison Thiel, right, during the ordination ceremony.

“Other people wanted to become president,” Pacyniak said. “I wanted to overthrow the Vatican.”

This restlessness continued post-graduation. After an administrative job in Los Angeles, Pacyniak enrolled in Harvard Divinity School’s master’s degree program. The new grad student came out as transgender and started to identify as male. This venture into masculinity was brief and unsatisfactory.

“I realized that box was just as restrictive as female,” Pacyniak said. “Neither male nor female identification works for me.”

For a time, Pacyniak considered converting to a church that, while similar in some ways to Catholicism, ordains women and welcomes LGBTQ clergy. Again, though, something didn’t seem quite right.

“I thought that might be my church home,” Pacyniak said of the Episcopal Church. “But am I too Catholic to be Episcopalian?”

Yet Catholicism posed barriers to Pacyniak. For one thing, Rome only recognizes two genders, male and female. And…

“Right now,” said Kevin Eckery a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, “ordination is only open to natural born males.”

Pacyniak completed studies at Harvard, and later enrolled at Boston University’s School of Theology. There, Pacyniak studied how to minister to LGBTQ military service members in the years following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

But in 2016, a friend forwarded a job listing. Mary Magdalene needed a pastor. Candidates didn’t have to be ordained, if he, she or they were willing to work toward ordination.

In January 2017, Pacyniak began serving as Mary Magdalene’s pastor.
Queer theology

The Rev. Caedmon Grace is a minister at the Metropolitan Church of San Diego, a church that grew out of the LGBTQ community. Even here, there are ongoing discussions about the language of worship.

Consider John 3:16. A familiar New Testament verse, it’s often translated as “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…”

“Our practice in the MCC is to use inclusive language,” said Grace. “So that has become ‘For God so loved the world that God sent the begotten one.’ We’re not identifying God as male or female.”

This may not be the translation heard in most Christian churches, yet the emerging field of “queer theology” questions many of the assumptions of traditional religious prayer and practice.

“We have to get out of the hetero-nomative lens we use for understanding everything,” said Pacyniak, who is completing a doctorate in University of California Riverside’s queer and trans theology program. “We have to make trans and queer folks see themselves as part of the liturgy.”

Even at Mary Magdalene, a church that prides itself on its inclusive nature, this requires some work. When Pacyniak arrived, the liturgy included a line, “We believe that all women and men are created in God’s image.”

“This is great,” Pacyniak told Via after Mass. “But for people who don’t identify as women or men, that doesn’t work.”

The line was rewritten: “We believe that all people of all genders are created in God’s image.”

Creating a “spiritual support community” for trans and nonbinary people is a key goal of Mary Magdalene’s newly ordained priest. So is reaching out to the congregation’s men and women.

“Let’s make the tent as big and as open as we can,” Pacyniak said. “It’s an ongoing opportunity. Don’t get too comfortable; have conversations with people on the margins.”

All in good time

Through this past January, Via assisted Pacyniak on the altar during Mass. The new pastor studied, learning theology, liturgy and administrative duties, before being ordained as deacon in June 2019 and then, on Feb. 1, as a priest. More than 100 attended the ordination, so the ceremony was moved from Mary Magdalene’s small space to the soaring Gothic sanctuary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.

The pews held Pacyniak’s parents, Basia and Bernard; brother, sister-in-law, two nephews and several cousins; friends from high school, Smith, Harvard and Boston U.; plus dozens of congregants from Mary Magdalene.

“Kori is very open and kind,” said Carol Kramer, who has attended Mary Magdalene for a decade. “I think they’ll be a really good pastor.”

Many religious traditions teach that we’re all created as complex, multi-faceted, beloved children of God. Pacyniak is a pastor and a student of queer theology, yes, but so much more: a baseball fan — with shifting allegiances, from Cubs to Red Sox to Padres — a regular Comic-Con attendee and, this priest insists, a Catholic. This brand of Catholicism may not be recognized by the Vatican, but that doesn’t bother Pacyniak’s parents, who remain practicing Roman Catholics.

“We are very proud of Kori,” said Basia Pacyniak. “The movement and the community is very welcoming, very open, and we are very supportive of that community. I feel that it is not in conflict with the Catholicism that we practice.”

The Pacyniaks foresee a day when their church will include women priests. Give it time, counseled Bernard Pacyniak, 66.

Lots of time.

“I imagine,” he said, “in 100 years this will all be part of one organization.”

Complete Article HERE!

Holy Water, Film on HIV-Positive Gay Priest, Launches Kickstarter

Catholic seminarians are newly speaking out about sexual misconduct

— and being shunned as a result

Matthew Bojanowski, left, is pictured on his confirmation day as a seminarian in 2015 in Boston. With him are Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Boston’s archbishop, and the Rev. Jeffrey Nowak, Bojanowski’s spiritual director.

By Michelle Boorstein

The text from Stephen Parisi’s fellow seminarian was ominous: Watch your back.

Parisi, dean of his class of seminarians in the Buffalo Diocese, and another classmate had gone to seminary officials about a recent party in a parish rectory. At the party in April, the men said, priests were directing obscene comments to the seminarians, discussing graphic photos and joking about professors allegedly swapping A’s for sex.

“I just wanted to be sure that you guys are protected and are watching your backs,” the seminarian’s text said. Authorities are “fishing to figure out who the nark [sic] is.”

Parisi and Matthew Bojanowski, who was academic chairman of the class, have made explosive news nationally recently after alleging that they were bullied by superiors, grilled by their academic dean under police-like interrogation and then shunned by many of their fellow seminarians after going public with sexual harassment complaints about those up the chain of command. The Vatican on Thursday announced it is investigating broad allegations church leaders have mishandled clergy abuse cases.

As striking as the charges is the fact that the men are speaking out at all. Parisi and Bojanowski — who both left seminary in August — are among a small but growing number of Catholic priests and seminarians who in the past year have gone to investigators, journalists and lawyers with complaints about their superiors. While still rare, such dissent has until now been nearly unheard of in a profession that requires vows of obedience to one’s bishop and offers no right to recourse, no independent human resources department.

Prompting the pushback, the men and experts on the U.S. church say, is what many Catholics view as the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to respond frankly and transparently to recently revealed cases of sexual mistreatment of seminarians and priests. That, and the #MeToo moment, in which Americans have shown new willingness to speak out against adult sexual abuse and harassment.

“My conscience bothered me. If it meant being thrown out, so be it,” said Parisi, now 45, who joined the seminary in 2018 after 25 years as a member of a Catholic religious order, caring for the sick and dying. He thought he knew the church well when he entered seminary. Now living with his parents and unemployed, he has received hate mail, and says priests in his hometown won’t acknowledge him. His faith in the institution has been “shattered,” he said. “That’s what you get for exposing the truth.”

In his Aug. 15 resignation letter, Parisi urged other seminarians, if they have issues, to go to state officials or journalists.

In addition to Buffalo, young men wrestling with scandals in Washington, D.C., and West Virginia, among other places, have also weighed expectations of obedience against their desire for more accountability — and chosen the latter.

More than half a dozen priests and former seminarians were the key whistleblowers in the recent fall of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, a well-connected fundraiser and donator in the U.S. church. Two recently exited West Virginia seminarians have gone public with allegations that Bransfield sexually mistreated them and have sued. One, who has not been named, said he was assaulted. The other, Vincent DeGeorge, 30, said Bransfield kissed and groped him, and pressured him to sleep over and watch porn.

“Because of the sex abuse crisis, I told myself going in [that] I wanted to be a priest, but I wasn’t going to let myself be complicit in a corrupt institution,” said DeGeorge, who left seminary last year after he says he was sexually harassed by his then-bishop, wrote an op-ed criticizing regional church leaders and quickly became a pariah.

“To scrutinize a bishop is to attack the church, is to be a bad Catholic,” DeGeorge said.

Several current and former clergy members spoke out beginning last summer about their treatment by defrocked cardinal Theodore McCarrick, some by name and others anonymously. The Washington Post has received more calls from Catholic seminarians and clergy members with tips and concerns in the past year than in the previous decade.

“I’ve never had conversations in all the previous years like the ones I’ve had in the past year. People feel they can finally talk about things” among themselves, said a seminarian in the D.C. region who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears dismissal.

Some said the expanding of a more aggressive Catholic media in the past couple of years has emboldened Catholics, including seminarians, to challenge the hierarchy.

A power imbalance

But even as the scandals have spurred some to speak out, church culture and theology dissuade more from raising their voices.

In the Catholic Church, bishops are kings of their dioceses, and priests swear an oath of loyalty to them. Seminarians’ pursuit of the priesthood rests completely with their superiors — the bishop in particular. There is no appeal or required explanation if one is deemed not to be priest material.

Some seminarians described having their spiritual fitness scrutinized if they raised too many questions. They fear that criticizing a bishop or higher-up could get them removed from seminary.

An internal church report investigating allegations against Bransfield quotes one priest-secretary who was allegedly harassed as saying he was in seminary when the bishop first asked him to remove his shirt.

“He stated that he did so out of fear. ‘Your life is at the will and pleasure of the bishop when you’re in seminary,’ ” the man told the lay investigators last year, according to the report, which The Post obtained.

In an email on May 7, 2018, a diocesan official in West Virginia told DeGeorge that he must stay over with Bransfield for a week — even though the then-seminarian did not want to.

“The request … was not actually a request. It was basically an expectation. You need to be there with the bishop during those dates,” the email reads.

The guide for seminarians by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops encourages submissiveness.

“Seminaries should articulate that priestly obedience begins with humble and willing cooperation in seminary life, docility to direction and wholehearted compliance with the seminary’s policies,” it says.

Priests, seminarians and former seminarians described in interviews a climate of self-censure, with men often tattling on one another and gossiping rather than speaking openly. And when they do speak up, they said church authorities often do nothing.

They “say the right things, how we encourage honesty and openness, but deep down it’s clear they want to move on from [issues] as fast as possible,” said Mike Kelsey, who was a seminarian in the D.C. Archdiocese from last summer until January when students were openly upset that more hadn’t been done to learn what the past two archbishops — McCarrick and Donald Wuerl — did and knew regarding sexual misconduct.

Kelsey and other seminarians and priests interviewed for this article agreed that the problem lies in how the vows are interpreted and lived out within the church.

“I don’t think obedience is bad,” Kelsey said, noting that corporations also suffer from similar transparency problems. “But it’s also not something I’m signing up for if the hierarchy behaves in this way. If leadership and so many are not willing to get to basic levels of truth and justice, I’m not willing to sit there and obey them. I think the church is deeply corrupt and broken.”

Questions about how sexual misconduct in seminary is handled are considered so pressing that the University of Notre Dame last month released a first-of-its-kind study of 1500 seminarians on the topic. About 3,500 U.S. post-college men — who make up the vast majority of seminarians — were enrolled in programs in 2018-2019, according to Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Seventeen percent said sexual abuse or misconduct is a problem at their schools, the survey found. Asked whether their administrators take the issue seriously, 84 percent said “very,” while 11 percent said somewhat or not at all. Of the 10 percent who said they have experienced, or may have experienced, sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, 51 percent said they had not reported it. Of those who did, 42 percent said their reports were either “completely” taken seriously and acted upon or acted upon “for the most part.”

To get the seminarians to talk, researchers offered anonymity.

“They are afraid they’ll be judged as temporarily unfit, too assertive,” John Cavadini, director of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, which crafted the new research, said about seminarians. “That’s one aspect of seminary education you wouldn’t have a close parallel of outside seminary. The bishop is a peculiar concentration of power in one person.”

The Rev. Carter Griffin, rector of the St. John Paul II Seminary in the D.C. Archdiocese, said that, if taught correctly, obedience to church authority can be a beautiful act, “to follow the Lord through the word of another.”

But younger men who grew up in the shadow of earlier abuse scandals know that automatically going “into protection mode” isn’t wise for the church, Griffin said. Regardless of what higher-ups do, he said, seminarians must do what’s right.

“ It might mean that people will misunderstand you, there may be consequences for your actions and you have to shoulder those,” he said.

Shunning as punishment

Speaking out, especially for those who do not leave seminary or the priesthood, can be risky. Some seminarians report a lack of support from their classmates — even social shunning.

An unnamed seminarian who filed a lawsuit against the West Virginia diocese earlier this year alleging that Bransfield sexually assaulted him declined to comment for this article. But his mother told The Post that many priests “whom he called friends and brothers” and many of his former fellow seminarians for the most part have kept their distance from him.

“They feel they have to choose the church,” she said. The Post isn’t naming her to protect the anonymity of her son. The Post doesn’t identify sexual assault victims without their permission.

The man and the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese reached an unspecified settlement over the summer.

Vincent DeGeorge, left, a former seminarian for the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, attends a “candidacy” ceremony in March 2018, one of the steps toward becoming a priest, along with then-Bishop Michael Bransfield.

DeGeorge’s allegation of sexual mistreatment by Bransfield became widely known recently when The Post reported it in a profile of William Lori, the Baltimore archbishop who led the investigation of Bransfield. He had already made waves for a seminarian — he was on leave — in December when he wrote a Baltimore Sun essay critical of Lori. Many priests and his former classmates still avoid him — or speak of him as a troublemaker, he said.

In a lawsuit filed Sept. 13 in Ohio County, DeGeorge alleges that Bransfield, the diocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not rein in someone known as a harasser, leaving seminarians vulnerable.

In Buffalo, the priests whom Parisi and Bojanowski blew the whistle on were suspended for a few weeks and returned to ministry in June. Bishop Richard Malone issued a statement that seminarians who spoke out “are to be lauded for coming forward.” Malone is accused of mishandling of sexual abuse and misconduct cases.

After more than 20 years serving Catholic organizations, Parisi says he’s looking for work outside the church.

“There needs to be major reform … But in my view, that won’t happen. The system is a very well-oiled machine,” he said. The church hierarchy believes “it doesn’t need fixing in their view because it’s running exactly the way they want it to.”

Complete Article HERE!

A penthouse, limousines and private jets: Inside the globe-trotting life of Bishop Michael Bransfield

A view from Le Sirenuse, a hotel where then-West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield stayed in Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, for a side trip during a visit to the Vatican in April 2018. Bransfield racked up a $3,333 bill, records show.

By Shawn Boburg Robert O’Harrow Jr.

It was billed as a holy journey, a pilgrimage with West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield to “pray, sing and worship” at the National Shrine in Washington. Catholics from remote areas of one of the nation’s poorest states paid up to $190 for hotel rooms and overnight bus rides to the nation’s capital.

Unknown to the worshipers, Bransfield traveled another way. He hired a private jet and, after a 33-minute flight, took a limousine from the airport. The church picked up his $6,769 travel bill.

That trip in September 2017 was emblematic of the secret history of Bransfield’s lavish travel. He spent millions of dollars from his diocese on trips in the United States and abroad, records show, while many of his parishioners struggled to find work, feed their families and educate their children.

Pope Francis has said bishops should live modestly. During his 13 years as the leader of ­the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield took nearly 150 trips on private jets and some 200 limousine rides, a Washington Post investigation found. He stayed at exclusive hotels in Washington, Rome, Paris, London and the Caribbean.

Last year, Bransfield stayed a week in the penthouse of a legendary Palm Beach, Fla., hotel, at a cost of $9,336. He hired a chauffeur to drive him around Washington for a day at a cost of $1,383. And he spent $12,386 for a jet to fly him from the Jersey Shore to a meeting with the pope’s ambassador in the nation’s capital.

Pope Francis has said bishops should live modestly. During his 13 years as the leader of ­the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield took nearly 150 trips on private jets and some 200 limousine rides, a Washington Post investigation found. He stayed at exclusive hotels in Washington, Rome, Paris, London and the Caribbean.

Last year, Bransfield stayed a week in the penthouse of a legendary Palm Beach, Fla., hotel, at a cost of $9,336. He hired a chauffeur to drive him around Washington for a day at a cost of $1,383. And he spent $12,386 for a jet to fly him from the Jersey Shore to a meeting with the pope’s ambassador in the nation’s capital.

Bransfield was barred from public ministry in July after an internal church investigation found he had engaged in financial abuses and sexually harassed young priests, allegations Bransfield has denied. The Post previously obtained the investigative report and revealed its major findings, including that he spent $2.4 million of church funds on travel and gave $350,000 in cash gifts to other clerics.

To gain a deeper understanding of Bransfield’s travel expenditures, The Post reconstructed his movements in the year before he retired in September 2018. The reporting drew on receipts obtained by The Post, public flight records and the confidential findings of the church’s own investigation as well as interviews with some of Bransfield’s companions and travel company representatives.

Bransfield was outside of West Virginia for a total of almost four months, according to documents and interviews. Though most of that travel was not related to his duties in West Virginia, the diocese routinely covered Bransfield’s expenses as well as those of the young priests who accompanied him, The Post found.

“This is so much worse than we ever imagined,” Michael Iafrate, a church activist in West Virginia, said when told about The Post’s reporting. “It is profoundly, morally wrong.”

In an interview, Bransfield, 76, did not dispute the findings but defended his frequent vacations as necessary breaks from his religious responsibilities.

Bransfield said he never made travel arrangements for himself, and he blamed his aides for selecting luxury accommodations, including the penthouse in Palm Beach. “I did not arrange that room,” he said. “That was done by staff.”

He said much of his travel was related to his role as president of the Papal Foundation, a nonprofit entity that raises money from wealthy Catholics for Vatican initiatives.

“Usually it was business,” he said.

The church’s internal investigation, completed in February, found that three of Bransfield’s top aides had enabled him. After The Post reported on the probe’s findings in June, the diocese announced that the aides had resigned from their administrative positions. They have not responded to interview requests.

Bransfield could face financial consequences for his actions. Pope Francis has said the former West Virginia bishop must “make personal amends,” and in response to questions from The Post, the diocese said it may seek to recover money Bransfield spent inappropriately.

In a statement, the diocese said Bransfield’s successor, Bishop Mark Brennan, has launched an internal audit “to determine what, if any, of Bransfield’s expenses were connected to Church business.”

“If Bishop Bransfield is not cooperative, Bishop Brennan has stated he intends to exercise his unilateral authority to recover funds that we can determine were primarily used for personal benefit,” the diocese said.

Bransfield, at the time the bishop of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia, processes at the beginning of an antiabortion youth Mass at the Verizon Center — now known as Capital One Arena — in Washington on Jan. 22, 2016.

Bransfield arrived in West Virginia in 2005 after a quarter-century in Washington in various posts at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America.

Bransfield told The Post that he had grown accustomed to the comfortable lifestyle he led in those years. He had befriended celebrities and politicians, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who credited Bransfield and others at the National Shrine with helping convert him to Catholicism. His allies and friends included some of the most powerful clerics in the country.

In West Virginia, Bransfield took responsibility for a vast diocese in great need. Nearly 1 in 5 state residents lived in poverty, the opioid epidemic was spreading and even coal mining jobs — a mainstay of West Virginia’s hardscrabble economy — were hard to come by.

Bransfield had access to an obscure source of riches. More than a century ago, a New York heiress donated land in West Texas to the West Virginia diocese. The land turned out to be rich with oil, generating annual revenue of almost $15 million in recent years.

Bransfield did not call attention to that revenue publicly, but the diocese drew on it to cover his travel expenses and other personal spending, according to the confidential investigative report. During his 13 years in West Virginia, Bransfield spent $4.6 million on renovations to his church residence, almost $140,000 at restaurants, $62,000 on jewelry, and thousands on alcohol, the report shows.

By his final year, records show, Bransfield’s use of private jets and limousines had become routine — even as the diocese closed or cut funding for nearly two dozen parishes and parochial schools.

On Sept. 16, 2017, as parishioners traveled by bus for the pilgrimage to the National Shrine, Bransfield boarded an 11-seat Learjet.

When Bransfield arrived at Dulles International Airport, a hired luxury car was waiting outside a small terminal devoted to executive jets, according to receipts from the chauffeur service Limolink. The firm told The Post that its fleet is primarily made up of Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs. The ride to the National Shrine and back to the jet several hours later cost $440, receipts show.

In his last year, Bransfield flew by chartered luxury jet at least 19 times at a cost of over $142,000, according to receipts from Skyward Aviation, a charter firm that provides “concierge” service for well-heeled travelers from an airport about 30 miles from the diocesan headquarters. During his entire tenure in West Virginia, Bransfield spent almost $1 million on private jets, according to the investigative report.

“Welcome to luxury and comfort at its finest,” Skyward Aviation says on its website.

Bransfield’s use of private jets was no secret to two of the pope’s close advisers. The Vatican’s diplomatic representative in the United States, Christophe Pierre, and his predecessor Carlo Maria Viganò each rode on a jet paid for by the diocese, according to receipts and interviews.

Pierre’s July 24, 2017, flight back to Washington from a Boy Scouts event in Charleston, W.Va., cost $7,596.

Pierre and officials in his office did not respond to requests for comment about the previously unreported flight.

Viganò previously told The Post he did not know his 2013 flight — also to a Boy Scouts event — was paid for by the West Virginia diocese.

A Vatican spokesman did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Bransfield also routinely traveled in luxury overseas. During his tenure, he visited Paris, London and Geneva, often flying first-class and staying in leading hotels, and was at times accompanied by young priests, according to records and interviews.

Fr. Andrew Fisher

One of those priests is the Rev. Andrew Fisher, the pastor at St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Annandale, Va., who worked with Bransfield at the National Shrine. Fisher described the trips — including at least four to Paris and London — as “a blend of vacation and work.”

“After he moved to West Virginia, I was asked to take a number of trips as his guest and was told the trips were paid for out of the bishop’s personal finances,” Fisher said in a statement. “I had no role in selecting the accommodations or making travel arrangements, and I was unaware of the costs.”

In late October 2017, Bransfield asked a cleric in his mid-20s to accompany him on a trip to Rome, according to the confidential investigative report. The priest, based in West Virginia, only reluctantly agreed. He had confided to one of the bishop’s top aides that Bransfield had once slapped his buttocks during a summer party, the report said.

The Post generally does not name the victims of alleged sexual harassment. He declined to comment.

The pair visited Castel Gandolfo, a lakeside village south of Rome, according to the investigative report. During the visit, Bransfield upset the priest by again slapping him on the buttocks, the investigative report said.

Bransfield has denied any inappropriate contact with priests or seminarians.

Several weeks after returning to West Virginia, Bransfield took another charter jet to Washington, for a meeting of the Philadelphia-based Papal Foundation. The group is run by U.S. cardinals and was founded by a close ally of Bransfield’s, then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked earlier this year for sexual abuse.

As president of the group, Bransfield helped manage more than $225 million in total assets, according to internal Papal Foundation documents. He also used private jets and limousines paid for by his diocese to visit wealthy Catholic contributors.

Bransfield arrived in the nation’s capital several days before the foundation’s December 2017 meeting. He racked up nearly $2,000 in bills at the Hay-Adams Hotel, which overlooks the White House. Bransfield dined at the Capital Grille in Chevy Chase, Md., and at Cafe Milano in Georgetown. He also spent $400 at Nieman Marcus, documents show.

In an interview with The Post, Bransfield lamented the lack of shopping opportunities in the Mountain State. “I didn’t have the opportunity in West Virginia to live the lifestyle I lived in Washington,” he said.

A favorite store in the nation’s capital was Ann Hand Collection, a boutique jeweler where he spent $61,785, according to the investigative report.

Owner Ann Hand said in an interview that Bransfield often visited the showroom and bought pins, cuff links and silk scarves for friends and colleagues. Bransfield blessed the shop when it moved to its location in Georgetown several years ago, she said.

Hand expressed surprise when told how much church money Bransfield spent on the gifts.

“That is shocking it would be that much,” Hand said. “I guess I honestly thought he was a priest who had his own money.”

On the final day of his D.C. visit, Bransfield attended the Papal Foundation meeting. The Dec. 12 gathering brought together top U.S. Catholic leaders and a handful of wealthy Catholic donors who helped steer the foundation.

Bransfield assured the donors that Pope Francis would meet with them to acknowledge their generosity during the group’s annual pilgrimage to Rome in the spring, according to minutes of the meeting.

Afterward, Bransfield stepped out of the Vatican’s embassy on Massachusetts Avenue and got into a limousine that took him to a private jet waiting to fly him back to West Virginia, according to a Limolink receipt.

Nearly two weeks later, at midnight on Christmas Eve, Bransfield was standing at the altar at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling, W.Va. He was surrounded by red and white poinsettias. He celebrated a Mass that was broadcast on television stations across the state.

Hours later, he was gone again.

On Christmas afternoon in 2017, he flew by private jet to Philadelphia, his hometown. He hosted a holiday soiree at a catering hall not far from a Philadelphia home he owns — at a cost to the diocese of more than $5,000, according to a person familiar with the event who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private matter.

Monsignor Charles P. Vance

On Dec. 28, Bransfield and another Philadelphia priest, the Rev. Monsignor Charles P. Vance, flew on American Airlines to Palm Beach International Airport. Records show Bransfield routinely took winter vacations at the diocese’s expense — and not just to Florida but to the Cayman Islands, St. Maarten and St. Barthelemy in the Caribbean.

As a tax-exempt charity, the church is prohibited from spending on luxuries or services that unduly benefit an individual.

A general view of the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., in May 2011. Over the years, Bransfield spent almost $50,000 of his diocese’s money at the boutique hotel, sometimes for multiple rooms, records show.

In Palm Beach, Bransfield and Vance stayed for a week at the Colony, a boutique hotel that hosted Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. and George W. Bush and once was a favorite of British royalty.

From Dec. 28, 2017, to Jan. 4, 2018, the two clerics stayed in the Presidential Penthouse, a 1,640-square-foot spread with two bedrooms as well as living and dining rooms and a private sun deck, according to a hotel executive, accounting manager Mimi Hector.

Over the years, Bransfield spent almost $50,000 of the diocese’s money at the hotel, sometimes for multiple rooms, records show.

In his Post interview, Bransfield described the hotel as “a very classy little place,” convenient to the beach and Palm Beach’s legendary shopping district. Yet he called the choice of the suite an error of judgment by his staff.

“It only happened once,” Bransfield said. “I made sure it was not repeated.”

Hector told The Post that Bransfield had previously stayed in another of the Colony’s premium suites — the Duke of Windsor Penthouse.

For the return flight from Palm Beach, Bransfield did not use his round-trip ticket on American Airlines. He never sought a refund for the return portion of the $2,854 trip, an airline representative said.

Instead, he took a private jet from Palm Beach International Airport to the airport near his residence in Wheeling.

Bransfield said he did not recall forgoing the commercial flight.

“I had nothing to do with arranging the flights,” he said. “That was staff.”

Vance, the pastor of St. Philip Neri Church in Lafayette Hill, Pa., traveled to Palm Beach with Bransfield for winter vacation four times in recent years. He told The Post that he assumed that the trips and related expenses were “gifts” from Bransfield’s diocese.

“I never felt comfortable in Palm Beach,” he said. “It was just too extravagant for me.”

Vance said he had nothing to do with the arrangements.

“I was just a guest,” said Vance, who had attended seminary with Bransfield. “As far as I knew, it was something they were doing for him. It was arranged by his staff.”

Bransfield flew south twice more last winter at church expense.

In late January, he visited Miami Beach for a week-long vacation with the same young priest who accompanied him to Rome. Bransfield’s aide, Monsignor Kevin Quirk, the judicial vicar of the West Virginia diocese, instructed the priest to accompany Bransfield because “there is no one else” willing to go, according to the investigative report. The priest reluctantly agreed, according to the investigative report.

Quirk did not respond to requests for an interview.

Monsignor Kevin Quirk

Bransfield also spent four days in Aruba in March. In an interview, he described the visit as “a small vacation.”

In April 2018, when Bransfield returned to Rome with Papal Foundation contributors, he took a side trip to relax. This getaway was in the seaside village of Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

“I was working very hard,” Bransfield told The Post. “And I took two or three days off. That was strictly personal.”

Bransfield racked up a $3,333 bill staying at Le Sirenuse, regularly ranked in leisure magazines as one of Europe’s finest hotels, records show.

“I did not pick the hotel,” Bransfield said. “Someone else did.”

Bransfield declined to say who selected the hotel.

Two weeks after returning to West Virginia, Bransfield was again headed to Washington aboard a private jet. A limousine picked him up at 11:09 a.m., a receipt shows. Bransfield stopped at the Vatican diplomatic office and another church facility. While the limousine waited, he got a haircut at Salon ILO in Georgetown, according to a salon employee. The diocese covered the $80 haircut, records show.

A growing number of Bransfield’s subordinates, including some of his closest aides, were privately grumbling about his financial and sexual conduct, according to interviews and the investigative report.

Complaints about Bransfield’s financial activity were not new. Parishioners in the state had sent letters to Vatican officials six years earlier seeking an investigation of his spending, The Post previously reported. Four senior clerics in the United States and at the Vatican who received written complaints about Bransfield in previous years had also received cash gifts from the bishop.

But in the summer of 2018, the allegations took on a new significance.

Two young priests who had traveled with Bransfield overseas had gone to Baltimore Archbishop William Lori with claims that Bransfield sexually harassed them. In August, Quirk wrote an eight-page letter with allegations about financial abuses, including that Bransfield spent money excessively on travel, according to a copy obtained by The Post.

Quirk made many of the travel arrangements, according to the travel receipts.

At the time of Quirk’s Aug. 8 letter, Bransfield was on his annual vacation on the Jersey Shore, where he regularly spent up to a month with family members and friends, with the diocese footing many of the bills. He made a $276 purchase at one of his regular stops each summer: a liquor store in Somers Point, N.J. He spent $1,002 at the Flanders Hotel in Ocean City, and he rented a car for the month at a cost of $2,975.

On Aug. 25, Bransfield was summoned to the nunciature in Washington. Instead of driving down Interstate 95 — a trip that could take up to four hours — he chartered a private jet from Atlantic City. He hopped into a limousine for the trip to the nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic office in Washington, receipts show.

Bransfield told The Post that that was when he first learned that his job was imperiled.

“It was the worst day of my life,” Bransfield said.

He took the jet back to the Jersey Shore.

Complete Article HERE!