Priest accused of stealing $98,000 from parish to pay boyfriends and for a beach house

Father Joseph McLoone

By Deanna Paul

Father Joseph McLoone’s alleged scheme was a tricky one.

The 56-year-old pastor used his position at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Downingtown, Pa., to open a secret bank account in 2011, according to charges filed Wednesday by the Chester County District Attorney’s Office. With unbridled access to parish funds, he diverted donations and misappropriated fees, moving more than $100,000 into the “St. Joseph Activity Account,” and spent the money on boyfriends, a beach house and fine dining with men he met on dating apps, court documents say.

The theft went unnoticed for six years, according to court documents reviewed by The Washington Post, but McLoone was arrested on Wednesday and charged with 19 counts, including theft and receiving stolen property.

“Father McLoone held a position of leadership, and his parishioners trusted him to properly handle their generous donations to the church,” said Chester County District Attorney’s Office chief of staff Charles A. Gaza. “Father McLoone violated the trust of the members of St. Joseph for his own personal gain.”

In all, prosecutors allege McLoone stole $98,405 from the parish “to fund his personal lifestyle,” which included a beach home in Ocean City, N.J., travel and dining and payments to more than a dozen adult men whom McLoone admitted to meeting on Grindr, a police affidavit of probable cause said.

In early 2018, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia discovered McLoone’s off-the-books account, a violation of archdiocesan procedures. According to chief communications officer Kenneth Gavin, the archdiocese froze the account and launched an investigation into the parish’s financial records.

McLoone admitted to administrators that some of the account’s expenses were “of an inappropriate nature” and, Gavin said in a statement, “were related to relationships with adults that represented a violation of ‘The Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries’ established by the archdiocese.”

Soon thereafter, McLoone was placed on administrative leave; St. Joseph Parish did not respond to The Post’s request for a comment.

Attorney Melissa McCafferty, who represents McLoone, told The Post Thursday that the charges were “based on a lot of suspicion, innuendo and personal feelings about [McLoone’s] personal life, which have nothing to do with a crime being committed.”

Released on $50,000 bail, McLoone is to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on Sept. 18.

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!

If you’re a gay or divorced Catholic, the American National Catholic Church might be for you

Rev. George Lucey leads St. Francis of Assisi Church in Glen Ridge. Rev. Lucey, who is openly gay, has been at the church for twelve years.

By

For years, Jim Hammill searched for a church where he could worship in the Catholic tradition that he loved. He grew up attending a Roman Catholic Church, but felt ostracized after his divorce and remarriage to a woman in a Lutheran Church.

The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce and Hammill did not seek a Catholic Church annulment, a declaration by a church court that a marriage was never valid according to church law.

The Caldwell resident spent the better part of his adulthood considering himself a lapsed Catholic.

“I was convinced I was going to hell,” he said.

Then, about five years ago, he stumbled into St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Glen Ridge and he immediately felt the sense of belonging that he had craved.

The church is part of the American National Catholic Church, an independent religious movement established in 2009 by former Catholics who sought a more inclusive experience.

Like other breakaway Catholic-style churches across the nation, the ANCC is not recognized by the Vatican as a part of the Roman Catholic Church.

The movement has 11 branches around the country, including Kearny and Long Branch, New Jersey, as well as in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Connecticut. ANCC leaders say more are on the way.

Nationwide, the ANCC has over 2,000 members. It is headed by Bishop George Lucey, who is also the pastor of the St. Francis of Assisi parish.The ANCC ordains its own priests and bishops.

The Church in Glen Ridge draws anywhere from 50 to 100 worshipers to its regular Sunday Mass.

Many of the group’s fundamental beliefs and rituals are similar to those of Roman Catholicism, yet it offers a more progressive approach that is in sharp contrast to Rome. For one thing, women can be ordained, priests can marry, and openly gay priests and LGBT worshipers are welcomed. There is full sacramental participation by all, and reproductive choice is supported.

“I immediately felt like this is what Catholicism was meant to be,” said Hammill. “It’s nonjudgmental. It’s welcoming. There are a lot of diverse people — we have people of different races and different sexual orientations, which is refreshing.”

“I grew up believing that you go to Mass on Sunday because if you don’t, it’s a mortal sin. Now I go because I really want to,” said Hammill, who recently began studying in a seminary.

Hammill’s refrain has become increasingly familiar to the church’s associate pastor, Father Geety Reyes.

“A lot of people come to us because they are dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, for a variety of reasons,” said Reyes. He added that many have recently left the church over its handling of the abuse scandals.

“We are an all-embracing parish and we welcome everyone regardless of who they are and regardless of their journey in life,” Reyes said. “We make the sacraments available to everyone.”

Reyes, who is openly gay, noted that in the early years of the church, most of its members were Catholics from the LGBT community, but now the church is drawing worshipers from traditional families and of all backgrounds, including non-Catholics.

The most famous breakaway movement in Christian history was the Reformation over 500 years ago, which gave rise to the Protestant churches. That break was as a result of theological differences. Protestants allow their clerics to marry and have children.

Another breakaway, the Anglican Church that includes America’s Episcopalian Church, grew out of King Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope over his divorces.

These days, though, dissatisfied Catholics are more likely to fade away from religious life — perhaps attending midnight Mass on Christmas and celebrating Easter in some way — than to join another church or start one.

The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic had fallen from 23.9 percent in 2007 to 20.9 percent (51 million) in 2014

The study found that 41 percent of all respondents who were raised Catholic no longer identified with Catholicism — and that 12.9 percent of all Americans were former Catholics.

A 2015 Pew survey also found that majorities of American Catholics wanted to see the church undertake some major changes, such as allowing priests to marry (62 percent) and women to be ordained as priests (59 percent). Almost half of respondents (46 percent) supported recognition of LGBT marriages.

For some disenfranchised Catholics, the answer has to been to break with the Vatican and join Catholic-style independent churches. These splinter groups generally utilize the Catholic liturgy and rituals, even if they reject the “magisterium” — the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, as dispensed by the pope and bishops.

Pat Brannigan, the executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of the state, admitted that it can be a challenge to follow the teachings of Catholicism. “Even in the time of Jesus, some of his disciplines had difficulty accepting his teachings and turned away,” he said. “Why should we be surprised that some still turn away?”

He said he was not familiar with the ANCC but asserted that it is not considered part of the Roman Catholic Church.

Alison Shapiro, a middle school teacher from Bloomfield, grew up Catholic but “was not a big fan of the Catholic dogma,” she said. She immediately realized that St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church was different.

“It was exactly like a normal Mass, but without all the negative social stuff I didn’t agree with,” she said.

She became active in the church and is now the parish council president. A big part of its appeal, she said, is that it welcomes everyone. “You just come how you are comfortable and you are just accepted,” she said.

Like many of his parishioners, Reyes was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church but felt he couldn’t remain there because of his gay identity. The ANCC accepted him for who he was and allowed him to worship in the Catholic tradition, he said.

The 43-year-old Bloomfield resident was ordained as a deacon by the ANCC in 2012 and, several years later, as a priest.

“I never felt like I left the Catholic Church — I didn’t change anything I believed,” he said.

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.

Complete Article HERE!

‘If ex-Catholic was a religion…’

Why independent Catholic churches are flourishing

by Jess Rohan

On Holy Thursday, a solemn day in the most sacred week in the Catholic calendar, St. Miriam’s felt like any other Catholic church: The altar featured a crucifix draped with white fabric and a tabernacle, and the Rev. James St. George, also known as Father Jim, was preparing the Flourtown church for a foot-washing ceremony, with towels and washbasins placed on the altar.

But St. Miriam’s is not Roman Catholic, nor affiliated with the Vatican: It’s catholic — with a lowercase c.

It’s one of at least four independent Catholic parishes that cropped up around Philadelphia between 2005 and 2010, nourished in part by the advantages of social media and email. Now with more than 600 parishioners, St. Miriam’s has become perhaps the largest such congregation; like the others, drawing Catholics eager for new ways to practice an old faith.

Its pastor last week noted the sad parallels between the worldwide Roman Catholic Church and the Paris blaze that seemed to rage untouched until it had already consumed part of its historic Notre Dame Cathedral.

“They don’t admit they’re on fire until it’s too late,” St. George said. “And now the whole church is burning.”

The Roman Catholic Church is still the biggest religious institution in the United States — and the world, with about 1.3 billion adherents, according to the Vatican. But fewer and fewer Americans are identifying as Catholic. The clergy sex-abuse scandals, conversion to other faiths, and declining religiosity in general all play a role, according to polls. A Pew study found that between 2007 and 2014, the Catholic Church lost more members than any other religious institution, by a wide margin.

“If ex-Catholic was a religion, it’d be the third-largest in the United States,” said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University whose book, The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion, explores independent catholicism.

Alternative Catholic churches have existed for centuries. The Orthodox Catholic Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 and today maintains its seat of power in Istanbul, has more than 100 million members.

And not all are alike. Some are conservative, offering Mass in Latin. Others are characterized by an openness to concepts and stances that the Roman Catholic Church eschews, including female priests and gay marriage — both of which a majority of U.S. Catholics support, according to the Pew poll.

But most independent Catholic churches are filled with congregants steeped in the traditions of the religion. Byrne said 60 percent to 70 percent of parishioners at the independent Catholic churches she studied had come from Roman Catholic churches.

She said such a conversion comes at a price: The Rome-led Catholic Church has made sure to convey that independent parishes aren’t “the real thing,” suggesting that joining one could jeopardize a Catholic’s salvation.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last week declined to wade into the debate, instead noting that though the church has been “uneven in fidelity to Christ and His word,” it is “the only place where Christ and His word continue to be passed on in all of its fullness and clarity.”

Monsignor James Michael St. George — “Father Jim” — the pastor at Saint Miriam Parish, and Sean Hall (left) greeting members of the congregation arriving for a traditional Holy Thursday service last week. St. Miriam’s is an independent (non-Vatican affiliated) Catholic church in Flourtown.

St. George said he encountered that sort of resistance in St. Miriam’s first year, when a listing for the church’s Catholic services in a local Roxborough paper triggered a letter from Roman Catholic clergy suggesting its use of the word Catholic might “mislead” people. Instead, attention from Roman Catholic churches only helped grow his congregation, he said.

Almost every year since, members of St. Miriam’s have worked to build its infrastructure — painting walls, restoring the stained glass windows, and maintaining the graves on the 12-acre campus along Bethlehem Pike that it inherited from a Lutheran church.

St. George began his path to priesthood at a Roman Catholic seminary, St. Mark’s in Erie, but said he had long felt unsettled by parts of church doctrine, including its positions on LGBT people and women. Such stances had even resonated inside his family’s Italian Catholic home in northwestern Pennsylvania.

“My sister couldn’t serve the altar or read at Mass,” St. George said, “and she would come home and cry.”

Now he’s a bishop in Old Catholic Churches International, part of an independent Catholic movement that split from Rome in 1870 and dates to an 18th-century Dutch separatist movement.

Mother JoEllen Werthman confronted the same kind of conflicts when she grew up Catholic on Long Island decades ago and then, in the 1980s, felt a religious calling.

“I couldn’t figure out how to have a boyfriend and be a nun,” said Werthman.

When it became clear the Roman Catholic Church would not accept women as clergy in her lifetime, Werthman began to look elsewhere, and found a seminary at the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch to ordain her.

“What will I say to God when I die?” she asked. “Did I follow the rules, or did I answer the call?”

These days, the 73-year-old cleric is married, and leads St. Mary Magdalen in Bensalem, a congregation of about two dozen people out of a building owned by an Episcopal church.

At Werthman’s church, her homily is followed by an open discussion with parishioners. The congregants appreciate being treated “like adults,” Werthman said.

“Most people have never been given the opportunity to explore their questions once they get past being a kid,” she said.

St. George said his church saw an increase in attendance after the wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s. His parish, which also runs a preschool and kindergarten, has a program called KidSafe, a set of policies concerning child welfare.

Lorraine Cuffey joined the Flourtown church on Palm Sunday six years ago after learning that the church she had been attending failed to remove two priests accused of child abuse. Now, she’s the president of St. Miriam’s board of directors.

Her Episcopalian husband used to avoid Sunday Mass because he couldn’t receive communion with Cuffey. But now that they can receive communion together, “he comes every Sunday,” she said.

For Lewis Salotti and his wife, Ramona, who joined St. Miriam’s three years ago, the independent Catholic church is a perfect mix of tradition and flexibility.

“It was comforting to come here and see the same service and be familiar with it,” Salotti said. But with clergy who can marry and have families, he said, “they are living in the world just like us, and I think that really makes a difference.”

St. George says his church is about bringing everyone together under the “Catholic fold.”

“When the doctrine of the church harms people, you need to look at it again,” he said. “The church shouldn’t hurt people.”

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