The recent document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education talks of an “educational crisis”, and alleges that discussions in relation to gender have “helped to destabilise the family as an institution”. As the parent of a trans child, I find this hugely disappointing.
I have two teenage daughters. Their dad is Catholic, and they’ve been raised in the Catholic faith. When our youngest came out as transgender, we struggled. This was five years ago, and there was limited coverage of trans people in the media. We struggled in our own minds – how can our child know so young? What if she’s wrong? What does this mean? We struggled with our families – unsure of how to tell them, or indeed how they would react. We struggled with our church – would we still be welcome? Should we find a different one? A different school?
I met with the senior leadership team of our Catholic primary school to discuss support. I also sat with our parish sister, and talked over many cups of coffee. Her response has stayed with me. “We are talking about a child. There will be people who don’t understand. The world is changing, and the church can be slow to catch up. But your child should be treated with love, compassion and kindness. Who are we to turn our backs on her?”
Staff at the primary school explained to fellow pupils, in an age-appropriate way, why our child would be using a different name and pronouns after the school holiday. The only change at this stage is a social one – there is no medical intervention. I contacted some of the parents. Messages of support came flooding back.
The year after her social transition, we flew to Ireland for a wedding. This would be the first time that many aunts, uncles and cousins (as well as my 86-year-old mother-in-law) had met our daughter as her true authentic self. Again, as parents we were nervous. These are the people we care about most in the world; how would they respond to our child? The love from family was overwhelming. There will always be those who do not understand, but I saw the relief my daughter felt at being accepted and not ridiculed. Every day I see her thrive and grow in confidence. I am proud of her.
My child’s transition has not led to the “destabilisation of the family institution”. If anything, family bonds are stronger. Her relationship with her grandparents is a joy to behold. She and her sister argue (most siblings do), but there is a closeness that was missing previously. I’ve thought long and hard about why that is. Honestly? She is no longer pretending to be someone she is not. She can relax and be herself.
The Vatican says you can’t choose your gender. Trans and non-binary people don’t “choose” their gender. They know who they are, and they wish to live authentically and happily. What I will say is that families, friends, communities and congregations can choose how to respond. In our case, they have responded with love, compassion and respect, even when they don’t understand.
As I said at the start, I have two teenage daughters. Both now attend our local Catholic secondary school. Both are thriving and happy. Pope Francis envisions an inclusive church – our experience as a family is a reminder that God welcomes all, even and especially those whom society rejects. Our community is made up of people living their faith with compassion through their actions. That, to me, is true Christianity.
The refusal of the Church to purge abusers and pedophiles from the clergy and accept human sexuality as a blessing, is leading to the end of the Church as we know it, says Matthew Fox on Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay
Facing double-barreled criticism of their handling of clergy sexual abuse and church finances, America’s Catholic bishops began their annual spring meeting Tuesday vowing to codify for the first time rules to hold themselves accountable for misconduct.
The strong possibility that the U.S. Church will vote this week to create a system of bishop oversight is historic, though critics and watchdogs remain worried about a possible weakness: In the measures under consideration, all future probes will remain in-house. Lay people can be involved, but it’s not mandatory, and the pope retains full power over whether to keep or how to punish bishops.
“This week we continue a journey that will not end until there is not one instance of abuse in our church,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in opening the meeting Tuesday morning.
The past year has seen church leaders — especially in the Northeast — enmeshed in scandals involving cardinals and bishops accused of engaging in sexual harassment and financial abuse, or looking the other way when their fellow, high-ranking peers did so. Last week, The Washington Post reported that a Baltimore archbishop investigating sexual and financial misconduct by a West Virginia bishop edited out part of the investigative report that included the archbishop himself.
Under global pressure, Pope Francis issued a sweeping new law last month requiring dioceses worldwide to create a system of some kind for bishops and other higher-ups to be investigated — a move that comes nearly 20 years after the bishops made it mandatory to remove priests who were accused of child sexual abuse.
Debate about what kind of oversight is needed and how far it should go is expected to be intense on the floor at the Marriott Waterfront in Baltimore, where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will meet from Tuesday through Thursday. The broader questions behind specific policies that will be under debate include: What do transparency and accountability really mean to this 2,000-year-old global church run out of Rome? And if theology holds that only the pope oversees bishops and cardinals, is there still room for modern-day transparency best practices?
“I think that’s a question many are asking. And one that needs to be further studied, if you will. What can be done within the parameters of canon law and the structures of the church to allow for the kind of transparency and accountability that would give people confidence in what’s being done?” said Francesco C. Cesareo, chair of the National Review Board, a body created by the bishops to monitor their work preventing clergy sex abuse of minors.
Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, a group that tracks the church’s handling of child sex abuse cases, said he was discouraged that the proposals on the table this week leave the power in the hands of the bishops.
He noted the case of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, bishop emeritus of West Virginia, who was at the center of an internal church report made public by The Post last week. The report alleges sexual and financial misconduct by Bransfield, including excessive personal spending into the millions. McKiernan noted that Bransfield was a former treasurer of the bishops’ conference and wrote a recent version of the U.S. Church’s financial best-practices guidelines.
“He’s obviously not acting in compliance with the guidelines he himself drew up,” McKiernan said. “The big problem is these people have never behaved as they know they ought to and as they’re saying they’re supposed to. So where’s the teeth?”
James Rogers, spokesman for the bishops’ conference, said the bishops with whom he has spoken are expressing a feeling of urgency. They “want to get something done. They’re hearing from people in the pews who want to know the church is doing something about [the lack of bishop accountability]. And bishops want to be responsive. On the one hand, they realize we aren’t going to solve everything this week, but we have to have a good start building upon the foundation of child protection already in place.”
A new poll released Tuesday found that almost all Americans — Catholics and non-Catholics — are aware of reports related to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church but are split on whether the problem is ongoing and on whether it’s more common among Catholic leaders.
The Pew Research Center study finds that 48 percent of Americans believe sex abuse is more common among Catholic clerics than among other religious leaders, while 47 percent say it’s equally common among leaders of all faiths.
Catholic Americans are less likely to see sexual misconduct as particularly tied to their denomination, the country’s largest. According to the Pew survey, conducted in the spring, 33 percent say abuse is more common among Catholic priests and bishops, while a majority — 61 percent — believe that abuse is equally common among all religious leaders.
The reports of misconduct are spurring debates and decisions inside and outside Catholic sites of worship across the nation. Nearly half (46 percent) of Catholics say they have discussed the subject with family members, friends or acquaintances, while roughly a quarter of Catholics say they began attending Mass less frequently as a result of the accounts. A similar percentage — 26 percent — of Catholics say they reduced their parish donations in response to the reports of misconduct.
Still, American Catholics retain relatively positive views of their religious leaders’ response to the scandals. More than half — 55 percent — of Catholics believe that Francis has done an “excellent” or “good” job responding to reports of abuse, and 49 percent say the same of their own bishop. Thirty-six percent, however, believe that U.S. bishops as a whole have done an “excellent” or “good” job handling the allegations.
Opinions varied according to level of engagement with the church. U.S. Catholics who attend Mass weekly were less likely to reduce their attendance or donations as a result of the reported misconduct and were more likely to hold favorable views of religious leaders.
There is a tentative agenda for the week, but bishops Tuesday morning can propose adding — or deleting — things from the schedule.
The U.S. bishops nearly voted in the fall on a plan for self-oversight but the Vatican told them to hold off until a February global meeting could be held, and the pope issued new rules in May calling for all countries by June 2020 to have some system in place. When bishops are accused of misconduct, the pope’s rules call for them to be investigated by the “metropolitan” — the archbishop of the nearest large diocese. The rules allow for, but don’t mandate, involvement of lay people.
Francis said it violated church teaching for anyone but the pope to discipline or oversee a bishop.
“There is no role for the laity to play in terms of disciplining a bishop. They can only be in the probe and make recommendations as to penal consequences,” Cesareo said. “But in the end, it’s in the pope’s hands.”
But there’s a lot more in the mix than just decisions about discipline. For example, can laypeople lead investigations in partnership with the metropolitan and make decisions such as releasing results of the investigation to the public?
U.S. Catholics have only two examples, total, of bishop investigations — both in the past year, under Francis. The Archdiocese of New York investigated sexual abuse allegations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom Francis defrocked this year. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori investigated Bransfield in an investigation that began in the fall and whose work was done by a small group of laypeople.
Post reporting last week revealed that Lori, while overseeing the Bransfield investigation, asked that his name — and those of other top clerics — be removed from the investigative report, after lay investigators found Bransfield had given hundreds of thousands in cash gifts to clerics, including $10,500 to Lori. Lori’s was among the names removed.
Under Vatican rules, church officials who get a complaint of misconduct about a bishop must meet all civil reporting requirements, such as telling police. Those vary widely depending on the country.
U.S. bishops will consider this week how to structure the independent system that will receive the complaint. They may create a single, national 800-number run by a private vendor, or they may have metropolitan bishops around the country each run one.
They also will consider allowing the conference to ban retired bishops or cardinals from national meetings if they have misconduct findings against them.
The meeting’s centerpiece is on creating a sex abuse reporting and investigative process, but the Bransfield scandal that erupted just days ago is expected to push financial accountability into the conversation mix.
The Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference, the industry group for diocesan finance officials, has asked bishops to also create systems for financial misconduct, said Pat Markey, executive director of the fiscal group.
“Understanding that safeguarding children is of the highest importance, I’m hopeful at one point they’ll take up other kinds of abuse. The only way you can restore trust is by looking at that aspect. I think the bishops who cover up, there’s a financial component,” Markey said Monday.
Bishops aren’t likely to spend a lot of time looking at the core data around abuse complaints. Catholic leaders frequently claim that the days of widespread sexual abuse in the church are in the distant past, and that even new allegations made today relate to decades-old secrets, not current priests’ behavior.
In many cases, that is correct. The latest analysis of abuse reports, commissioned by the U.S. bishops and published this year, says that 1,385 survivors and others informed dioceses of previously undisclosed abuse of minors in 2018. The incidents they reported were largely in the past, some from the 1940s.
The number of credible allegations made in 2018 were “significantly higher than in 2017,” according to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a church-run research group. The increase was largely the result of numbers from four dioceses, CARA reported. Those are in New York, where survivors were spurred to come forward by a new offer of compensation.
CARA also published results in the spring from its first study of all U.S. bishops, done in 2016. It offers a snapshot of the men at the helm of the church.
According to CARA’s spring newsletter, which excerpted the study, there are 430 active and retired bishops in the country. When asked their general theological leanings, 42 percent said traditional, 41 percent said moderate and 17 percent said progressive.
The average bishop is age 65, non-Hispanic white and born in the United States. Forty-seven percent of the bishops, CARA’s survey found, watch Fox News, while 35 percent watch CNN. Ninety-five percent agree “strongly” or “somewhat” that “secular U.S. culture is hostile to the values of Catholicism,” CARA found.
“Seven percent explicitly mentioned the clergy sexual abuse crisis as one of the greatest challenges the church faces,” the CARA newsletter said.
Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who represents many clergy abuse survivors and was featured in the movie “Spotlight,” on Tuesday told The Post that the bishops should advocate for one thing in any case of alleged abuse, regardless of what civil laws require: Call the police.
“It would be folly to think that the culture of sexual abuse and coverup within the Catholic Church is going to change because of written rules made by the Catholic bishops who thrive in that culture and practice self-acclaim,” he said. “History is getting tired of the deception and criminality within the Catholic Church.”
A cardinal at the Vatican and eight other Catholic clerics pledged on Friday to return money to the diocese of West Virginia after revelations that the bishop there used church funds to give cash gifts of $350,000 to fellow clergymen.
Over 13 years, until his recent ouster for alleged sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield wrote personal checks to clerics and was reimbursed with church money, according to a Washington Post investigation published Wednesday. Bransfield sent the checks, many for amounts in the four figures, to 137 clergymen, including two young priests he is accused of mistreating and more than a dozen cardinals.
Among those returning money is Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who said through a Vatican spokesman Friday that he would give back $29,000 that Bransfield sent for renovations to his apartment in Rome.
The checks have angered many parishioners in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation. They have also raised concerns about the prevalence of clerics giving such gifts to those who hold sway over their careers, as well as about the propriety of accepting those gifts. The gifts were given during years when Bransfield was building a reputation in West Virginia for living a life of opulence and allegedly sexually harassing young priests and seminarians.
“The first thing I feel is just anger and that it suddenly makes sense why there was no ability to have accountability here,” Molly Linehan, a Catholic school administrator in Charleston, W.Va., said Friday about the cash gifts clerics received from Bransfield. “And although anger is the immediate thing, almost just as immediate is sorrow.”
Several recipients of the checks denied in interviews that the money was intended to buy their silence or pliability. Some said they received checks — described in diocese records obtained by The Post as gifts — after delivering sermons or writing speeches. Other checks marked special occasions, such as birthdays or holidays, they said.
Their decisions to return the money followed Archbishop William E. Lori’s announcement Wednesday, after receiving questions from The Post, that he would return $7,500 he had received from Bransfield.
Lori oversaw an investigation of Bransfield that was ordered by the Vatican in September after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. A team of lay investigators detailed their findings in a confidential draft report to Lori in February, recommending that Bransfield be removed from ministry for alleged sexual harassment and financial abuses.
Lori ordered that the names of senior clerics who received gifts — including himself — be edited out of the final report to the Vatican, The Post reported Wednesday. He said he thought inclusion of the names would be a distraction.
On Friday, Lori said he regretted that decision.
“If I had to do it over again, especially at a time when we’re trying to create greater transparency and accountability, the report would have included the names of those bishops who received gifts, including my own, with some notation that there was no evidence to suggest that those who received gifts reciprocated in any way that was inappropriate,” he said in a video statement posted to the archdiocese’s website. “Transparency also includes admitting when a mistake in judgment has been made and that is certainly the case here.”
In an interview with The Post, he said such gifts are unusual. “I don’t get a lot of gifts like that,” he said.
Several recipients said they believed Bransfield was sending his own money.
“I had absolutely no idea that he was submitting these checks to people and getting reimbursed by the diocese,” said Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, who received three checks totaling $3,000 from Bransfield, money he said he would return. “I thought it was a kind thing to do. I just assumed it was from his account.”
Murry said he does not send checks to fellow clerics as gifts.
Bransfield, 75, drew on revenue from oil-rich land in Texas that had been donated to the diocese more than a century ago and that has generated annual revenue averaging nearly $15 million in recent years. Bransfield spent lavishly on chartered jets, luxury hotels, a private chef and a $4.6 million renovation to his church residence, the investigators found.
Bransfield has denied the allegations, telling The Post in a brief interview that “none of it is true” and that critics are “trying to destroy my reputation.”
It is Bransfield’s cash gifts that are raising questions about prelates outside West Virginia.
Through a spokesman, Farrell told The Post that, in addition to Bransfield’s gifts, he received “voluntary donations” from laity, priests and bishops for the renovation of his apartment in the Vatican.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò — who served as the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, from 2011 to 2016 — said he received checks from Bransfield and a handful of other bishops during his tenure. He described the practice as unique to the United States in his experience.
“Around the Christmas holiday, I started receiving gift checks from several bishops in the United States,” he said in an email, recalling his arrival in 2011. “I had worked in nunciatures around the world and had never seen anything like that.”
The checks were typically between $100 and $1,000, he said. Aides told him “money gifts among bishops were customary in the United States, and not accepting them would be an affront to the donors,” Viganò told The Post.
Viganò received $6,000 from Bransfield. He said he donated the money to charities shortly after he received it.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who the report says was given $23,600, said through a spokesman Friday that he received honoraria for speaking invitations and other events, in addition to gifts to mark personal celebrations. The biggest single gift to Wuerl — $10,000 — was for the renovation of a church in Rome, he said.
Wuerl has not said whether he intends to return the money, the spokesman said.
The spokesman did not respond to questions about whether Wuerl has given any cash gifts or received them from other clerics.
Monsignor Kevin Irwin, former longtime head of the theology department at the Catholic University of America in Washington, received $6,500 from Bransfield, according to diocese records. Irwin said Friday that the money was in exchange for writing and teaching he did and that he didn’t feel obliged to return it.
Irwin said Bransfield’s large gifts to clerics who apparently performed no service seemed out of the norm.
“I was sickened by it,” Irwin said, describing his reaction to disclosures in The Post’s report.
“Money corrupts. If you follow the money, whether in the church or out of the church, it can corrupt. A big check for doing nothing? Use it on yourself? I don’t know where that came from. Mine came from working in my office. And I’ve never been given a check for something I didn’t do.”
The Rev. Michael Weston and monsignors Walter Rossi and Vito Buonanno at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Bransfield was stationed before he was sent to West Virginia, are returning $10,800 collectively, a spokeswoman said.
“Over the course of the past few years, the priests of the Basilica have received modest financial gifts from Bishop Bransfield for their assistance with diocesan pilgrimages and to celebrate significant days such as birthdays and anniversaries,” said spokeswoman Jacquelyn Hayes.
“The priests have never had cause to question the source of the funds,” she wrote in a statement. “As other clergy have pledged, the priests at the Basilica will return the personal gifts from Bishop Bransfield to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, where the money can be used to serve the needs of the community.”
The most frequent recipient of checks, the Rev. Richard Mullins of the District of Columbia, said Bransfield had encouraged him to become a priest and was a longtime friend. Mullins, who received 38 checks from 2013 to 2018, said they were generally for birthdays or holidays, according to the records obtained by The Post.
“I’m deeply saddened that church funds would be used for personal activities,” he said.
In the years before he was ousted for alleged sexual harassment and financial abuses, the leader of the Catholic Church in West Virginia gave cash gifts totaling $350,000 to fellow clergymen, including young priests he is accused of mistreating and more than a dozen cardinals in the United States and at the Vatican, according to church records obtained by The Washington Post.
Bishop Michael J. Bransfield wrote the checks from his personal account over more than a decade, and the West Virginia diocese reimbursed him by boosting his compensation to cover the value of the gifts, the records show. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the diocese must use its money only for charitable purposes.
The gifts — one as large as $15,000 — were detailed in a draft of a confidential report to the Vatican about the alleged misconduct that led to Bransfield’s resignation in September. The names of 11 powerful clerics who received checks were edited out of the final report at the request of the archbishop overseeing the investigation, William Lori of Baltimore.
Lori’s name was among those cut. He received a total of $10,500, records show.
The Post obtained both versions of the report, along with numerous emails and financial records.
On Wednesday, in response to inquiries from The Post, Lori said he is returning money he received from Bransfield, and asking that it be donated to Catholic Charities, “in light of what I have come to learn of Bishop Bransfield’s handling of diocesan finances.”
He acknowledged that the names of senior clerics were cut from the final report. “Including them could inadvertently and/or unfairly suggest that in receiving gifts for anniversaries or holidays there were expectations for reciprocity,” Lori wrote. “No evidence was found to suggest this.”
The investigation was launched by the Vatican last fall after clerics in West Virginia raised concerns about Bransfield’s behavior. Five lay investigators concluded that the cash gifts were part of a broader pattern of abuse of power by the bishop, including harassing young priests and spending church money on personal indulgences.
“Bishop Bransfield adopted an extravagant and lavish lifestyle that was in stark contrast to the faithful he served and was for his own personal benefit,” they wrote in the final report.
During his 13 years as bishop in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation, Bransfield spent $2.4 million in church money on travel, much of it personal, which included flying in chartered jets and staying in luxury hotels, according to the report. Bransfield and several subordinates spent an average of nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol, it says. The West Virginia diocese paid $4.6 million to renovate Bransfield’s church residence after a fire damaged a single bathroom. When Bransfield was in the chancery, an administrative building, fresh flowers were delivered daily, at a cost of about $100 a day — almost $182,000 in all.
Bransfield, 75, drew on a source of revenue that many parishioners knew little about, oil-rich land in Texas donated to the diocese more than a century ago. He spoke of church money as if it were his to spend without restriction, according to the report.
“I own this,” he is quoted as saying on many occasions.
In an interview with The Post, Bransfield disputed the allegations, saying “none of it is true,” but declined to go into detail because attorneys had advised him not to comment. One of his attorneys said Lori has not responded to Bransfield’s request for a copy of the report.
“Everybody’s trying to destroy my reputation,” Bransfield said by phone without elaborating. “These people are terrible to me.”
According to the report, he spoke with investigators in February and “emphatically denied engaging in any sexual harassment or sexual activity with any priest or seminarian, either verbally or suggestively by his conduct.” The report does not include responses from Bransfield to many of the spending allegations, but he told investigators that aides oversaw the renovations at his residence and that back problems left him unable to fly in economy class.
Lori told members of the diocese in a statement Wednesday that he received permission “as of today” to sell the bishop’s residence in Wheeling and use the proceeds to support victims and survivors of sexual abuse.
Just hours after The Post’s inquiries, the statement also addressed the gifts he received from Bransfield. “In the spirit of full disclosure I feel it necessary to acknowledge that I was periodically a recipient of financial gifts in varying amounts by Bishop Bransfield,” Lori wrote.
The documents obtained by The Post provide a rare inside look at the finances of one diocese at a time when Catholic leaders, buffeted by criticism over their handling of clergy sex-abuse cases, have pledged to reform a church hierarchy that gives virtually unchecked power to bishops and cardinals. The records also offer the deepest insight yet into the circumstances surrounding Bransfield’s resignation in September — when church authorities announced an investigation into unspecified sexual harassment allegations — and his subsequent suspension from ministry in March.
Bransfield wrote at least 565 checks that were recorded as “gifts” and made out to the clerics by name. The documents obtained by The Post do not make clear why Bransfield gave the gifts, though the recipients of the largest amounts were among the most influential members of the Catholic Church, clerics whose opinions carry weight with the Vatican.
Among them was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who recently retired as Washington’s archbishop; Cardinal Tim Dolan of New York; Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who sits on the Vatican Supreme Court, and Archbishop Carlo Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States known for his calls for more accountability. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, a high-ranking Vatican official who served for years in the District, received two checks totaling $29,000 for expenses related to an apartment in Rome, documents show.
The report does not comment on the propriety of accepting such gifts.
The gifts came as a succession of younger male clerical assistants complained to church officials in West Virginia that Bransfield was sexually harassing them. Similar concerns were raised about Bransfield’s conduct in Philadelphia, where he taught at a Catholic high school, and in the District of Columbia, where he was head of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from 1990 to 2005, the report says.
At least six of Bransfield’s clerical assistants in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston “were broken by the experience,” Vicar for Clergy Anthony Cincinnati told investigators. Seminarians or young priests appealed to leaders in the diocese, to no avail, the report says. They were instructed to “make your boundaries clear,” it says, or told that they had no choice but to join Bransfield in such activities as sleepovers at his residence and on trips.
“Your presence is required,” the report quotes another of Bransfield’s top aides, the Judicial Vicar Rev. Kevin Quirk, telling a young priest.
In a statement, a spokesman for Wuerl said the cardinal had “received honoraria for speaking invitations in the Diocese of Wheeling and other commemorative events, as well as modest gifts to mark personal celebrations, such as an ordination anniversary.”
A Vatican spokesman confirmed that Farrell received “voluntary donations” from Bransfield and others for the renovation of his apartment in the Vatican and said that Bransfield “received nothing in exchange.”
“Cardinal Farrell was not aware of the accusations against Bishop Bransfield for abuses and mismanagement of the financial funds of his diocese,” the spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, said in a statement.
Spokesmen for Dolan and Burke did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Nor did Vigano.
Cincinnati declined to comment.
Asked for comment on behalf of him and Quirk, a spokesman for the diocese forwarded the statement from Lori. The statement cast blame on Bransfield, claiming that the judgment of some diocesan personnel was “impacted by the culture of fear of retaliation and retribution that the former bishop fostered.”
The roots of the West Virginia diocese’s unusual wealth date back to the late 1800s, to a friendship struck on a transatlantic cruise ship between a bishop from Wheeling and a New York heiress. When she died in 1904, Sara Catherine Aloysia Tracy left the majority of her estate to the diocese, including a large tract of land in west Texas. Oil was discovered there decades later.
The income from the mineral rights generates annual revenue averaging nearly $15 million in recent years and has funded an endowment now valued at $230 million, according to financial documents. As a result, West Virginia’s parishes are largely supported by the diocese — unlike across the rest of the country, where dioceses must be supported by local parishes.
The state has 78,000 Catholics — just 4 percent of the population, among the lowest per capita in the country.
Bransfield arrived at the Wheeling-Charleston diocese in 2005. He was known to prefer an opulent lifestyle, the report says. Investigators wrote that “a reputation for a party atmosphere attached to Bransfield’s tenure” in Washington.
Three months into his time in West Virginia, documents show, Bransfield began dipping into the diocese’s fortune, sending to some clerics what would be the first of many checks.
In 2006, Bransfield gave $4,800 to Cardinal Bernard Law, who had by then been ousted from Boston for his role covering up clergy sex abuse. Cardinal Edmund Szoka got $500 after retiring that year as a top Vatican administrator.
In 2011, shortly after Wuerl was elevated to cardinal in the Archdiocese of Washington, Bransfield appeared with him at a ceremony in Rome. Bransfield walked just behind Wuerl in a procession of global dignitaries, video of the event shows. Two weeks later, Bransfield wrote a check to Wuerl for $10,000.
The following year, Bransfield sent a $5,000 check to the newly appointed archbishop of Baltimore, William Lori.
The Rev. Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, known as the Apostolic Nuncio, received checks totaling $28,000 before his death in 2011, the draft report shows. Vigano, his successor, got checks worth $6,000, it shows.
Checks totaling $9,175 were sent to his nephew the Rev. Sean Bransfield, vice chancellor of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, financial records show. His cousin Monsignor Brian Bransfield, general-secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, received $1,350, the records show.
During these years, fellow clerics elected Michael Bransfield president of the Papal Foundation, a nonprofit that distributes millions of dollars to charitable projects on the pope’s behalf. The foundation is run by U.S. cardinals, and its board included Wuerl and Theodore McCarrick, both recipients of Bransfield’s cash gifts.
Bransfield also became a regular visitor to the Vatican. In 2010, he presented a cake to Pope Benedict on the pontiff’s 83rd birthday.
Law, Sambi and Szoka are deceased.
An attorney for McCarrick said he has no immediate comment.
In separate statements, Brian and Sean Bransfield said they were unaware that Michael Bransfield had been reimbursed for the checks. “They always seemed like a typical gift from a family member,” Brian Bransfield said.
Records show that the diocese’s finance officials adopted a method to reimburse Bransfield for the checks. His compensation was increased by an amount that covered the gifts, plus the tax burden that resulted from the increased compensation, a practice known as “grossing up,” according to the report and emails among top diocesan officials. The documents do not describe who initiated the arrangement, but internal emails indicate it became common practice.
“His Excellency would like to receive a check in the amount of $500.00 prepared according to the usual gross-up method,” Quirk wrote to diocese financial officials in a 2016 email regarding a gift that Bransfield sent to Vigano’s successor as nuncio, Christophe Pierre.
In the six years before Bransfield left West Virginia, the same method was used to reimburse him $324,129 for a portion of his personal expenses — clothing, jewelry and “personal services,” the report says. Among the charges paid for by the diocese were 87 purchases totaling $61,000 from Ann Hand, a D.C. jewelry boutique specializing in patriotic items such as gold and sapphire eagles, records show. The report does not say whether the church paid for the jewelry directly or reimbursed Bransfield to cover the cost.
As Bransfield lived in opulence, seminarians and young priests who assisted him complained to church officials that he was sexually harassing them.
The report cites nine men in the Wheeling-Charleston diocese who accused Bransfield of touching or groping them, kissing or exposing himself to them or of commenting on their bodies. Diocesan leaders witnessed Bransfield’s “predatory” behavior toward altar servers, behavior troubling enough that one church leader tried to make sure no altar server was left alone with him, the report says.
The text of the report does not name the alleged victims, and it is often vague about when the incidents took place.
There were “troubling hugs” from Bransfield, the seminarians and young priests told investigators. On some of these occasions, they alleged, Bransfield appeared to be intoxicated. Others said he warned them not to “get fat.”
One said Bransfield slapped him on the buttocks at Castel Gandolfo in Italy, the summer residence of the pope. On another occasion, the alleged victim said, Bransfield summoned him into his bedroom and began kissing his neck.
Another said Bransfield let him drink alcohol before he was legally of age, exposed himself, pulled the young man against him and ran his hands over the seminarian’s genitals.
One seminarian recalled sitting on Bransfield’s lap, being kissed by the bishop and thinking: “I either do this, or I have to completely reinvent my life.” Bransfield asked him to take his pants off, but he refused, the seminarian told investigators. The seminarian later suffered an emotional breakdown and became deeply depressed, the report says.
At least two of the men now accusing Bransfield of misconduct received checks from him, typically for between $50 and $300, according to the report and financial records. Those gifts were given during and after the alleged misconduct, the records show.
Throughout his tenure, Bransfield abused alcohol, oxycodone and other prescription drugs, which “likely contributed to his harassing and abusive behavior,” the report says. The report does not include a response from Bransfield on the drug use allegations.
In the interview with investigators in February, Bransfield denied sexual misconduct with the seminarians or young priests, the report says. “He said that at most he would hug these individuals (using the term “embrazzio” to describe the hugs), but there was never any sexual intent with anyone he came into contact with while bishop or during his time at the National Shrine,” it says.
Despite the growing number of people in the diocese who had concerns about Bransfield’s conduct and spending, the few internal checks that existed failed to stop it, according to the report.
The diocese had a finance board made up of officials and lay people who were responsible for overseeing spending, including Bransfield’s compensation. The board was “extremely passive,” the report says.
“There was an almost complete absence of any meaningful review of financial decisions,” the investigators wrote.
Told of the findings, Dwight M. Keating, a longtime member of the finance board, said: “Wow. I didn’t know any of this.”
Keating said the board never discussed or approved reimbursing Bransfield for cash gifts. “Why would we be giving gifts to people outside the diocese? We have enough poor people in the state,” he said.
In 2013, a new finance director, Michael Deemer, noticed the “extreme level” of Bransfield’s spending and concluded that it might violate IRS rules, the report says.
Instead of confronting Bransfield, Deemer arranged for some of those personal expenses to be added to the bishop’s compensation, using the “gross-up” method that had been in place for years to reimburse him for cash gifts.
Tax experts contacted by The Post said the decision to reimburse Bransfield by boosting his income could raise questions at the IRS about whether there was an effort to mask the true source of the money.
Outside auditors also avoided addressing the spending patterns, the report says. A partner at the auditing firm hired by Bransfield told investigators he was “afraid to challenge Bishop Bransfield’s decisions because of the Bishop’s position and his overall demeanor.”
Quirk and Bransfield’s most senior aide, Vicar General Rev. Frederick P. Annie, discussed concerns about the bishop’s conduct with young men but did nothing to stop it, the report says.
“Tell it to the Nuncio,” Annie said when Quirk raised the issue, according to Quirk, referring to the conduit for complaints to the Vatican about bishops.
During his time in West Virginia, Bransfield gave three people who held that role checks totaling $38,000, records show. Annie told investigators that taking a complaint about the bishop to the nuncio would have been “career ending.”
In the spring of 2018, two young priests who had worked as assistants to Bransfield, along with a third priest who had been offered that job, delivered incendiary letters to Quirk. They alleged that Bransfield “had subjected them to unwanted sexual advances, sexual contact, and sexual harassment,” church documents show.
Quirk took the allegations to Lori, along with documents detailing Bransfield’s cash gifts. The Vatican launched an investigation.
On Sept. 13, Pierre, the nuncio, announced that Bransfield had resigned. On the same day, the Archdiocese of Baltimore released a statement saying Pope Francis had directed Lori to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against Bransfield. The statement offered few details.
Within days, Lori named a team that included two attorneys from the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder: former Baltimore prosecutor Gregg L. Bernstein and Caroline Judge Mehta. The team also included Diane Barr, the chancellor of the Baltimore diocese; Christopher Helmrath, a financial consultant; and John Moore, a retired lay person in West Virginia. Lori gave them permission to access any relevant documents.
They all declined to comment, referred questions to Lori or did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The team began interviewing dozens of people and waded through years of credit card reports detailing Bransfield’s purchases, as well as personal banking records maintained on his computer.
On Feb. 13, the lay investigators delivered a scathing 60-page report recommending that Bransfield be stripped of his powers as bishop, removed from ministry and forced to pay unspecified restitution.
It also recommended that his three closest aides — Annie, Quirk and Cincinnati — be removed. “By failing to take any action, the Chancery Monsignors enabled the predatory and harassing conduct of Bishop Bransfield, and allowed him to recklessly spend Diocesan funds for his own personal use,” the report said.
The investigators suggested reforms that would enable priests, church workers and parishioners to report sexual and financial abuses without fear of repercussions. They also recommended that the diocese’s external auditors be fired.
Bransfield was removed from ministry in March. Only his successor would be able to remove the three Bransfield aides, Lori said Wednesday. And he said only the Vatican can make a decision about forcing Bransfield to pay restitution.
“My focus is on the healing of the people of the diocese and on preventing such abuses from occurring in the future,” Lori wrote.