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.
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.
He was a priest just out of seminary. She was a nurse. They were both from the slopes of Mount Kenya, but their paths improbably crossed in Rome
He became unshakable in his desire to marry her, even though he had taken the Catholic Church’s mandatory vow of celibacy for priests
When he returned to preach in Kenya, Peter Njogu was shocked when fellow priests told him that many of them had broken that vow, marrying and having children. In hushed tones, they spoke of their “secret families,” kept hidden in distant homes. The thought of doing so pained him
As the Catholic Church goes through a global crisis brought on in part by the revelation of widespread sexual misconduct by its clergy, self-proclaimed Bishop Njogu believes he has figured out how to save Christianity’s largest church from its own sins: Let priests marry and raise families.
Njogu’s breakaway faction, the Renewed Universal Catholic Church, is Catholic in every way except in having optional celibacy for its priests. Its growth in Kenya is rooted in opposition to the practice of keeping secret families but reflects a growing worry among some Catholics that the celibacy requirement — to many an nonnegotiable tenet of the priesthood — creates a harmful culture of sexual secrecy.
The Vatican has shown no interest in reexamining the issue for all priests, and Pope Francis has called celibacy a “gift to the church.” But the pontiff has also signaled that he is open to ordaining married men in remote parts of the world with a severe shortage of priests. More radical voices in the church have called for the church to rescind the requirement altogether.
“Most of our members are ex-Catholics,” said Njogu. “They are tired of the hypocrisy. Some of our people call us the ‘Church of the Future.’ ”
Nearly 20 priests and more than 2,000 parishioners have joined Njogu since 2011, he claims, mostly in the towns and villages that dot the fertile slopes of Mount Kenya, the 17,000-foot-high extinct volcano right in the center of this country.
“Now that I’ve come out, these other priests tell me, ‘The problem with you is you went public,’ ” he said on a recent Sunday after celebrating Mass. “And I say, ‘I am not the problem; I am the solution. Join me.’ ”
To his flock, he said: “This is where you find your freedom from all that hypocrisy.”
The church in the hilltop village of Gachatha where Njogu preaches his reformation is a far cry from a cathedral. The pews, pulpit and church itself are all made of wooden planks nailed together. The floor is sawdust atop dirt. On a clear day, the ice-capped peak of Mount Kenya glimmers through a glassless window.
While Catholicism has declined in numbers in some former bastions in the West, such as Ireland, it is growing more rapidly in Africa than anywhere else. Africans make up nearly a fifth of the world’s Catholics. Njogu’s sermons hark back to Catholicism’s pre-celibacy era while appealing to the faith’s future in Africa, where he believes it will have to reconcile with local customs as it grows.
“No one in the Vatican understands the African soul. They do not understand that for the African man, priest or not, the worst sin is to leave this world without siring a child,” said Njogu. “Mandatory celibacy is thus the root of priestly sin, but they pretend all is well while their house is burning to the ground.”
The Catholic Church excommunicated Njogu after he defected for alleged “unbecoming behavior,” including purchasing land and speaking openly about his intention to marry Berith Kariri, who remains his wife.
“These priests are not sincere, they are pursuing personal interests,” said Father Daniel Kimutai Rono, general secretary for the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There is nothing about ‘African-ness’ or ‘European-ness.’” The vow of celibacy, he said, “is about the vocation, about the call to serve God and the sacrifice which entails in serving God.”
Dozens of Njogu’s followers said in interviews that they left the mainstream church because they doubted their former priests’ devotion to the vocation.
“As a parent, I had to fear that a priest would impregnate my daughter if I took them to my old churches,” said Margaret Kimondo, who was one of Njogu’s first converts. “In front of the altar they may look one way, but at night, you don’t even want to hear those stories.”
Philip Muiga, 78, had been a Catholic priest for decades before joining the Renewed Universal church last year.
“One day I met a priest in the street who I have known for a long time, and he was drunk,” he said. “When I went home and looked at myself in the mirror, I just saw darkness. I could not justify continuing to call these men my colleagues.”
Rono, who represents the Kenyan Catholic Church, denied any sort of systemic abuse or existence of “secret families” but acknowledged a global churchwide “trend of infidelity to the priestly vocation” and said priests should avoid any kind of “coverup.” The Vatican deferred to its Kenyan representatives for comment.
Celibacy has been expected of Catholic priests since its origins in the first century after Jesus Christ’s death, but the 12th-century imposition of a celibacy vow was necessitated primarily by a priesthood that had begun using the church as a family business, said Chris Bellitto, a professor and church historian at Kean University in New Jersey.
“Priests were handing their parishes along to their illegitimate sons as if they were training them as cobblers, who inherited your shop and tools when you died. This complicated the integrity of the sacraments — what if the son didn’t have a vocation or disposition as a spiritual leader? — and the independence of the church, since the bishop was supposed to be naming parish priests,” said Bellitto.
But the vow always seemed at odds with certain parts of the Bible’s teachings, leading many within the church to question its purpose. Njogu’s faction is certainly not the first to try charting a new course without the celibacy vow, said Kim Haines-Eitzen, a historian of early Christianity at Cornell University.
“In Catholicism, there’s always been a pronounced preference for asceticism to prove devotion. But how do you square that with, say, ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ from Genesis? Are priests expected to be separate from all other humans?” she said.
That enforced detachment from the lives of their flock is what drives priests in Kenya to adopt “secret families,” said Father Matthew Theuri, 73, who was a catechist for nearly four decades before joining Njogu’s church as a priest. But it also presents a quandary in being a good priest, he said.
“Our churchgoers come to us with questions about wayward children, trouble paying school fees, marital issues — how can we help them if we know nothing of that life?” he said, while sitting at home with his wife, Jane, and two of his grandchildren.
After Njogu’s Mass on a recent Sunday in Gachatha, Joseph Macharia, a coffee farmer, said he thanked God every day for the new church.
“This is a more open way of being,” he said. “The others, the ones who keep secret families, they come to the pulpit to lie. Maybe they think we are stupid.”
Five clergy-abuse survivors, including three brothers abused by former St. Paul parish priest Curtis Wehmeyer, plan to sue the Vatican to release the names and files of all clergy who have sexually abused children.
The charges against Wehmeyer, who sexually abused the boys in his trailer parked at Church of the Blessed Sacrament, led to unprecedented criminal charges filed against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for failure to protect children.
It also led to the resignation of former archbishop John Nienstedt, who was sharply criticized for failing to take disciplinary action against a priest with a history of sexual misconduct.
The brothers will speak publicly for the first time at a news conference Tuesday in the office of St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who has several lawsuits pending against the Vatican. The brothers are expected to demand greater sanctions against Nienstedt, who resigned in good standing.
Anderson announced plans to file the lawsuit and the Tuesday news conference in a news release Monday.
The lawsuit, to be filed Tuesday, asks that the Vatican release the names of more than 3,000 priests who have sexually abused children, as well as evidence and documentation. It is one of several lawsuits that abuse survivors represented by Anderson have filed against the Vatican.
At the news conference, Anderson said he will provide details of the lawsuit and introduce the plaintiffs. They include the brothers, who have not yet been named, as well as Twin Cities abuse survivor Jim Keenan and survivor Manuel Vega of California.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of an announcement by Pope Francis that the Roman Catholic Church now would require that clergy report any sexual abuse to their superiors. The new rules have been criticized by victims of child sexual abuse, who say that any incidents need to be reported to law enforcement, not to church officials.
Wehmeyer plead guilty to criminal sexual misconduct in connection with the abuse of two of the boys, and is serving five years in prison.