‘Darkest period of my life’

— Gay conversion therapy in Italy

Rosario Lonegro says his time in the seminary was “the darkest period” of his life

By Davide Ghiglione

Rosario Lonegro was only 20 years old when he entered a Catholic seminary in Sicily as an aspiring priest preparing to be ordained. But while he was there he fell in love with another man and his superiors demanded that he undergo conversion therapy intended to erase his sexual preferences if he wanted to continue on the path to the priesthood.

“It was the darkest period of my life,” he told the BBC, recalling his seminary experience in 2017.

Haunted by guilt and fears of committing a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Rosario said he “felt trapped with no choice but to suppress my true self”.

“The psychological pressure to be someone I was not was insurmountable. I could not change no matter how hard I tried.”

For more than a year, he was compelled to take part in spiritual gatherings outside the seminary, some over several days, where he was subjected to a series of distressing activities intended to strip him of his sexual proclivities.

These included being locked in a dark closet, being coerced to strip naked in front of fellow participants, and even being required to enact his own funeral.

During these rituals, he was tasked with committing to paper his perceived flaws, such as “homosexuality”, “abomination”, “falsehood” – and even more explicit terms, which he was then obliged to bury beneath a symbolic gravestone.

‘I thought I needed to be cured’

The World Health Organization (WHO) removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1990. Subsequent scientific research has largely concluded that attempts to change sexual orientation are not only ineffective but also harmful.

In France, Germany and predominantly Catholic Spain, conversion therapies have been officially banned, and efforts are under way both in England and Wales to outlaw such practices.

Today in Italy, it’s nearly impossible to determine the precise extent of these practices, reported mostly by men, but some women too, and there is no standard legal definition of them.

In recent months, however, the BBC has conducted interviews with several young gay men across the country who have shared their experiences of being subjected to pseudoscientific group meetings or individual therapy sessions aimed at turning them into heterosexuals.

One 33-year-old man who attended this type of meeting for over two years expressed his initial motivation, saying: “I wanted to reconcile with myself. I didn’t want to be homosexual. I thought I needed to be cured.”

“I saw that as my sole path to acceptance,” said another. He was not trying to become a priest, but was simply seeking acceptance in his daily life.

Getty Images Priests make their way to wait in line to view the body of Pope John Paul II as it lays in state in the St Peter's Basilica April 5, 2005 in Vatican City
Experts say Italy is hesitant to ban the practices partly due to Italy’s strong Catholic influence

Gay conversion therapy is not limited to one specific region of Italy – group meetings and individual therapy sessions run across the country, some even run by licensed psychotherapists. In some cases, these gatherings and therapy sessions are unofficial and covert, often promoted through discreet conversations and secret referrals.

Other courses are publicly advertised, with known figures within Italy’s conservative circles actively seeking followers online and on social media platforms to promote their ability to change sexual orientations.

In Sicily, Rosario Lonegro was primarily subjected to meetings organised by the Spanish group Verdad y Libertad (Truth and Freedom), under the leadership of Miguel Ángel Sánchez Cordón. This group has since disbanded, having incurred the disapproval of the Catholic Church.

However, the Italian priest who originally pushed Lonegro into these practices was given a senior position within the Church, while others continued to draw inspiration from Sánchez Cordón’s methods in Italy.

Many of the people the BBC spoke to were referred to Luca di Tolve, a “moral/spiritual trainer” who gained recognition through his book titled “I was gay once. In Medjugorie I found myself”.

On his website, Di Tolve and his wife boast that they are a “contented couple” seeking to “aid anyone whose sexual identity is in turmoil, helping them to genuinely exercise their freedom in determining who they wish to be as a person”. When contacted by the BBC, Di Tolve did not respond.

Another active individual promoting ways to tackle perceived sexual orientation is Giorgio Ponte, a well-known writer in Italy’s ultra-conservative circles. He says he wants to help people overcome their homosexuality and be liberated, by telling his own story as a man with homosexual drives who is on his “potentially life-long” path to freedom.

“In my experience, homosexual attraction stems from an injury to one’s identity that conceals needs unrelated to the sexual-erotic aspect but rather tied to a distorted perception of oneself, reflecting across all aspects of life,” he told the BBC.

“I believe that a homosexual person should have the freedom to try [to become heterosexual], if they want, knowing, however, that it may not be possible for everyone,” he added.

‘When I kissed her it felt unnatural’

In recent years, dozens of young men and women have sought guidance from the likes of Di Tolve, Ponte and Sánchez Cordón. Among them is 36-year-old Massimiliano Felicetti, a gay man who grappled with attempts to change his sexual orientation for more than 15 years.

“I started to be uncomfortable with myself from a very early age, I felt I would never be accepted by my family, society, Church circles. I thought I was wrong, I just wanted to be loved, and these people offered me hope,” he said.

Felicetti said he had tried different solutions, consulting psychologists and clergy members who offered to help him become heterosexual. However, about two years ago, he decided to stop. A friar who knew of his struggle encouraged him to start dating a woman, but it didn’t feel natural.

“When I kissed her for the first time, it felt unnatural. It was time to stop pretending,” Felicetti said.

Only a few months ago he came out as gay to his family. “It took years, but for the first time I am happy to be who I am.”

Despite attempts from previous governments to promote a bill to oppose conversion therapies, no progress has been made in Italy. Italy’s right-wing government led by Giorgia Meloni has so far adopted a hostile stance toward LGBT rights, with the prime minister herself vowing to tackle the so-called “LGBT lobby” and “gender ideology”.

Such lack of progress comes as no surprise to Michele Di Bari, a researcher in comparative public law at the University of Padova, who says that Italy is structurally much slower to implement change compared with other countries in Western Europe.

“This is a very elusive phenomenon, given that it is a practice prohibited by Italy’s order of psychologists itself. Yet, in the Italian legal system, it is not deemed illegal. People carrying out such practices can’t be punished.”

Despite the complexity of the issue, experts believe that partly due to Italy’s strong Catholic influence, the country has been more hesitant to prohibit these controversial practices.

Getty Images A participant reacts next to a banner depicting Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during the Pride March to show support for members of the LGBT community, in Milan on June 24, 2023.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government has adopted a hostile stance to LGBT rights in Italy

“This may be one of the elements that, along with a strongly patriarchal and male chauvinist culture, makes the broader understanding of homosexuality and LGBT rights more difficult,” said Valentina Gentile, a sociologist at Rome’s LUISS University.

“However, it is also fair to say that not all Catholicism is hostile to the inclusion of diversity and the Church itself is in a period of strong transformation in this regard,” she added.

Pope Francis has said that the Catholic Church is open to everyone, including the gay community, and that it has a duty to accompany them on a personal path of spirituality, but within the framework of its rules.

However, the Pope himself was reported to have used a highly derogatory term towards the LGBT community when he told a closed-door meeting with Italian bishops that gay people should not be allowed to become priests. The Vatican issued an official apology.

Rosario Lonegro has left Sicily behind and also lives in Milan. Following a nervous breakdown in 2018, he left both the seminary and the conversion therapy group.

While he still believes in God, he no longer wants to become a priest. He shares an apartment with his boyfriend, he studies philosophy and undertakes occasional freelance work to pay for university. However, the psychological wounds inflicted by such activities still run deep.

“During those meetings, one mantra haunted me and was repeated over and over: ‘God didn’t make me that way. God didn’t make me homosexual. It’s only a lie I tell myself,’ I thought I was evil,” he said.

“I will never forget that.”

Complete Article HERE!

Catholic abuse survivors face long road, tough memories and constitutional challenges as they prepare to sue the Baltimore Archdiocese

Abuse survivor Tanya Allen, civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, abuse survivor Marc Floto and attorney Adam Slater walk down the steps of the Baltimore Basilica on May 9.

By Scott Maucione

It’s still about four months before victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the Baltimore Catholic Archdiocese will be able file civil suits against the church. However, the wheels are already in motion for what could be a monumental payout to survivors. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese is likely to drag out the suits by challenging the constitutionality of the cases and possibly bringing them to trial.

A recent Maryland Attorney General’s Office report implicated 156 priests and church employees in abusing at least 600 children over the last 80 years, but experts in the field and legal analysts think it could actually be thousands of people who suffered at the hands of the Archdiocese.

“The Archdiocese of Baltimore, is the first archdiocese in the new world,” said Suzanne Sangree, senior counsel with Grant and Eisenhofer, a firm representing victims in Maryland. “It certainly was the first cathedral here. And it’s got enormous resources.”

The suits stem from a law passed in Maryland earlier this year that abolishes the statute of limitations on sex crimes for civil cases. However, the law doesn’t go into effect until Oct. 1.

The change in law has caught the eye of high-profile lawyers like Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who led George Floyd’s legal team and is now representing some survivors.

Payouts can be massive. Since 1994, 20 archdioceses and dioceses in the United States have come to settlements with victims totaling $1.2 billion.

The largest of those settlements were in places like Los Angeles, where more than 550 people were awarded $660 million, and in Boston, where another approximately 550 people settled for $85 million.

The process, however, can be grueling and painful for victims.

Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles County), spent years sponsoring the bill to remove the statute of limitations.

He said the Baltimore Archdiocese fought him at every turn; it was only this year that the law finally passed.

“The Catholic Church repeatedly talked about how they were trying to work with people, but then they would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get lobbying firms and to try to intimidate me,” Wilson said. “They had people reach out to me and other members. They threatened to take away any and all assistance that the Catholic church provides to Baltimore City. They did any and everything they could do to stop this bill from passing. And yet, at the same time, telling their own members they care about these victims. They don’t.”

The Baltimore Archdiocese refused an interview request and would not provide a statement for this story. However, since the 1980s the Archdiocese has paid $13 million to 301 victims.

Now, victims and their lawyers are expecting a constitutional challenge to the law from the Church this fall.

The Church will likely use the statute of repose to sow doubt on the statute of limitations law.

Sangree says the legal tactic is used in construction work, and bars someone from suing a contractor for injuries from a building after a certain amount of time.

Wilson said that the ability for the Archdiocese to use the statute of repose was written into his bill in the last second without any discussion.

“Nobody knew that was in there,” he said. “I do not believe that that would be the right thing for the courts to interpret our intent differently than what we laid out in the four debates and arguments.”

If the law holds up after the constitutional challenge, Sangree and others say the Church will likely use its resources to bring cases to trial and drag out proceedings in order to pay less or intimidate victims who don’t feel comfortable testifying.

Elizabeth Letourneau, the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University, said trails can bring up traumatic memories for those who are still processing their abuse.

Kit Bateman is one of those survivors who is still coming to terms with what happened to him. A priest locked him in a confessional room and tried to rape him when he was 14.

“They took my innocence, they took my soul, they took my ability to celebrate the life of Jesus every day like I liked to do, for 50 years it was gone,” Bateman said. He went from someone who was in the choir and served as an altar boy to shunning organized religion.

It was only recently that he publicly acknowledged his abuse and decided to sue the Church.

Bateman said he decided to bring suit when he saw the Archdiocese trying to defeat the law abolishing age limits on civil suits for sex crimes.

“When I saw that, I thought, ‘Wow, what about my soul that you all took from me when I was 14?’” he said. “That moment is when I realized Archbishop William Lori did not understand — for a man of God — does not understand repentance.”

People who are sexually abused as children have a thumb on the scale against them, Letourneau said.

“We know that child sexual abuse increases the risk for serious health problems, including mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder child sexual abuse takes a real financial toll on survivors, who over the course of their lives will earn nearly $300,000 less than people who did not experience child sexual abuse,” she said.

Letourneau said settlements can often help pay for therapy, make up for gaps in finances or add a sense of closure to the events that took place years ago.

Complete Article HERE!

Pope Benedict Reaches from Beyond the Grave to Claim ‘Gay Clubs’ Exist in Priesthood

Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges the crowd during an audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Oct.24, 2007. A January 2022 report faulted his handling of several sex abuse cases.

Pope Benedict XVI may have died a month ago, but is reaching beyond the grave to shade Pope Francis, according to The Telegraph.

“In a blistering attack on the state of the Catholic Church under his successor’s papacy, Benedict, who died on Dec 31 at the age of 95, said that the vocational training of the next generation of priests is on the verge of ‘collapse.'”

He also said gay “clubs” operate openly in Catholic seminaries, the institutions that prepare men for the priesthood, and that some bishops allow trainee priests to watch pornographic films as an outlet for their sexual urges.

“Benedict gave instructions that the book, ‘What Christianity Is,’ should be published after his death. It is one of a handful of recent books by conservative Vatican figures which have poured scorn on the decade-old papacy of Francis, who was elected after his predecessor’s historic resignation in 2013,” The Telegraph said.

“The existence of ‘homosexual clubs’ is particularly prevalent in the US, Benedict said in his book, adding: ‘In several seminaries, homosexual clubs operate more or less openly.'”

Benedict also claimed his books were targeted as being “dangerously traditionalist” by more liberal elements in the Church.

“In not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books are considered unworthy for the priesthood. My books are concealed as dangerous literature and are read only in hiding.”

In October, Pope Francis spoke out against church members watching porn, including nuns. “He made the remarks in October, saying that indulging in porn is a danger to the soul and a way of succumbing to the malign influence of ‘the devil.'”

Complete Article HERE!

Vatican cardinal, other priests to return cash gifts from ousted West Virginia bishop Michael Bransfield

Michael J. Bransfield, then-bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., in 2015.

By Shawn Boburg, Robert O’Harrow Jr.

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.

Complete Article HERE!

A W.Va. bishop spent millions on himself and sent cash to cardinals and young priests before his ouster, confidential Vatican report says

Michael J. Bransfield, then-bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., in 2015.

By Michelle Boorstein

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.

The diocesan property in Wheeling, W.Va., where Bishop Michael J. Bransfield lived during his years there. The West Virginia diocese paid $4.6 million to renovate the residence after a fire damaged a bathroom, according to church records obtained by The Post.

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.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston seen in Wheeling, W.Va.

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.

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