A more inauspicious prologue to the June 11-14 meeting of the U.S. bishops couldn’t have been scripted.
As the prelates gathered in Baltimore to vote on implementing the Vatican’s new guidelines on the abuse of minors, which include a provision for metropolitan archbishops to investigate the bishops under them, two bombshell reports were published in the span of little more than 24 hours.
On Wednesday, June 5, The Washington Post published a report with detailed allegations of gross misconduct in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which covers the entire state of West Virginia.
The former bishop, Michael Bransfield, had resigned in September 2018, one week before turning 75, under a cloud of suspicion regarding reports of sexual and financial misconduct.
In his place, the Vatican appointed Baltimore Archbishop William Lori as the temporary administrator of the diocese and authorized him to investigate the reports. Lori completed his investigation in March and sent the results to the Vatican.
On June 5, the archbishop published a four-page letter providing the details of the investigation, Although Lori mentioned “the interests of transparency,” his letter was released the same day The Washington Post published the details of Lori’s confidential report, which it had obtained.
And the details are shocking.
The Post reports Bransfield spent millions in church money on travel, much of it personal, which included flying in chartered jets and staying in luxury hotels; he spent $4.6 million to renovate his residence after a fire; he spent $100 a day to have fresh flowers delivered to his chancery; and he and his staff spent nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol.
Keep in mind, all this spending was happening while Wheeling Jesuit University, the only Catholic institute of higher education in West Virginia, was mired in a financial crisis that nearly caused it to collapse. It dropped many of its academic programs this year, and the Jesuits announced they are ending their affiliation with the institution.
Lori’s investigation also “uncovered a consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestive comments and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority.”
Bransfield was also revealed to have distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to fellow prelates. The Post noted that the names of 11 “powerful clerics” who had received money from the bishop were edited out of 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 in the report. “No evidence was found to suggest this.”
However, the Post obtained the original version that included the names, and it embarrassingly included Lori: He had received $7,500 in cash gifts from Bransfield, plus $3,000 for travel expenses to celebrate two Masses in West Virginia. (Hours after the report, Lori said he’d returned the $7,500 to the diocese and asked that it be given to Catholic Charities.)
As an advertisement for the effectiveness of the “metropolitan model,” the investigation is a mixed bag: It did successfully uncover and document a pattern of misconduct, but it didn’t actually “reveal” many details until the press forced the issue.
It also signaled, once again, the main problem the bishops have had in dealing with the abuse crisis: a lack of transparency and accountability.
The situation in West Virginia is scandalous and embarrassing, but it seems even worse when the issue is framed by the Post, as opposed to by the investigating team.
The cash payments to cardinals and leading archbishops certainly could look like bribes, but the reality of the situation is more mundane, if still a bit scandalous. As the Post reported, 115 years ago the then-Diocese of Wheeling was bequeathed an oil rich piece of land in Texas.
Despite its miniscule Catholic population living in one of the poorest states of the country, the diocese continues to bring in millions in oil profits every year from the holding. It has been approached for cash by needy bishops and Vatican officials since before Bransfield’s time, and its infrastructure and spending have always been impressive compared to similar-sized dioceses.
If the conclusions of the investigation into Bransfield had been published in April, with a press conference to explain why so much money was being paid out by the disgraced bishop, it might have helped alleviate the heavy suspicions of bribery and quid pro quo that is now in the air.
The latest chapter in the Bransfield saga wasn’t the only bit of bad press for the bishops ahead of their general assembly. One day before the West Virginia news broke, an Associated Press detailed allegations of cover-up by the president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, relating to his handling of a scandal in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
A Houston woman claimed to The Associated Press (AP) that DiNardo’s then-vicar general had seduced her after she approached him about problems in her marriage.
In Texas, it is a crime for clergypersons to use their status to manipulate someone they are counseling into sex. After the woman went to the archdiocese, the priest was dismissed from the archdiocese, but eventually resurfaced in active ministry in the neighboring Diocese of Beaumont.
The archdiocese responded to the story by rejecting the woman’s accusation that she was manipulated into sex and asserted that the relationship was consensual.
While preparing the story, the AP said the archdiocese turned down repeated requests for an interview with DiNardo. (The cardinal did suffer a stroke in March, but has gradually returned to his daily duties.)
After it was published, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston called the AP story “one-sided,” even though it had not taken the opportunity given it to present its side of the story.
One year after the McCarrick scandal first broke, Church leaders in the U.S. are still struggling to turn the page on a reawakening abuse scandal that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. And meanwhile, a suffering Church waits to see if its lessons are learned.
Charles Collins is the managing editor of Crux.
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