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Explosive report: Bishop sexually harassed priests, seminarians, spent millions of Church dollars

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WEST VIRGINIA, June 7, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) ― An explosive report alleges that the retired Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston was a sex pest who spent millions of dollars on an “extravagant and lavish lifestyle.”

According to an article that appeared Wednesday in the Washington Post, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, 75, gave cash gifts totaling $350,000 to fellow priests, including important prelates and young priests upon whom he allegedly foisted his attentions.

The report also detailed sexual harassment and bullying: “...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.”

Seminarians were apparently told to make their “boundaries clear” or that they had no choice but to participate in “sleepovers” and trips with Bransfield.

The Post had obtained two versions of “a confidential report to the Vatican,” the fruit of an internal investigation of Bransfield’s 13-year tenure as bishop, as well as emails and copies of financial records.

There were two versions of the report because the prelate in charge of the investigation, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, cut the names of the 11 important clerics to whom Bransfield wrote checks out of the final report. One of them was Lori himself. Others included Cardinals Donald Wuerl, Timothy Dolan, Kevin Farrell, Bernard Law (deceased), Edmund Szoka (deceased), and Raymond Burke, as well as papal nuncios Archbishop Pietro Sambi (deceased), Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and Archbishop Christophe Pierre.

The financial records reveal that Bransfield also gave money to family members in the clergy, with over $9,000 going to his nephew Fr. Sean Bransfield, who is the vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and over $1,000 going to his cousin Monsignor Brian Bransfield. Monsignor Bransfield is the general-secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bishop Bransfield has served as the president of the Board of Trustees for former Cardinal McCarrick’s Papal Foundation, a charity which collects money from wealthy American Catholics to give to charitable projects of interest to the pope.  

Lori released a statement on June 5 saying that he returned the money he received as gifts to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and “asked that it be given to Catholic Charities.”

A spokesman for Wuerl told the Post that the cardinal “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 spokesman for Farrell told the Post that Farrell received “voluntary donations” from Bransfield and others for the renovation of his apartment in the Vatican.   

Viganò told the Post that his staff had told him that such gifts were customary in America and that he had given the money to charity.

“I believed it would be a distraction to select particular individuals for identification who had received gifts and that it would raise questions as to why we selected some individuals and not others. The basic point the report tried to make is that gift-giving was part of Bishop Bransfield’s excessive spending,” Lori said in a video released June 7. He said the investigators found there was “no expectation of reciprocity in return for financial gifts from Bishop Bransfield.”

“But 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.

Lori said Bransfield’s gifts to him had been given “mostly at the holidays and including my installation as bishop.”

The unusual source of Wheeling-Charleston’s wealth

The money had not been Bransfield’s to give. Although West Virginia has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston is rich because, strangely enough, it owns oil in Texas.  

“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,” the Post reported.  

“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 diocesan oil brings in an average of $15 million a year and funds an endowment “now valued at $230 million,” the Post disclosed.  

Soon after his 2004 appointment to the diocese, Bransfield apparently declared that the money was his and went on a spending spree. According to the Post’s account of Lori’s report, the bishop “spent $2.4 million in church money on travel, much of it personal, which included flying in chartered jets and staying in luxury hotels.” He and his staff drank almost $1,000 worth of alcohol a month and, after a fire damaged a bathroom in his residence, the bishop ordered renovations which cost $4.6 million. According to Archbishop Lori, Bransfield remodelled his other diocesan residence and began work on his retirement residence.

Then there was the flower bill.

“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,” the Post reported.

Bransfield also spent thousands of dollars on clothing, luxury items, and “personal expenses.”

Homosexual bullying  

However, love of luxury was allegedly not the the bishop’s only vice. The report into Bransfield’s tenure also details homosexual bullying.

According to the Post: “...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.”

“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,” the Post reported.

Bransfield’s spree came to a sudden end when he tendered his resignation upon his 75th birthday last September. By then he had been the subject of a 2007 investigation into what the New York Post called “an alleged groping incident” and had been implicated in another priest’s 2012 sex abuse trial. All bishops must offer to resign at 75, and it is customary for the pontiff to accept or refuse, based on the circumstances. Under these circumstances, Francis accepted at once and appointed Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, the pillaged diocese’s apostolic administrator.

‘The accounts of those who accused Bishop Bransfield of sexual harassment are credible.’

On June 5, Lori issued a long statement concerning the Bransfield scandals. Reminding the laity that he had already told them some things about the investigation into the allegations of financial and sexual impropriety, Lori said he should tell them more.

“Regarding allegations of sexual harassment of adults by Bishop Bransfield, the investigative team determined that the accounts of those who accused Bishop Bransfield of sexual harassment are credible,” he wrote.

“The team uncovered a consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestive comments and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority,” he continued.  

It seems that no minors were involved.

“The investigation found no conclusive evidence of sexual misconduct with minors by the former bishop during its investigation,” Lori said.  

“It should be noted that due to privacy concerns and at the request of those who alleged harassment by Bishop Bransfield, the alleged victims and their personal accounts, which for them are a source of deeply-felt pain and humiliation, will not be disclosed by the Diocese.”

The archbishop promised that the victims, as well as all priests and lay personnel at the  Wheeling-Charleston chancery, will receive counseling. The known victims will be reimbursed for “mental health assistance.” There will also be a third-party reporting system for allegations against the diocese’s future bishops.

Lori also revealed that Bransfield’s “pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending” was enabled by a “culture of fear.”

“As we seek to understand how such behavior was able to occur over the course of Bishop Bransfield’s 13-year-long tenure, it is evident from those who spoke with investigators that the Bishop’s management style and personality undermined the effectiveness of diocesan policies, controls and oversight procedures,” he wrote.

“In some cases, it is apparent that the judgment of diocesan personnel was impacted by the culture of fear of retaliation and retribution that the former bishop fostered.”

‘Misrepresented’

Bishop Bransfield told LifeSiteNews over the phone that he feels that he’s been “misrepresented.”

“I just feel that I’ve been misrepresented in many, many ways,” he said.  

Bransfeld said that he was not allowed to participate in the investigation, and that he has never seen the materials described in the Washington Post article. He also said that the investigation was supposed to be kept confidential, and that he was supposed to be able to defend himself.

“It was not kept confidential,” he said, referring to the leak to the Post, “and I have not been able to defend myself.”

“I feel that I have no say, no input, and [the investigation] is adversarial in nature.”

He concluded by saying that he wanted to be careful in what he said, as he was not supposed to be speaking to the press.

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