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Bishop Michael Bransfield

WHEELING, West Virginia, January 10, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – A recently released report concerning the misconduct of former Wheeling-Charleston Diocese Bishop Michael Bransfield reveals instances of predatory sexual behavior against seminarians and young priests as well as the reckless misuse of diocesan funds to finance his lavish lifestyle. 

Published online Dec. 23 by the The Washington Post, the 60-page “privileged and confidential” investigative report – produced at a reported cost of $500,000 to the beleaguered diocese – pulls back the curtain not only on the out-of-control prelate but on a dysfunctional chancery where senior staff turned their eyes away from Bransfield’s behaviors, enabling him to treat diocesan funds as a personal piggy bank and “to operate the chancery as his personal fiefdom.”  

Chief among the findings reported by the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, which spearheaded the investigation on behalf of Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, who served as apostolic administrator after the disgraced Bransfield’s 2018 resignation:    

  • Bishop Bransfield subjected multiple seminarians and priests to unwanted sexual overtures, sexual harassment and sexual contact.  Numerous witnesses reported classic “grooming” behaviors by Bishop Bransfield, which included inserting sexual subjects into conversation; bestowing cash and other gifts and favors upon young men in whom he was interested; bringing victims into his confidence and trust by sharing sensitive Church matters with young seminarians and priests; and initiating touching that began as hugs or touches to the face, and if he was not rebuffed, escalated to increasingly sexualized touching. None of these behaviors were either welcomed or encouraged by the victims, which had a profound negative psychological effect on them. 

  • Despite witnessing multiple instances of harassing and abusive behavior over several years, none of the vicars took action to address Bishop Bransfield’s behavior. The vicar general and judicial vicar, in particular, acknowledged that they were aware of Bishop Bransfield’s tendencies and sexual harassment but took no steps to prevent it based on a combination of fear and loyalty toward the bishop.

  • No conclusive evidence was found that Bishop Bransfield committed sexual misconduct with minors. Several troubling incidents, however, were reported that cause concern that the bishop may also have targeted minors, particularly altar servers.

  • Bishop Bransfield’s abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs likely contributed to his harassing and abusive behavior. Although Bishop Bransfield’s sexual harassment and intimidation occurred both during the day and night, multiple instances of abuse were reported when the bishop was heavily intoxicated and/or under the influence of prescription pain medication.

  • Principles of corporate governance were not followed during the period Bishop Bransfield was bishop, which allowed him to spend the diocese’s money as he saw fit without any meaningful review or approval from the diocese’s finance council or the boards of the various entities controlled by the diocese, (all of whom deferred routinely to Bishop Bransfield’s wishes as to how diocese funds would be utilized).

  • During the period of his episcopacy, the operating expenses of the diocese exceeded its income by $187 million, causing the bishop to draw from the diocese’s endowment and mineral rights account to make up the deficit and pay for various projects initiated by the bishop. Bishop Bransfield exhibited a pattern of using diocese funds as if they were his own without regard to need or whether the diocese could afford a particular project.

  • 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. The bishop traveled frequently, almost exclusively by first class airfare or private jet. He spent large sums on gifts, flowers and alcohol, and authorized the renovation of his personal residences at unreasonably high cost.”

Vicars general served as enablers

In response to the report’s findings, Archbishop Lori removed Vicar General Fred Annie, Judicial Vicar Kevin Quirk, and Vicar for Clergy Anthony Cincinnati from their positions.   

In their testimony to the investigative team, the trio made stunning statements revealing how and why Bransfield was able to last so long as head of the diocese.  

Annie — who essentially served as second in command, overseeing the diocese’s day-to-day operations – excused his non-intervention concerning the bishop’s predatory sexual behavior, intimating that the young men accosted by Bransfield were adults who could make their own choices, and that they were not entirely innocent victims because “everyone knew (Bishop) Bransfield’s inclinations.” 

Annie also reasoned that if had filed a complaint against Bransfield with the papal nuncio, it would have been a “career-ending” move for him.  

The vicar for priests told the investigators that the several handsome young priest-secretaries who served closely under Bransfield “were broken by the experience,” a phenomena he witnessed, but took no action to address, nor made any outreach to the young men affected by the bishop.

Perhaps more outrageous, investigators said “none of the priests we interviewed who were affected by Bishop Bransfield’s conduct viewed the vicar for clergy as someone they could go to with reports of harassment and abuse by the bishop.”

Bransfield’s obsession with seminarians and young priests extended to male altar servers and boys receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation

The judicial vicar and one other person interviewed “described Bishop Bransfield’s conduct toward altar servers who served in the cathedral in Wheeling as “predatory.” One stated that he observed Bishop Bransfield grooming certain altar servers by increasing his level of familiarity and physical contact with them week by week … and he told the delegate for administrative affairs that he believed parents should be warned against having their children serve as altar servers for the bishop.” 

Not surprisingly, Bishop Bransfield did not want female altar servers assisting him at Mass. He just wanted boys.  

Buried in a footnote: “Multiple witnesses expressed concern about the bishop’s contact with male candidates for confirmation that they observed during confirmation ceremonies he performed. Bishop Bransfiled would not simply lay his hand on a young man’s head but would in some cases stroke the young men’s cheeks in a manner that witnesses described as ‘creepy.’”

Diocesan accounts were Bishop Bransfield’s private piggy bank

The investigative report’s findings regarding Bransfield’s plundering of diocesan assets in order to support his luxurious lifestyle are mind-boggling. 

A fire broke out in the bishop’s residence shortly after Bransfield’s accession in 2005.  Despite the damage being confined to a single upstairs bathroom, Bishop Bransfield had the entire house remodeled, ultimately spending a total of $4,617,000. He then spent more than $722,000 on a second residence in Charleston. Construction work on a third residence – Bransfield’s planned retirement home – was halted after his resignation, but not before more than $697,000 had been spent.  

Expenditures for Bishop Bransfield’s luxurious accommodations total $6,036,699, and the operating expenses for his residences averaged an additional $384,000 per year

Bransfield’s extravagant tastes went far beyond his penchant for sumptuous accommodations. 

  • Fresh flowers: The bishop directed that fresh flowers be delivered to the chancery every day he was in office. During the period from 2014 to 2018, the bishop spent $185,685 on flowers for the chancery ($133,890) and his residence ($47,795).

  • Jewelry: Records show that the bishop made 87 purchases at his favorite jewelry store in Washington, D.C., charging a total of $61,785.

  • Liquor: During his tenure as bishop, Bransfield directed the purchase of more than $145,000 of liquor. 

  • Fine dining: Bransfield “frequented premium Italian and steakhouse restaurants,”  charging more than $140,000 on his credit card for restaurant meals. 

  • Personal chef: Bransfield also employed the services of a personal chef who cooked his meals every day. 

  • First class travel: Bransfield’s personal travel expenses were staggering.

“While it was not always clear when his travel was for diocesan business, it was evident that the vast majority of his travel was of a personal nature, sometimes with a companion whose travel expenses were covered by the DWC. Bishop Bransfield’s routine vacation travel was to Florida, the Caribbean and multiple European locations including London, Paris and Switzerland where he usually stayed in exclusive hotels.”

Bransfield’s travel expenses totaled $2,352,425, including:

  • Chartered private aircraft: $997,000

  • First class commercial airfares: $662,000

  • Rental cars: $75,000

  • Private car services (LimoLink): $68,000  

Suspension from public ministry and restitution 

Before the report had been submitted, Pope Francis had already decided that Bransfield would no longer preside or participate publicly in Masses and other liturgical celebrations as priest or bishop. In addition, he may not again reside in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. 

The new bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Mark Brennan, has already imposed some of the sanctions proposed in the investigative report on his predecessor, ordering Bransfield to pay back nearly $800,000 of the diocesan funds that he had appropriated, cutting off his retirement benefits, and denying Bransfield’s right to be buried in a diocesan cemetery. 

Bishop Brennan also informed Bransfield that he must apologize to the people he sexually harassed and for the “severe emotional and spiritual harm his actions caused.”

The complete investigative report can be read here.