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US bishop accused of sexually harassing seminarians banned from burial in any diocesan cemetery

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WHEELING-CHARLESTON, West Virginia, November 28, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) -- Disgraced Catholic Bishop Michael Bransfield, who stands credibly accused of sexual harassment and financial improprieties, has been told by his successor that he will not be buried in any Diocesan cemetery upon his death and that he must pay back almost $800,000 of money he spent on a “luxurious lifestyle.” He must also apologize to the people he sexually harassed and for the “severe emotional and spiritual harm his actions caused.”

On Tuesday, Bishop Mark Brennan -- appointed last year to replace Bransfield (76) as ordinary of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese of West Virginia -- outlined the plan of apologies and payments that his predecessor must follow. In a press conference, Bishop Brennan said that despite being “ordered” by Pope Francis to make amends, Bransfield has yet to suggest any plans for doing so. He resigned at the age of 75 in September 2018 amid allegations he sexually harassed adults.

It was because of Bransfield’s inaction, said Bishop Brennan, that the diocese is providing a list of actions that Bransfield must take. Brennan told the media, “I’m hoping he will see the value to himself as a Christian man.” He went on to say of Bransfield, “He’s not the devil incarnate. He’s a brother who’s gone astray in some ways. This is a way to show he understands that.”

Following an investigation, Church officials found credible evidence to support multiple allegations of sexual harassment of adults, as well as misappropriation of Church funds. Bransfield was bishop of the Wheeling-Catholic diocese from 2005 to 2018. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, while conducting an investigation, found that while Bransfield did not abuse minors, there was credible evidence of abuse of adult seminarians and priests, as well as millions of dollars in questionable spending. 

In a Nov. 26 letter to Catholics of the Wheeling-Charleston diocese, Bishop Brennan proposed how Bransfield can address the wrongs he committed. The letter called on Bransfield to apologize to adults who he is alleged to have sexually abused, and apologize to Catholic priests and laity in West Virginia, as well as diocesan employees who “were subjected to a culture of intimidation and fear of retribution.”

Pope Francis had already determined that Bransfield may not 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. Quoting the Pope, who told Bransfield to “make personal amends for some of the harm he caused" in consultation with the new bishop, Brennan said that Bransfield as "consistently declined to do so." Bransfield has been denied the right of burial within the diocese he served. 

Following discussions with the people of West Virginia since his installation last year, Bishop Brennan said that there is a “deep and abiding sense of betrayal resulting from the former bishop's actions.” Brennan said that he is confident that the suggested course of action reflects the Pope's intentions but will also serve as a "meaningful restitution among the people of the Diocese.” He went on to say, “At the same time, I believe that it is also important that these requirements reflect the Church that we are and the values of our Christian faith which include mercy, in addition to justice.” 

Financial penalties for Bransfield suggested in Bishop Brennan’s letter include: a reduction of his monthly pension to $736; reduction of health care benefits; surrendering a car he was provided at retirement; and reimbursing the diocese in the amount of $792,638. "This amount reflects personal travel, vacations, clothing, alcohol and luxury goods. As such, this amount was an excess benefit to the former bishop subject to taxation,” said Bishop Brennan in his letter. 

"To ensure adherence to Federal tax laws, the Diocese has self-reported for Federal tax purposes,” the letter said, while adding that Bransfield must reimburse the diocese and also pay for any penalties incurred by the diocese for not reporting these amounts. It said that he must pay an excise tax of $110,000.00 to the IRS. “The consequences for non-compliance are severe,” it said, and making restitution is “entirely the responsibility of Bishop Bransfield and not the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.” The diocese also found that Bransfield had spent an additional amount of $351,146.00 on his "luxurious lifestyle." 

However, the above amount may not reflect the entire amount that Bransfield is alleged to have misdirected. In his letter, Bishop Brennan wrote: “I wish to make clear that it is not my intention to impoverish the former bishop.” 

“While not a dollar-for-dollar restitution for the former bishop’s excessive expenditure of Diocesan funds, I believe that this amount reflects the spirit of Pope Francis’ requirement that Bishop Bransfield make ‘amends for some of the harm that he caused,'” he added.

LifeSiteNews contacted Greg McRay of the Foundation Group, a company that advises nonprofits, to inquire about possible legal repercussions for Bransfield. While admitting that he was not familiar with the case, McRay suggested that the amount of money allegedly misappropriated by Bransfield may indicate that West Virginia state government investigators may have cause to examine possible embezzlement. McRay is an enrolled agent who is credentialed by the IRS to represent taxpayers before the agency.

As to whether Church officials, other than Bransfield, could face IRS scrutiny, McRay said that while rare, the Federal government can exact “intermediate sanctions penalties” and fine nonprofit board members when the infractions “were something they knew about, or should know about.” He added that anyone who was accountable and governing nonprofit funds could be found liable for penalties by the IRS. However, he said that it is more likely that diocesan officials will face questions from state prosecutors.  

According to the Washington Post, citing a leaked report of the investigation carried out by Archbishop Lori, the Wheeling-Charleston diocese owns oil properties in Texas that earn approximately $15 million annually. The diocese had at the time of the report an endowment of $230 million. Once Bransfield took over the diocese, he began a spending spree that included, according to the newspaper account, $2.4 million on mostly personal travel expenses, which included chartered jets and luxury hotels. He also spent $4.6 million on one official residence, and also spent diocesan funds on his personal residence. During the course of his episcopate, he also spent about $100 a day, a total of almost $182,000, on flowers. He also allegedly spent thousands on “personal expenses,” including liquor, clothing, and luxuries. 

Bransfield was also accused of homosexual bullying. Seminarians and priests complained of sexual harassment by Bransfield, while earlier concerns were raised by his behavior and expenditures while serving in Philadelphia at a Catholic high school, and in Washington D.C., where he headed the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from 1990 to 2005. When seminarians and young priests complained to church authorities, their concerns were ignored. They were instructed to “make your boundaries clear,” according to the report, or “told that they had no choice but to join Bransfield in such activities as sleepovers at his residence and on trips,” according to the Washington Post.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has filed a lawsuit against the diocese, claiming it should have informed people about credible sexual allegations against clergy. According to Metro News of West Virginia, Morrisey wants the diocese to release details of its internal investigation, while also improving its controls to protect children and assistance to victims of sexual abuse who need medical, social or mental health services. However, the lawsuit does not deal with any financial misdeeds Bransfield may have committed.

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