The now-glaring weakness of the USCCB’s 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was that it made no provision for dealing with bishops who engage in sexual misconduct. In the wake of the scandal surrounding Theodore McCarrick, who had escaped the consequences of his abuses for decades, the American bishops realized this gap had to be closed. Without some mechanism for holding bishops accountable, the trust that the hierarchy hoped to rebuild after the devastating revelations of clergy abuse of children could never be achieved.
In the course of discussions in the months following the McCarrick revelations, two proposals emerged: an independent lay-run board could investigate a bishop and report to Rome, or a case could be referred to the metropolitan bishop of the region (a metropolitan is the bishop of the chief see of an ecclesiastical province, usually an archdiocese), who would oversee the investigation and send his findings to Rome. In either case, the pope would make a final determination of the fate of the bishop.
Not surprisingly, the latter option (first proposed by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago) was the one favored by most American bishops and the Vatican. It decentralizes the work of investigating accusations. It avoids thorny practical questions about who chooses the members of the lay board. And, critically, it sidesteps the canonical “problem” of lay people in the church being placed in a position of authority over bishops.
The guidelines issued this spring by Pope Francis endorsed the “metropolitan plan.” At their June meeting in Baltimore, the American bishops adopted it, though with some debate over whether lay involvement in the process should be mandatory or optional. They made it optional.
As if by an act of divine providence, however, the first trial run of a metropolitan-centered strategy to contain abusive bishops has provided a spectacular public demonstration of how this plan can fail. The case I am referring to, of course, is that of Bishop Michael Bransfield of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, who has been suspended from ministry over multiple allegations of sexual harassment and misuse of diocesan funds. Pope Francis put Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore in charge of the investigation. Lori is the metropolitan of the province in which the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston is located. The investigation was carried out, and the results sent to Rome. According to an article published in the Washington Post, however, that report had been redacted, on the order of Archbishop Lori, to hide the names of high-ranking prelates who had received substantial cash gifts from Bransfield during his tenure at Wheeling-Charleston. That list of gift recipients included Lori himself.
Compared to financial scandals in public life, the amount Bransfield spent on gifts, $350,000, was not an enormous sum. But given the poverty of West Virginia, it was both a slap in the face to the poor, and a tawdry way of cheating those institutions that serve the diocese. Bishop Bransfield was not indiscriminate in his pattern of giving. He gave monetary gifts to powerful cardinals and archbishops, and to young priests he hoped to seduce.
He was drawing on a fund derived from oil-rich land in Texas that had been deeded to the diocese decades ago, a source of revenue unknown to most of the people in it. Rather than use that money to help the needy or support good works of the diocese, Bransfield used it to fund a luxurious lifestyle for himself and to line the pockets of other clerics who were in a position to do him future favors. The lifestyle expenditures included $1,000 a month on alcohol, fresh flowers delivered daily to the chancery to the tune of $100 a day, first-class travel, and a $4.6 million renovation of his residence.
To whom did all this money actually belong? Bransfield said, of the oil-rights income, “I own this.” And he spent it accordingly. To avoid running afoul of tax law, which requires diocesan funds to be spent on charitable activities, he adopted a procedure known as “grossing up.” Every time a check was written drawing on diocesan funds for what some have called “bribes” and others “palm greasing,” he had that sum added to his salary. The money, in truth, did not belong to Bransfield. It belonged to the diocese. The fourth-century bishop and doctor of the church St. John Chrysostom would say it belonged to God, and its rightful destination was the poor. But it didn’t get there.
Some of the gift recipients have been silent (Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop Peter Wells, and others). Some have been quick to denounce any suggestion of impropriety (Archbishops William Lori and Carlo Maria Viganò; Cardinals Kevin Farrell, Raymond Burke, and Donald Wuerl, among others). Some are sending the money back to the diocese, while others have claimed they gave Bransfield’s gifts to charity. None of these responses, however, cleared the air.
Bransfield sent $29,000 to renovate Cardinal Farrell’s apartment in Rome: Does it really seem plausible he did this out of disinterested charity, just at the point when Farrell was appointed to an important position in the Curia? Is there really no suggestion of currying favor in sending $5,000 to Lori as a personal gift—not quite “through the years,” as Lori claims, but precisely on the occasion of his being appointed Archbishop of Baltimore and, therefore, metropolitan? Bransfield also gave cash gifts to young clerics from whom he wanted sexual favors. Catholics now recognize this as grooming behavior and have no trouble imagining that something was expected in return. Yet when significant sums of money are given to senior clerics, we’re supposed to imagine there was nothing given in return.
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