In this 2017 file photo, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, then head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., is seen at Wheeling Hospital. (CNS photo/Colleen Rowan, The Catholic Spirit)

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.

A nuncio can influence appointments and either convey or suppress complaints. In Bransfield’s case, this may well have been critical.

The cultivation of favorable relationships through gifts to papal nuncios represents a particularly troubling problem. The nuncio is a key link in the chain of communication to the Vatican. Former nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò received $6,000 from Bransfield, and also was treated to a ride in a private jet at the cost of another $6,000 to the diocese. Viganò claims that in the United States gifts to the nuncio are common practice among bishops, and it would have been rude to refuse. At Christmastime, he says, the checks came pouring in—anywhere from $100 to $1,000. Viganò’s predecessor in the nunciature, Pietro Sambi, received checks from Bransfield totaling $28,000. One cannot but wonder what consideration he received in return. A nuncio can influence appointments and either convey or suppress complaints. In Bransfield’s case, this may well have been critical. His predatory sexual behavior was longstanding. His questionable financial practices in West Virginia had been raising red flags since at least 2012. Yet it was not until 2018, after he retired, that an investigation was initiated.

The Washington Post obtained leaked copies of both the original investigative report and the version that suppressed the names, and it detailed the whole affair in an article published on June 5, a week before the bishops’ meeting at which the “metropolitan plan” was adopted. Lori did not deny it, but rather confirmed his role in the report’s redaction in a written statement and a video that attempted to neutralize the impact of this revelation. He explained that he had decided to delete the names because they would be “a distraction.” He apologized for this decision. In hindsight, he said, the names ought to have been included as a gesture of transparency, along with a note saying there was no quid pro quo for the gifts.

But on what basis could Lori claim that there was no reciprocity? The investigators were not charged with finding out what other bishops did after receiving Bransfield’s gifts; they were investigating the bishop of Wheeling-Charleston—primarily his sexual misconduct but also his misuse of church funds. Neither Lori himself nor the investigators could know definitively that Bransfield received no special treatment from those bishops he showered with cash.

In fact, it seems likely that he did. Was Bransfield not repeatedly placed in positions of trust? Was he not promoted? Did he not proceed for years, unhindered by investigation despite complaints against him? Msgr. Kevin Quirk, rector of the cathedral in Wheeling and a close associate of Bransfield, said in the letter to Lori that finally precipitated the investigation: “It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter.” How naïve Lori must think American Catholics are. At this point, the faithful are rightly skeptical of self-exonerating statements that bishops make after a scandal breaks or when they have been caught in an embarrassing position. We have been told half-truths or outright lies too many times.

The financial angle in this case is especially worthy of notice because Bransfield spent much of his career in positions where he handled considerable amounts of money. He was president of the Papal Foundation, an international nonprofit with an endowment of $200 million, which along with other financial irregularities was recently found to have no record of how $3 million meant for grant-funding   was actually spent. Many checks were simply sent to nuncios in various countries, but no one knew where the money ended up. Before being named bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield was rector for thirteen years at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception—the largest church in America—where he oversaw building projects and the acquisition of artwork involving donations of millions of dollars. He served on the shrine’s Board of Trustees, as well as the Board of Trustees of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. He even served for a term as treasurer of the USCCB.

Of course, it is possible that he was prevented from cheating the National Shrine or St. Charles Seminary or the USCCB by means of rigorous audits. But that Bransfield’s manner of handling money developed only after he became bishop of Wheeling-Charleston is as improbable as the idea that his acts of sexual harassment had no precedent earlier in his career; there were, in fact, complaints against him when he worked in a high school in Philadelphia, and during his time in Washington.

The crux of the objection to the “metropolitan plan” is that it is essentially a plan of self-policing.

As the sex-abuse crisis has played out, observers have predicted that the next scandal will be the hierarchy’s mismanagement of money, funds that bishops control with little or no accountability. Thanks to the Bransfield case, that can of worms is now officially open.

But the more immediate question is what to make of the “metropolitan plan” that has now been adopted in the United States as policy. Lori carried out the mandate to investigate Bransfield, yet he obviously wanted, at the same time, to protect himself and other members of the hierarchy from scrutiny. As metropolitan in charge of the investigation, he was in a position to do that. The structural question this raises is important: Shouldn’t there have been another check on the investigation, to ensure transparency and accountability?

Metropolitans, after all, are not de facto more trustworthy than other bishops. There have been well- documented scandals (including cover-ups and mismanaged abuse cases) involving metropolitans over the past twenty years—McCarrick, Wuerl, Neinstedt, Weakland, Mahoney, and Law, to name but a few. It’s hard to have confidence that this era is behind us. The current USCCB president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, also a metropolitan, is trailing a series of cases he is alleged to have mishandled. Bishops who have worked hard to do the right thing in response to the abuse crisis may resent being treated with suspicion, but sadly this is where we are. Trust is lacking for a reason.

The Bransfield case provides a clear example of how the investigation of a bishop is actually a sprawling matter, and not quite analogous to the investigation of a priest. What happens when pursuing the case of a brother bishop involves not only bringing that bishop to justice, but also publicly acknowledging  questionable or downright discreditable actions by others? How far back in time ought an investigation go, and how far should it reach? It is difficult to believe that self-interest will not play a role in how a fellow bishop handles such cases. The crux of the objection to the “metropolitan plan” is that it is essentially a plan of self-policing.

Would a system of checks administered by lay people work any better? Lori noted in his video that no one on the (lay) investigative team objected when he told them to leave the names out of the report. If true, this is a troubling fact. At the same time, one can’t forget that in a system such as our own, where there is a grave disparity of power between clergy and laity, it is not always easy for those with less power to speak up against the wishes of the bishop in charge. Silence, in the Bransfield case, may not have signified consent. After all, someone leaked those two reports to the Washington Post.

Right now, as the sordid Bransfield episode demonstrates, the secular media is all that stands between us and the self-interested interventions of whoever happens to be in charge at the time. Obviously, this is not sufficient. Recourse to the airing of scandal in newspapers in order to solve internal problems of transparency and accountability is a confession of failure. The press remains critically important to a free society, but it should not be the first line of defense for those who want to see justice done within the church. We need a better system.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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Published in the August 9, 2019 issue: View Contents
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