The big news from the US last week concerned the unprecedented amends Bishop Mark E Brennan of Wheeling-Charleston has ordered his disgraced predecessor, Bishop Michael J Bransfield, to undertake. These measures include specific apologies to some of those he wronged and restitution of roughly $900,000 he either misappropriated from diocesan funds for personal use, or personally owes in tax as a result of his misappropriation.
The plan Bishop Brennan (pictured) has drawn up for Bishop Bransfield includes several other elements in addition to the apologies and financial restitution, ranging from loss of his retirement benefits and the right to burial within the diocese. Bishop Bransfield will subsist on a standard pension for a priest of Wheeling-Charleston with 13 years’ service – $736 monthly – and will be responsible for securing his own long-term healthcare and disability benefits.
Church leaders in Wheeling-Charleston are anxious to put the Bransfield era behind them, and let the healing begin.
Clergy and faithful of the diocese are not so sure that healing will be possible without a more complete reckoning of Bishop Bransfield’s 13 years of misrule. Several priests of the diocese who worked closely with Bishop Bransfield have been moved out of the chancery but are otherwise largely unaffected. Several lay employees who worked closely with Bransfield also remain in place. It may be too early for Bishop Brennan to have begun a full house-cleaning. Nevertheless, some further action will be necessary if the goodwill with which the faithful of Wheeling-Charleston welcomed their new bishop is to last.
“Why,” wrote Erin O’Leary to the editors of the Wheeling News-Register recently, “are we allowing those who knew about the sexual and financial abuse to continue working as if nothing had happened?
“I was taught to act with kindness and love toward others, but I was also taught to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. I have waited and watched to see what the men and women who worked only a floor above me [in the chancery offices] during my time at Central will do to stop the damage and destruction,” O’Leary went on to say. “What I have seen is not enough.”
Ms O’Leary is a 2015 graduate of Wheeling Central High School. If her view of the matter is representative of a consensus among Catholics in her age group, then Church leaders in Wheeling-Charleston are likely to have a rude awakening if they attempt a premature return to business as usual.
As things stand, there is some doubt whether the financial amends will stick. Saying he had “strongly urged” Bishop Bransfield to accept his plan for amends, Bishop Brennan wrote in a letter to the faithful of the diocese that “it will now be the decision of Bishop Bransfield whether to accept these measures”.
“This is a moral and spiritual matter,” Bishop Brennan stated at a press conference presenting the plan on November 26, “not primarily a legal one.”
Asked how he expects his predecessor to respond to the plan for amends – in the elaboration of which Bishop Brennan said Bransfield did not cooperate – the bishop said: “There’s a lot of people as find it sometimes difficult to admit that they’ve done something wrong.”
He said he has seen “some movement, recognition that he really has to do something”, but so far no sign of purpose to make amends.
Bishop Brennan mentioned certain steps he could take unilaterally, but was also clear that he was not seeking “to impoverish the former bishop” and was reticent to discuss further specific measures to bring Bishop Bransfield into compliance.
“I don’t want to outline in public, further steps that I might take, but there would be further steps if the response is not adequate,” he said.
The 2018 investigation led by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore into Bishop Bransfield was in somewise a dry run of the so-called “metropolitan model” that was supposed to become the go-to tool in higher Church leadership’s box for dealing with wayward prelates and their operations.
The report of that investigation has yet to be released in its entirety. The version that found its way to Rome had the names of several dozen churchmen redacted – some of them very senior – who received cash gifts from Bishop Bransfield.
The conduct of the inquiry has been criticised across the ecclesiastical spectrum and by secular quarters as well. Rome has stressed that responsibility, accountability and transparency are the pillars of the Church’s institutional response to the ongoing crisis. By that measure, the handling of the Wheeling-Charleston scandal has yet to pass the test.
Those charged with the task already have several strikes against them. Success there is on a razor’s edge, and will depend more on churchmen satisfying the faithful in their charge than pleasing their ecclesiastical superiors in Rome.
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