Let’s be clear about two things: Bishop Michael J. Bransfield – improbably emeritus of the Diocese of Wheeling Charleston – did not apologize; nor did he get the “justice with a gesture of mercy” that his successor, Bishop Mark E. Brennan, suggested he might have got.
In case you missed it, the disgraced former Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, whose rampant perverse sexual and financial malfeasance all through his thirteen years’ reign are documented in an internal Church report, has caught a major break from the Pope and the Congregation for Bishops, after the latter approved a much attenuated plan of amends for the offending prelate.
To Brennan’s credit, he could not quite bring himself to say that Bransfield did get justice or anything like it. Instead, Bishop Brennan said: “I am grateful to Pope Francis and the Congregation for Bishops for accepting in large part the outline of the amends plan I presented to Bishop Bransfield in November 2019. That plan combined an insistence on restorative justice with a gesture of mercy, which is how God deals with all of us.”
The plan Bishop Brennan drew up originally included restitution of roughly $900,000 Bishop Bransfield either misappropriated from diocesan funds for personal use, or personally owed in tax as a result of his misappropriation.
The plan also included several other elements: specific apologies to some of those Bishop Bransfield wronged; loss of his retirement benefits and the right to burial within the diocese; subsistence reduced to a standard $736 monthly pension for a priest of Wheeling-Charleston with 13 years’ service; and responsibility for securing his own long-term healthcare and disability benefits.
In July of last year, the Apostolic Nuncio to the US, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, announced that Bransfield would be obliged “to make personal amends for some of the harm he caused,” and specified that “the nature and extent of the amends” were “to be decided in consultation with the future Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston,” who turned out to be Bishop Brennan.
So, Pope Francis and the Congregation for Bishops apparently thought Bishop Brennan was too hard on the guy.
The roughly $900,000 bill was roughly halved – to $441,000 and change, corresponding to the tally of Bishop Bransfield’s padded expense reports and omitting the $351,000 misspent on luxury items during his reign – while there was no mention in Bishop Brennan’s letter, on whether Bransfield has cut the $110,000 check he owes the IRS (but that’s apparently Bransfield’s business).
Bishop Bransfield and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston report that Bransfield has already paid the $441,000. Bransfield is very resourceful, apparently. So, one wonders why he is now getting $2, 250 / month in subsistence from Wheeling-Charleston? One is left to suppose the Congregation for Bishops thought it unseemly that a Bishop should have to subsist on $736. The Diocese will also be footing the bill for Bransfield’s long-term health care.
In what universe is that “accepting in large part” the plan of amends Bishop Brennan proposed?
Whatever world it is, I suspect one will find there that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. In any case, Bishop Brennan says: “I hope that the people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston will see in the decision of the Congregation for Bishops a fair and reasonable resolution of this unseemly matter.” I bet he means it.
I was about to say that, in a better world, Bishop Bransfield would be publicly stripped of his episcopal dignity and sent to live out his days in penance on a rock. That’s not quite accurate, though. We could have that in this world, if we had better leaders. In a better world, Bishop Bransfield would have traded his episcopal finery for an orange jumpsuit years ago.
Oh, about Bishop Bransfield’s apology: suffice it to say it is more closely an apologia than it is any sort of sincere promise of repentance and request for forgiveness.
Uncle Ted McCarrick at least had the gumption to make a self-assessment in the active voice. “I’m not as bad as they paint me,” he told Slate in 2019. “I do not believe I did the things that they accuse me of.”
From Bishop Bransfield, the faithful of Wheeling-Charleston got: “I am writing to apologize for any scandal or wonderment caused by words or actions attributed to me.”
Regarding the sexual misconduct, Bishop Bransfield said: “There have been allegations that by certain words and actions I have caused certain priests and seminarians to feel sexually harassed. Although that was never my intent, if anything that I said or did caused others to feel that way, then I am profoundly sorry.”
Note to Bishop Bransfield: Constant comment on someone’s appearance and physical shape will make the person on the receiving end of such commentary feel sexually harassed; slapping bottoms might be a liminal case (it depends which side of the Mad Men divide one is on); a hand on a crotch, unbidden and unwanted, will make the person whose crotch it is feel sexually *assaulted*—because that’s what it is—especially after one has exposed oneself, visibly aroused, and pulled the person in for a hug and a rub. (Cf. pp. 6-22 of the Lori Report published by the Washington Post.)
Regarding the restitution required of the lavish self-indulgence that characterized his tenure, Bishop Bransfield said:
[D]uring my tenure I was reimbursed for certain expenses that have been called into question as excessive, and I have been advised that I should reimburse a certain amount of money to the diocese. I have now done so even though I believed that such reimbursements to me were proper.
What’s my takeaway from all this? Basically, that the next word I hear about how seriously Church leadership takes episcopal misconduct—the next time I hear Pope Francis or any other Churchman or his appointed mouthpiece wax eloquent about how “anyone who has suffered abuse can have recourse to the local Church, while being assured they will be well received, protected from retaliation, and that their reports will be treated with the utmost seriousness,”—I’m going to put my fist through a wall.
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief and International Editor of the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Into the Storm: Chronicle of a Year in Crisis (416pp. TAN Books, 2o2o).
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