Trust is easily broken and repaired only with difficulty in a place like West Virginia, whose south-west corner is most closely associated with the notoriously grudge-prone Hatfield clan. (The Hatfield–McCoy feud, a bloody land dispute between two rural families, raged from 1863 to 1891.) The incoming Bishop Mark Brennan (pictured) of West Virginia – or of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which is coterminous with the state – will have his work cut out repairing the damage done by his predecessor.
Bishop Michael Bransfield, it is alleged, used his position as shepherd of one of the most economically distressed parts of the country to live not like a successor to the Apostles but as an orange liqueur-swilling sybarite – doling out patronage money to his episcopal allies when he wasn’t making sexual advances towards seminarians. Bransfield, who protests his innocence, was once head of the board of trustees of the Papal Foundation, Theodore McCarrick’s slush fund.
One detail that has emerged during the scandal is the diocese’s possession of land in Texas from a bequest decades ago, which has become a significant source of revenue from oil leases. The $15 million figure cited as its annual revenue could do a lot of good in a place like West Virginia.
The revelations of Bransfield’s extraordinary spending habit – $4.6 million to renovate his house, more than $2 million on travel – are all the more incredible for having happened in a place where a dollar goes much further than in New York or Washington.
Bransfield was reportedly fond of pointing at diocesan property and saying, “I own this.” Well, not any more.
He resigned last September as the scandal broke and in late July his successor, Bishop Brennan, currently auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, was announced. He will be installed on August 22.
In addition to his main task of rebuilding trust between the hierarchy and West Virginia’s Catholics, Bishop Brennan must also deal with a pending lawsuit from the state’s attorney general, who accuses the diocese of failing to protect children in Catholic schools.
“As my parents both retired to this great state a number of years ago, I am no stranger and, in fact, a great admirer of the beauty of its landscape and people,” Bishop Brennan said in a statement. “Even as we work toward bringing about true healing and renewal here in this local Church – work begun so well by Archbishop William Lori [who was named apostolic administrator of the diocese in September 2018] – I am full of hope and confidence for what we can accomplish together. There is immense need which is matched by immense desire and determination to reinvigorate the Church here in West Virginia and across our nation.”
Yet Archbishop Lori did not exactly conduct his investigation into the troubled diocese with the utmost transparency, redacting the names of bishops who received gifts from Bransfield.
When the names nevertheless emerged in the media, it appeared that Archbishop Lori himself had received a total of $7,500. He returned the money to the diocese “in light of what I have come to learn of Bishop Bransfield’s handling of diocesan finances” and asked that it be given to Catholic Charities.
The archbishop also apologised for redacting bishops’ names, saying he had wrongly believed that naming them would have been a “distraction”.
In June, Archbishop Lori sent a letter to the clergy of the diocese saying: “It is evident from those who spoke with investigators that the bishop’s management style and personality undermined the effectiveness of diocesan policies, controls and oversight procedures. In some cases, it is apparent that the judgment of diocesan personnel was impacted by the culture of fear of retaliation and retribution that the former bishop fostered.”
The diocese has made several changes to how finances in the diocese are handled, including eliminating the bishop’s discretionary fund. A third-party firm will also audit the dioceses’s finances annually. This was agreed to after a threatened boycott by the laity.
With its enormous endowment and oil revenues there is a lot of good that could be done by the Church in West Virginia. There are precedents in modern history. One is the Antigonish Movement, which responded to declining economic opportunities in rural Nova Scotia with a plan involving credit unions, asset-based development and adult education. Aspects of this programme are a good fit for what ails West Virginians. But what it will take is a bishop more committed to his flock than to greasing the palms of clerical allies.
When the money starts flowing down rather than up, that will be a sign things have changed.