From 2004 until his retirement last year, Michael J Bransfield served as Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston. It’s the perfect posting for a prelate who wants all the perks of the office without the distractions of being a pastor. The diocese in poverty-stricken West Virginia allegedly brings in $15 million from oil fields it owns in Texas, which goes to serve just 100,000 Catholics. Bransfield allegedly spent $1,000 on alcohol a month and $100 on fresh flowers every day – paid for, of course, from the diocesan treasury. Several younger priests have also reported him for sexual harassment. (He denies the allegations.)
The Bransfield disclosures came just before the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) convened in Baltimore for its spring plenary session, which continued to address the sex abuse crisis. From the bishops’ perspective, this is also a crisis of trust. Survey after survey shows that American Catholics’ confidence in their leaders has plummeted since the McCarrick revelations last year. And yet, with these new accusations of Bransfield, hopes of restoring trust may already have been dashed.
Reporters from the Washington Post also discovered that Bransfield gave substantial gifts to other clergy. Far from denying the Post’s claim, a few of the bishops promised to return the gifts. It also seems that Bransfield gave more than $1,000 to his cousin Mgr Brian Bransfield, the USCCB’s general secretary.
What can the bishops do to recover? Most importantly, they have approved new procedures by which the metropolitan archbishop has the task of investigating allegations of sexual misconduct levied against bishops under his charge. They will also set up a national hotline that will allow anyone – lay or cleric – to lodge a complaint against a bishop. The metropolitans will then be obligated to hand the information over to the apostolic nuncio (papal ambassador), who will request that Rome allow him to launch an investigation. The protocols are taken from Pope Francis himself, which he laid down in the document Vos estis lux mundi back in May.
Alas, this won’t be nearly enough to satisfy most Catholics. It seems to be media-types, not metropolitans, who drag these skeletons out of the Church’s closet. In 2002, it was the Boston Globe with its famed “Spotlight” investigation. In 2018, the New York Times published the first sex abuse accusations against McCarrick. Now, it’s the Post rummaging through diocesan financial statements looking for any discrepancies, and not having to look too far at all.
Have the bishops given any indication that they’re capable of policing one another? Is there any reason to suppose they’ll begin doing so now? Which ones are receiving these “gifts” from fellow bishops like Bransfield? These are the questions that hover at the front of American Catholics’ minds. One bad bishop is quite enough; a whole culture of bribery and silence would be intolerable for many.
Perhaps a change in conference leadership will do some good. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (pictured centre) is ending his term as USCCB president amid calls that he also resign as Archbishop of Galveston-Houston over his handling of abuse cases. His likely successor is Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles (pictured right), who currently serves as DiNardo’s vice-president. Although LA is the largest diocese in the United States, and though it was one of the dioceses hit worst by the first sex-abuse crisis in the early 2000s, it has remained relatively scandal-free of late.
In a country ravaged by partisan squabbles, Gómez is a strikingly diplomatic figure. Though staunchly orthodox in his theology and boasting a solid pro-life track record, Gómez is also the strongest voice in the USCCB opposing President Donald Trump’s border wall. As a conservative on moral issues and a progressive on social-justice ones, Gómez has wide appeal to Catholics regardless of which aisle they seat themselves on. His capital has also risen as he has taken a strong stance against legislation in the California senate that would require priests to break the Seal of the Confessional if they acquire information about clerical sex abuse in the course of hearing Confessions.
One would assume that Gómez, who was born in Mexico and ordained a priest of Opus Dei, is a natural ally of Pope Francis: a fellow Latin American with close ties to the Prelature. Curiously, however, Gómez has been repeatedly passed over for a cardinal’s hat. Why he remains apparently unpopular with the current Vatican leadership isn’t entirely clear. Any gains in the US bishops’ war against corruption may come at the expense of the USCCB’s already shaky relationship with the Holy See.
Not surprisingly for a priest of Opus Dei, Gómez returns again and again to the theme of personal holiness in his writings and homilies. “The mission of the Church is to bring the message of Christ to the people of God,’ he told the media before the plenary session. “So I think that’s a priority for us too, and everything it has to do with the call to holiness is important for the Church.”
That seems a particularly fitting message at a time when bishops are seen as rather too careless about matters of personal holiness.