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Cardinal Burke breaks silence over gifts from disgraced bishop

Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The cardinal said he used gifts from Bishop Michael Bransfield to make charitable donations of his own

Cardinal Raymond Burke has broken his silence over the appearance of his name among those on a list of several senior churchmen who received gifts of money from the Bishop emeritus of Wheeling-Charleston, Michael J. Bransfield, the subject of a recent Vatican-sanctioned investigation that found evidence of serious sexual and financial impropriety. 

Tasked with a preliminary investigation of Bishop Bransfield’s conduct in office, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore appointed a team of investigators who turned up an array of evidence, including testimony from alleged victims of Bransfield’s sexual appetites — many of them priests and seminarians — as well as his penchant for spending money. Bransfield, The Washington Post reported last month, would also write personal cheques to churchmen, and then have himself reimbursed from diocesan coffers. 

Bishop Bransfield denies any wrongdoing. “Everybody’s trying to destroy my reputation,” Bransfield told The Washington Post. “These people are terrible to me,” he also said.

“Any financial gifts which Bishop Bransfield gave to me were either honorariums on the occasion of the meetings with priests or Christmas gifts,” Cardinal Burke said in the statement. “I believe that he also gave me a gift on the occasion of my becoming a Cardinal,” he continued, adding that the gifts “were generous, but they were not lavish.” Burke also said he used Bransfield’s gifts to make charitable donations of his own.

Regarding his relationship with Bishop Bransfield, Cardinal Burke said, “I know Bishop Michael Bransfield as a fellow American bishop who, during my years of service as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, would arrange that I meet with groups of diocesan priests he brought to Rome on occasion, in order to explain to them my service in the Roman Curia.” Burke further stated, “While [Bishop Bransfield] manifested fraternal kindness and generosity to me, I never had occasion to get to know him well.”

From 2008-2014, Cardinal Burke was the Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest ordinary tribunal in the Church’s legal system, sometimes described as the “Supreme Court” of the Catholic Church. In 2017, Pope Francis reappointed Burke to the Signatura, as a member of the tribunal rather than as its head. “A Cardinal makes an oath not to accept any gift from someone seeking a favor pertaining to his office and work,” Burke’s statement read. “If someone had a case before the Signatura, and were to give me a check, I would never accept it,” Burke went on to say. “In the case of the gifts of Bishop Bransfield,” he added, “I never had any reason to suspect that anything was awry.”

Though Cardinal Burke’s statement did not mention how much money he received, a source close to His Eminence cited a figure of roughly $9,700.

Other cardinals received larger sums. Bransfield gave $29,000 to the Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, ostensibly to help pay for renovations to Farrell’s flat in Rome. Another cardinal who received money from Bishop Bransfield was Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, who reportedly received $23,600 in gifts and honoraria from Bransfield. Wuerl is Archbishop emeritus of Washington, DC. He succeeded the disgraced Theodore McCarrick in that see. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York also received money from Bransfield.

Cardinals Farrell and Wuerl have undertaken to restore the monies they received to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, along with other clerics named in the report, a draft of which the Washington Post obtained. 

The prelate who led the investigation into Bishop Bransfield and his diocese, Archbishop Lori, also received $7,500 in gifts from Bransfield and $3,000 in honoraria and travel expenses. Just before the news became public, Lori announced he had received the money and would be restoring it to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, with the request that it be given to Catholic Charities.

In the version of the report he submitted to the Vatican, however, Lori redacted the names of several high-ranking clerics to whom Bransfield wrote cheques, including his own. Archbishop Lori has said he regrets the decision, would do things differently if he could, and has since sent the names to the Vatican. “Archbishop [Lori] saw the gifts as personal gifts from the Bishop at the time of [his] installation and [at Christmas],” Lori’s spokesman, Sean Caine, told The Catholic Herald. “He never believed there was an expectation of him to provide anything in return and was never asked for anything in return,” Caine also explained.

The giving of such money gifts is a long-standing custom in the US hierarchy. Apparently, few clerics involved thought anything was amiss with Bishop Bransfield’s behaviour. The Washington Post named the former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States and last summer’s major whistleblower, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, as another senior churchman who received money from Bransfield. The Post quoted Viganò in a follow-up story as saying he found the gift-giving practices of US prelates highly unusual.

“Around the Christmas holiday, I started receiving gift checks from several bishops in the United States,” said Viganò, citing figures of $100 – $1,000 for these gifts. “I had worked in nunciatures around the world and had never seen anything like that,” Archbishop Viganò explained. His staff explained to him that such money gifts were customary in the US. “[N]ot accepting them would be an affront to the donors,” he said, adding that he gave the $6,000 he received to charity.