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Bishop Brennan named as successor to disgraced Bishop Bransfield

Bishop Mark E. Brennan (CNS photo/courtesy Daphne Stubbolo, Archdiocese of Washington)

Bishop Mark E. Brennan is currently auxiliary of Baltimore

Pope Francis on Tuesday named Bishop Mark E. Brennan — auxiliary of Baltimore — to succeed the disgraced former bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, Michael Bransfield. 

Bishop Brennan is 72 years old and received episcopal consecration in January of 2017. He came from the clergy of Washington, DC, and was named auxiliary to Baltimore out of the clergy of Washington, DC, while Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl was archbishop of the capital see. On 5 December 2016, Brennan was one of two men picked to become auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Baltimore following the resignation of Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden. 

Bishop Brennan received most of his priestly formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, and attended the Pontifical Gregorian University, taking a Licentiate in Sacred Theology in 1972. Ordained to the priesthood in 1973 by then-Archbishop William Wakefield Baum, he pursued further study in Rome until 1974, and then served in various parishes and offices — including a ten-year stint as director of vocations and priest programmes from 1988-1998.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston has been without a bishop since 13 September 2018, when Pope Francis accepted Bishop Bransfield’s resignation — within a week of Bransfield’s 75th birthday, when bishops are required to submit a letter of resignation — and announced an investigation into Bransfield’s conduct, citing allegations of both sexual and financial misconduct.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore directed the investigation, which uncovered Bransfield’s habit of lavish and inappropriate spending, as well as significant evidence to support allegations of sexual misconduct with adults, detailed in a report submitted to Rome earlier this year.

Serious questions about the integrity of the investigation arose, however, when The Washington Post reported that part of Bishop Bransfield’s spending included the use of diocesan funds to give money presents to high-ranking and well-placed churchmen. Bransfield would write cheques drawn on his personal account, and then quietly have himself reimbursed from diocesan coffers. Among the churchmen who received those gifts was Archbishop Lori, who included the gift-giving in his report to Rome, but redacted the names of the recipients. 

Archbishop Lori disclosed Bransfield’s habit of largesse shortly before The Washington Post published its first report on the matter. Lori also restored the money he had received in gift — roughly $7,500 over a period of several years, most of which was given to mark holidays and anniversaries, and was more or less in line with episcopal custom in the US — asking the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston to give the money to Catholic Charities. Archbishop Lori later issued a statement saying he regretted the decision to redact recipients’ names, and would do things differently if he could.

Late last week, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston published a letter from the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, detailing a series of disciplinary measures against Bishop Bransfield, who is now prohibited from residing in the diocese, and from public celebration of Mass or other sacraments anywhere. 

The tersely worded note, which appeared Friday on the Wheeling-Charleston diocesan website but was not announced through the Press Office of the Holy See, also said that Bishop Bransfield is required to undertake “personal amends for some of the harm he has caused.” 

The letter further states “the nature and extent of those amends” are “to be decided in consultation with the future bishop of Wheeling-Charleston.” 

That means Bishop Mark E. Brennan, who, at 72 years of age, is not likely to be in Wheeling-Charleston very long. He comes into the see — his first — in the midst of a burgeoning worldwide crisis of confidence in the Church’s hierarchical leadership. Tensions within Church leadership are high, as well, both between Rome and the US bishops, and within the US episcopate.