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Can the new bishop of Wheeling-Charleston clear up after Bransfield?

Bishop Mark E. Brennan (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

'The first thing Bishop Brennan can do is treat people — lay people and clerics — as though they have value,' said one priest

Pope Francis this week tapped Bishop Mark E. Brennan to succeed the disgraced Bishop emeritus of Wheeling-Charleston, Michael E. Bransfield, who is credibly accused of sexual misconduct with adults and serious financial malfeasance. Pope Francis has imposed disciplinary measures on Bransfield, which were announced through a letter posted to the Wheeling-Charleston diocesan website on Friday of last week.

The choice of a 72-year-old auxiliary going to a diocese that must be in the top three on the list of troubled dioceses in the country arguably hardest-hit by the leadership crisis currently engulfing the global Church, is one that raises eyebrows.

So, for that matter, do the disciplinary measures announced late last week against Bishop Bransfield, according to which he is exiled from the diocese, prohibited from celebrating sacraments publicly, and required to make amends for “some of the harm” he has done, “the nature and extent of the amends to be decided in consultation with the future Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston,” which is to say, with Bishop Brennan.

The Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Matteo Bruni, confirmed for the Catholic Herald that the disciplinary measures Pope Francis imposed were prepared administratively by the Congregation for Bishops. “[T]he procedure,” Bruni said via email in response to queries regarding the nature of the proceedings and the dicastery responsible for them, “was decided by Pope Francis and prepared according to the administrative route by the Congregation for Bishops.” Bruni went on to say, “It was not, insofar as what has been studied thus far, a penal matter.”

Bishop Brennan has a long row to hoe if he would restore trust between the presbyterate and the chancery, not to mention between the bishop’s office and the faithful. Since Francis has left the question of Bransfield’s amends to the new bishop, it is a safe bet the sorely tried and long-suffering faithful in West Virginia will want Brennan to make his predecessor feel some of the sting.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one priest with knowledge of the situation in the chancery told the Catholic Herald, “The first thing Bishop Brennan can do is treat people — lay people and clerics — as though they have value,” adding that basic human decency often seemed to be in short supply during Bishop Bransfield’s tenure. “The chancery under Bransfield became very impersonal and very bureaucratic, which is a problem — especially for a diocese of our size,” the official went on to say. “Bishop Brennan needs to foster the sense that clergy, especially, are part of his mission and ministry, which must be one of service to the faithful and all the people of West Virginia.”

A human resources specialist in the diocese, Christine Wharton, told Scott McCloskey of The Intelligencer in Wheeling, “This has been a long time coming. I think we have struggled over the past 10 months.” Wharton likened the situation in the diocese to a family crisis. “Family,” she said, “goes through their share of problems and tears and fighting, but we stuck together.”

One member of the faithful of Wheeling-Charleston also expressed cautious hope for Brennan, saying his service as an auxiliary in nearby Baltimore and as a priest in Washington, DC, means he knows the situation better than might someone from further afield. “[H]e is quite familiar with the difficulties in our diocese,” said Angela Dye of St James the Greater parish in Charles Town, WV, “and, therefore, may be able to act quickly.”

Dye continued: “He might in a unique position to bridge the gap of distrust that many people in our diocese have had with the Bishops in the Baltimore and Washington DC dioceses. Archbishop Lori has started the process of healing and hopefully that will continue.”

If Bishop Brennan has a surprising store of good will among the faithful of the diocese, he does not have unlimited time to make use of it. “How quickly healing begins will depend on Bishop Brennan’s decisions about how Bransfield will make amends to our diocese,” Dye said. “His first order of business is a very tall one,” she went on to say. “Personally,” Dye added, “I see the amends as a road to Bransfield’s conversion. Only through a contrite heart will his amends and penances bring justification for his wrongdoings.”

“I hope,” Dye also said, “[that] Bishop Brennan is open to the guidance of God,” and that he will be, “a humble, loving, and firm shepherd.”

Even if Bishop Brennan is able to get a handle on the chancery, more than 13 years of misrule are not corrected overnight. It will take some time for Brennan to get his bearings, after which he’ll only have a couple of years to begin the work of cleaning up and sorting out the mess that didn’t so much come with the job, as constitute it.

Surveying the scene in the United States more broadly, one notes seven sees currently vacant: Helena, Montana (since 28 February 2018); Shreveport, Louisiana (since 5 June 2018); Alexandria, Louisiana (since 5 March 2019); Atlanta, Georgia (since 4 April 2019); Gary, Indiana (since 25 April 2019); Anchorage, Alaska (since 29 April 2019); Rapid City, South Dakota (since 24 May 2019).

The really interesting thing about that list, is that every one of those sees is vacant because its bishop has been moved to another see. In short, Pope Francis has been playing something of an episcopal shell game in the United States for the past year and a half. Another nine sees are currently occupied by bishops already over 75 — the age at which Church law requires bishops to submit their resignations to the pope — and another six ordinaries (one Eastern and five Latin) reach the age limit over the course of the next year.

Finding fresh blood is not a project Pope Francis can postpone much longer.