The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston released information regarding its financial position on Friday, following an external audit of diocesan books for the fiscal year ending 30 June 2019. It was the first release of its kind for the troubled diocese, which covers the whole of the US state of West Virginia. The move comes in the wake of major public scandal, from which Wheeling-Charleston is struggling to emerge under new leadership.
According to the report by the Pennsylvania-based firm, CliftonLarsonAllen LLP, Wheeling-Charleston has a nearly $240 million investment portfolio, and rights to oil and gas reserves currently valued at $51.6 million. That is a significant portfolio in absolute terms, but one that only grew by 1.13% over the dozen years 2007-2019.
During most of that time, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston had Bishop Michael J. Bransfield at its head (2005-2018), whose free spending and moral turpitude have been the subject of both ecclesiastical and secular investigation, as well as intense and sustained public scrutiny. Pope Francis banished Bransfield from the diocese in 2019, prohibited him from celebrating the sacraments publicly, and ordered him to make amends for his scandalous comportment.
Though Bishop Bransfield continues to deny the charges against him, and has so far refused to make the ordered amends — which include nearly $900,000 in restitution to the diocese and the US taxing authority — his behaviour reportedly included sexual harassment, assault, and coercion of priests, seminarians, and other adults during his tenure in Wheeling-Charleston. Bransfield also gave significant gifts of money to churchmen, many of them senior prelates at the Vatican.
The audit report claims that the negligible growth in the diocesan portfolio was due both to Bishop Bransfield’s spending practices and a policy of spending the market value increase each year on agencies and programmes that were not self-sustaining, including the direct support of schools and parishes. “The diocese,” Wheeling-Charleston spokesman Tim Bishop told the Catholic Herald, “has been supporting its expenses primarily from its savings for many years, a practice which cannot continue.”
In his own letter to the faithful, which accompanied the audit report, Bishop Bransfield’s successor, the recently installed Bishop Mark E. Brennan, wrote, “As laudable as that support is [for parishes and schools, health and property insurance, pastoral centres, inter alia], it results in the diocese running deficits every year, as expenditures surpass ordinary income by several millions of dollars.” Brennan went on to write, “The deficits are made up by selling off investments, which, if this pattern continues unchecked, will eventually eliminate any benefit to future West Virginia Catholics from the legacy which the mineral rights have provided.”
Several areas of diocesan financial operations have been under the microscope since September of 2018, when the Holy See announced it was opening an investigation into Bishop Bransfield’s conduct.
There have been serious irregularities reported regarding Wheeling Hospital’s finances, in connection with a discretionary fund, The Bishop’s Fund, which Bishop Bransfield established in 2014, in the wake of complaints about his spending. The Washington Post reported last year that Bransfield moved some $21 million from the hospital to The Bishop’s Fund. More than half of that money — $12.6 million — Bransfield then gave to Wheeling University, which has long been in serious straits and continues to be a drain on diocesan finances according to the audit report.
Bishop Bransfield also purchased an Italian marble altar with Bishop’s Fund money — the sole source of which appears to have been Wheeling Hospital — as well as improvements to the air conditioning plant at a local secondary school.
In addition to those expenditures, Bishop Bransfield also used monies from The Bishop’s Fund to a senior prelate, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, to help offset the cost of renovations to Farrell’s flat in Rome. He sent a total of $29,000 to Farrell. When news of the gift reached the public in June of last year, Farrell pledged to return the gift, as did other clerics who had benefitted in lesser degrees from Bransfield’s largesse.* All told, the Post reported that some $321,000 from The Bishop’s Fund left West Virginia, though the stated purpose of the fund was to help residents of the state.
In July of 2019 the board of The Bishop’s Fund voted in favour of dissolution. That decision is pending approval of the State of West Virginia. When the state approves the dissolution, the report released Friday says the diocese will receive some $5 million in residual assets.
The diocese also assesses parishes at 3% per annum, though leadership have announced a series of deductions and exemptions that will reduce the so-called Cathedraticum — or parish tax — revenues from $591,000 in 2019 to $300,000 in 2020.
“While this money is not used to fund operations of the Diocese,” Bishop told the Herald, “it does give our parishes ownership of the various ministries that the diocese supports.” He went on to say, “The assessment further unites us as one diocese, working together to support the mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and service to those in need.”
In a September 2019 letter, Bishop Brennan told the faithful he had required “an extensive audit of Diocesan finances during Bishop Bransfield’s tenure.” This audit (the full report is available on the Wheeling-Charleston website) is not that one. “The forensic audit,” Tim Bishop explained to the Herald via email, “was substantially completed when the preliminary investigative report concerning the allegations against former Bishop Michael Bransfield was completed.”
Bishop went on to explain that the information gathered during the investigation into Bransfield’s conduct served the diocese in its efforts “to strengthen policies and protocols that the former bishop subverted, and to enact additional measures that reflect an unqualified commitment to responsible stewardship of Diocesan resources.”
The diocesan spokesman went on to note that Wheeling-Charleston has also expanded its Independent Review Board and taken other steps to implement investigators’ recommendations. “Moreover,” Tim Bishop said, “this first publication of the full financial audit reflects Bishop Brennan’s commitment to an era of transparency and accountability.”
*This article was amended to include Cardinal Farrell’s subsequent pledge of restitution.
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