A few days ago Michael Bransfield issued a statement about the scandal that he has caused in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, and Bishop Brennan released a letter providing some clarifications. These developments provide an opportunity to reflect on the state of our Diocese and what work remains to be done to ensure that it continues to proclaim the Gospel faithfully and dynamically.
Bransfield claimed to have reimbursed the Diocese for the sums for which he was found responsible. But he only remitted $441,000 rather than the near $800,000 that Bishop Brennan had initially demanded. Likewise, Bishop Brennan had required that Bransfield’s monthly stipend be reduced from $1,900 to $736. Instead, it was increased to $2,250 (i.e., he was actually given a ‘raise’ of $4,200 per year). His health insurance coverage will continue to be provided by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
What accounts for these reductions of a penalty considered by some to be insufficiently punitive in the first place? Bishop Brennan notes that the decision on Bransfield’s fate was made not by him but by the Congregation for Bishops in Rome (headed by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, and presumably the repository for the files on disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, which have continued to be withheld).
Bransfield’s “non-apology apology” (in the words of one CUF member) admitted no wrongdoing, claims that abusive actions were merely “attributed” to him, and that his victims merely “felt” harassed. Presumably, the facts that Bransfield still faces scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service for over $100,000 in unpaid taxes, as well as a civil lawsuit were key elements in his refusal to admit having engaged in any improper activity. Another CUF member has encouraged chapter members to “pray that there is true repentance, sacramental confession, and forgiveness on Bransfield’s part before he goes to his particular judgment.”
Individual members of the St John Henry Newman chapter have responded to this news in a variety of ways. One asks whether the Diocese is “trying to scapegoat Bransfield, when the corruption most likely goes much deeper.” This member argues that close scrutiny of parish finances is still needed in order to determine whether there are priests who continue to misuse parish funds. Another member tried to post a statement on the Diocesan FB page but the post was not made visible. He wrote: “Bransfield’s apology is not close to serious and expressed no actual contrition and no responsibility. Reforms within the diocese are grossly inadequate. Our clergy was forced to abandon us during the pandemic, not by the state but by the new Bishop. It’s time for our diocese to act like people who believe in Christ, believe in justice, believe in sacrifice, believe in the importance of the sacraments, and have a clue what it means to be a spiritual father and a shepherd. I have seen zero evidence of that. Nice try.”
Other members had different views of the state of the Diocese. One person who has been active in the Diocese for the past twenty years notes that things have changed in the DWC in positive directions compared not only to Bransfield’s tenure, but also to Bishop Schmitt’s episcopate. We are also aware of helpful statements made by priests about the imperfection of the Church, and the importance of not allowing our anger and frustration (with the Congregation of Bishops or with our own bishop) to harm us or drive us away from the Sacraments. They have noted that we will never see perfect justice or ‘closure’ in this life, and that we need to give up our anger (as with everything else) to Christ – for our own sake and that of others – while we continue to carry out our duty as laity to seek accountability and appropriate reform.
It appears that the Congregation of Bishops in Rome overruled Bishop Brennan’s recommendations concerning Bransfield’s punishment. Who knows what kind of leverage was brought to bear by each side. Our bishop is clearly in a difficult position, since the lay faithful in the DWC probably reflexively blame him for what they consider to be an insufficiently punitive response to Bransfield, even though the decision was apparently not his to make.
This brings us to a consideration of how our Diocese is faring in its efforts to process this scandal and to face other challenges. As the comments above indicate, some are unhappy that the bishop has not acted more vigorously in a variety of ways. But it is helpful to consider that there is at least one other organization active in our region that is doing its best to pressure Bishop Brennan in contrary directions. Over the past few months this organization (or its leaders) has:
- attacked the bishop for reopening churches and making the Sacraments available, arguing that this constitutes a danger to the community;
- attacked the bishop for being insufficiently anti-racist because he pointed out that the principles of the Black Lives Matter organization are contrary to Church teaching (something they deny);
- accused the bishop of perpetuating ‘white solidarity’ by suggesting that anti-racism efforts are sometimes exaggerated and can harm people;
- demanded that one of our Diocesan priests be reprimanded and sent to anti-racist training and counseling for allegedly “racist, ableist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant” Facebook posts;
- publicly posted messages criticizing pro-life Catholics [this should be a redundant phrase but unfortunately is not] for distinguishing between the killing of unborn children (which is not a matter of prudential judgment but of intrinsic evil) and taking up various other policy positions (which are matters of prudential judgment and not of intrinsic evil).
There are a number of challenges facing our Diocese. One is obviously the mess created by Bransfield and other Diocesan leaders (some of whom remain in positions of authority). But another is the activism, within our Diocese, of groups dedicated to changing Catholic teachings. It is only reasonable to point out that Bishop Brennan finds himself in a difficult situation. Let us rededicate ourselves to praying for him, for our Diocese, and especially for our seminarians and future vocations. Where we see problems let’s identify them concretely and make specific suggestions where possible, in respectful ways. What are your thoughts?