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Bishop Brennan unveils proposed amends plan for Bransfield

MORGANTOWN — Bishop Mark Brennan, of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, has put forward his proposed plan of amends for former Bishop Michael Bransfield.

Among the nine measures is reimbursement of $792,638 to the diocese for Bransfield’s personal expenses not associated with his clerical duties, and $110,000 of excise tax to the IRS for the portion of Bransfield’s expenses  that the diocese self-reported as taxable income to Bransfield.

Bishop Mark Brennan

All of the $792,638 Bransfield would pay back would go into a special fund for counseling, care and support of sexual abuse victims, Brennan said.

Enactment of the plan awaits Bransfield’s agreement, Brennan said.

Brennan announced the amends plan in a Tuesday press conference and in a Letter to the Faithful.

He opens his letter by saying he’s listened intently to the people’s concerns and anger over Bransfield’s behavior. “There is a deep and abiding sense of betrayal resulting from the former bishop’s actions.”

He’s met with priests and Bransfield’s victims and consulted with members of the Diocese Finance Council and Priest Consultors. He authorized a review of Bransfield’s expenditures more extensive that the one reported to the Holy See.

Brennan reminds his readers that the Pope found the allegations of Bransfield’s sexual harassment and lavish spending credible and substantiated and required Bransfield to “make personal amends for some of the harm he caused.”

The first three points of Brennan’s nine-point plan are apologies: to Bransfield’s harassment victims, to the faithful for the harm he caused, and to Diocese employees “who suffered from a culture of intimidation and retribution.”

Rather than a bishop-level retirement stipend, Bransfield would receive a priest’s: $736 per month. The Diocese will cover his Medicare but not his pharmacy benefits, long-term care policy or disability.

Bransfield would have to return or buy the car he received upon retirement. He couldn’t be buried within the diocese, as is customary for former bishops.

The financial amends comes in two parts. During the span 2013-2018, Bransfield spent $441,492 on himself for travel, vacations, clothing, alcohol and luxury goods. It was all subject to taxation of $110,000. For failure to pay the tax, Brennan notes, “the consequences for non-compliance are severe and will be entirely the responsibility of Bishop Bransfield.”

And during the span 2005-2012, Brennan says, Bransfield spent $351,146 on his luxurious lifestyle. Brennan considers the total proposed restitution to the diocese, $792,638, “a fair and just amends.” He doesn’t wish to impoverish Bransfield and it’s not a dollar-for-dollar amends but reflects the spirit of the Pope’s directive.

Brennan tells the faithful that he offered Bransfield the opportunity to formulate his own amends plan, but Bransfield consistently declined, so Brennan crafted this one.

He regards the plan as a form of restorative justice, he said. “It is also for his own spiritual good and his own healing as a man who professes to follow Christ.” He’s submitted the plan to Bransfield and his lawyer and to the Holy See’s U.S. representative, the Papal Nuncio.

“It will now be the decision of Bishop Bransfield whether to accept these measures of restitution and accept responsibility for his actions which have caused grave harm to this diocese he once led,” Brenan says. “I have strongly encouraged the bishop to do and put the well-being of this diocese ahead of his own personal considerations.”

Lay Catholic Voices for Changed, which formed earlier this year in response to the diocese’s financial problems, issued a statement Tuesday evening in response to Brennan’s plan. They welcome his effort, and particularly the inclusion of LCVC’s demand for apologies.

“LCVC notes that currently public apologies have neither been issued by Bishop Bransfield, nor the three monsignors removed by Archbishop Lori, nor any other member of the Catholic Church in or out of the DWC.”

LCVC also commends Brenan for the restitution portion of the plan, but notes, “the Catholic Church, which is the People of God, does not consist solely of the office of the Bishop or the DWC Chancery, and we must therefore ask if there are other parties for which financial amends are in order.”

Those include people within and without the diocese and previous employers from whom Bransfield also receives retirement benefits that were contracted under inaccurate pretenses, LCVC said. The sources of the recoverables must be transparent, “as currently we are, again, left trusting only our bishop’s word regarding the existence and appropriate use of our church funds.”

LCVC still wants the financial audit, including the records on which these amends are based, to be completed and made public this winter, per the diocese’s July commitments. LCVC also wants the full report of the Bransfield investigation released.

“Beyond the apologies to both victims and the DWC” they said, “LCVC finds concerning the amends plan’s focus on recovering the finances of the diocese while not enumerating any ways of recovering the well-being and trust (financial or otherwise) of Bransfield’s victims, especially of sexual abuse, and the Catholics of West Virginia.”

LCVC remains concerned, they said, that the plan is clerically focused and avoids ongoing structural change aimed at transparency and lay involvement. “LCVC is concerned that maintaining this status quo mindset that treats high level clerics as isolated beings and that lead to abuse previously might too likely again fail to prevent future abuse.”

One final point, LCVC observed that Bransfield has been allowed to keep his bishop-emeritus status. “Have the priests, deacons, religious, seminarians and employees that Bransfield abused all been able to maintain their church statuses as well? Their church incomes?”

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a statement regarding the plan: “While today’s announcement by Bishop Brennan represents a step forward, justice will not be served until the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese releases all of its investigative reports on Bishop Bransfield, tightens its internal controls to protect children, and implements concrete measures to provide assistance to the many victims of sexual abuse and pedophilia needing medical, social, or mental health services. It is time for the Diocese to truly come clean and begin to put this horrific scandal behind it.”

Morrisey is suing the diocese and former Bishop Michael Bransfield in Wood County Circuit Court, alleging the diocese violated state consumer protection law by failing to disclose that it employed priests who sexually abused children or had credible accusations of sexual abuse, and failed to conduct background checks for priests, employees and volunteers who had contact with children. The suit is on holding pending answers to questions submitted to the state Supreme Court.

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