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Washington Post releases secret Vatican report on Bransfield; here are highlights

MORGANTOWN — The Washington Post elected this week to release to the public the secret Vatican report on the sexual and financial misconduct of former Bishop Michael Bransfield, who oversaw the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

The Post noted that it obtained a copy of the report in June and has used it for a series of stories on the crisis in the diocese.

The Post said, “After church officials repeatedly declined to say whether they were going to release the report, … the Post is doing so in response to significant interest from the public.”

The 60-page report is filled with details gleaned from the investigation of Bransfield’ s misconduct. The Post redacted names of possible victims of sexual misconduct.

We offer here an overview. The Washington Post story and the link to the report can be found at wahingtonpost.com.

Sexual misconduct

Bransfield led the diocese – DWC – from February 2005 through September 2018. However, the report says, “Bishop Bransfield engaged in a decades-long campaign of predatory behavior targeted at seminarians, young priests and other young men, dating back to the period from 1982-1987 during Bishop Bransfield’s tenure at the National Shirne.”

The report details account after account of him hugging, caressing, kissing and groping the young men, often while he was drunk, and sometimes “grooming “the men over time to receive his advances . “Bransfield was fixated on priests’ ‘body type,’ constantly remarking on their weight and telling them not to ‘get fat,’ and asking whether they were going to the gym.”

The young men generally felt powerless to resist Bransfield’s power and authority, the report says. Several “victims have suffered significant mental health consequences.”

Alcohol and drugs

“Nearly every witness who had first-hand contact with Bishop Bransfield stated that he drank to excess on a nightly basis, sating back to his time at the National Shrine.”

His drinking at the Wheeling Residence followed a pattern, the report says. At about 6:30 p.m., before dinner, there were pre-dinner drinks. Wine flowed at dinner, with glasses frequently refilled before they were empty.

After dinner, with the guests gone, Bransfield and his entourage would retire to the basement den, where he would consume a half bottle or more of Cointreau – an orange liqueur – and watch TV. After being confronted about his drinking, he hid the Cointreau in a teacup, fooling no one.

Bransfield was regularly slurring his words by the end of the evening. His favorite companions “stated that they learned to not answer a call form Bishop Bransfield if it was later than 9 p.m.” and the vicars knew not to discuss certain topics after a certain point.

Some also said he regularly abused prescription medications. “The Bishop was mixing significant amounts of alcohol with, among other things, sleep medication, oxycodone and antidepressants.”

Complicit vicars

The report sites at length the complicit behavior of DWC’s three vicars (who have all either retired or been reassigned): Msgr. Frederick Annie, former vicar general; Msgr. Anthony Cincinnati, vicar for clergy; Msgr. Kevin Quirk, judicial vicar. The report refers to them by title, not name.

It says the vicars were aware of Bransfield’s behavior and “did not take action to stop it for fear of harming their own self-interest.” Annie and Quirk lamented the lack of options to call attention to the problem but “both also significantly benefited” from their posts.

One young man who was often called on to serve as Bransfield’s attendant and companion complained about the bishop’s touching and grabbing to Quirk. The man “stated that he never believed the Judicial Vicar cared for his well-being.”

Annie often drove to Morgantown to buy Bransfield’s alcohol, as a means of hiding the amount he consumed, the report says. Purchases form the Morgantown store totaled $50,080.

Victims of harassment said Annie “was unfailingly loyal to the bishop and, they believe, would have taken no action on their behalf under any circumstances.”

Quirk reported personally once receiving an inappropriate hug from Bransfield. While he was concerned about Bransfield’s conduct, “it was the judicial vicar who frequently summoned the men to overnight stays at the bishop’s residence” or to travel with him, saying, “Your presence is required.”

Cincinnati reported that he felt badly for the victims and acknowledged the harm done to one in particular. He saw the harm dome to al the priest-secretaries but did nothing. None of the priests interviewed “viewed the vicar for clergy as someone they could go to with reports of harassment and abuse by the bishop.”

Financial misconduct

In November, DWC Bishop Mark Brennan put forth an amends plan for Bransfield, who has refused to propose his own plan. 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.

Parishioners commented at the time that the proposed reimbursement was only a portion of what Bransfield misspent.

The report says that during Bransfield’s episcopacy,  diocese expenses exceeded income by $187 million. Bransfield made up the difference by drawing on investment income from the DWC Endowment and Mineral Rights funds.

Here is just a sampling of Bransfield’s spending: $65 million for capital projects; $13 million for a new chancery; $6 million to renovate his three residences.

The remodeling of the Wheeling residence began after a fire damaged a bathroom. Bransfield chose to remodel the entire house, costing $4.617 million. Annual operating expenses for this house, including a personal chef, were $384,000.

Bransfield spent $2.36 million on travel, mostly personal.

Bransfield used his credit cards to support his lavish lifestyle, the report says: $23,546 at Neiman Marcus; $62,303 on jewelry; more jewelry from the Ann Hand Collection, $61,785; 103 trips to a Philadelphia-area Italian restaurant, $31,345; liquor, $145,206.

Others comment

DWC issued a statement, which it provided to The Dominion Post: “As has been thoroughly reported, and well communicated by Bishop Mark Brennan, The Holy Father determined that the allegations of sexual harassment of adults by Bishop Bransdield were credible and also determined that he had misused Diocesan funds.

“It is for this reason that Pope Francis imposed severe penalties on former Bishop Bransfield, which include restricting him from publicly celebrating liturgy as a priest or bishop; from residing in the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston; and also the requirement to make personal amends for some of the harm he caused.

“Bishop Brennan is focused on that last requirement and has already communicated a plan of amends to the former bishop, given that the former Bishop Bransfield did not himself present a plan of amends. That plan was also communicated to the faithful of the Diocese. Bishop Brennan will communicate further about this matter in the new year.

“In the meantime, Bishop Brennan urges all to enter into the spirit of Christmas, with the hope that the new year will be one of healing and renewal for the good and faithful people of West Virginia.”

Lay Catholic Voices for Change, the reform group that forced the diocese to reform its audit practices earlier this year, also issued a statement, saying it’s pleased the Bransfield Report is now on the public record.

Referring to the various suggested reforms and corrective actions listed at the end of the report, LCVC said it was especially gratified to read the investigators’ call for a change to the “lax oversight” of the bishop and other high church officials by lay people.  

“LCVC has repeatedly called on the diocese to endorse the election and service of independent lay representatives to several diocesan advisory bodies, including the Sexual Abuse Review Board and the Diocesan Finance Council,” LCVC said. “While LCVC is pleased that Bishop Mark Brennan has agreed to the establishment of a lay-elected Diocesan Pastoral Council, he has not agreed to have independent, lay-elected lay representatives on the Sexual Abuse Review Board, the Diocesan Finance Council, or any other diocesan advisory body.”

The refusal, LCVC said, is plainly inconsistent with the recommendation of the Bransfield report. And this “does not serve the pressing need for transparency in the governance of the diocese, the lack of which greatly contributed to the Bransfield sexual and financial scandals.

“LCVC once again calls on the diocese to reform itself by endorsing the election and service of independent lay representatives to all diocesan advisory bodies. Without meaningful reform, large numbers of West Virginia Catholics will undoubtedly continue to refuse to trust or support the diocese.”

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has issued subpoenas to obtain this report and other records, with no success to date.

Morrisey did not put out an official statement on the Post’s release of the report, but said on Twitter: “I’m appreciative that we now have a version of the Bransfield investigative report to review. It’s been a long time and it took a third party disclosure for us to get a copy of it, but we will review closely.”

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 hold pending answers to questions submitted to the state Supreme Court.

Tweet David Beard @dbeardtdp Email dbeard@dominionpost.com