The newly appointed Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston steps in at a most challenging time. The Diocese and its 78,000 Catholics in West Virginia have been upended by the scandal involving disgraced former Bishop Michael Bransfield.
When new Bishop Mark Brennan was introduced in Wheeling this week, he said he knew what he was getting into. “As I stand before you now for the first time, as a soon-to-be shepherd and servant for you, I want you to know how acutely aware I am of the deep disappointment and pain that you have experienced as a result of your former bishop’s misdeeds.”
Bransfield resigned suddenly last fall and a subsequent internal investigation revealed widespread abuses. The report found he spent church money lavishly on private jet travel, luxury vacations, expensive home renovations and direct cash gifts to church superiors. He also sexually harassed younger priests.
Bransfield has denied any wrongdoing.
The organization Lay Catholic Voices for Change formed to express its deep anger over not only Bransfield’s behavior, but also how the Diocese failed to provide a check on the bishop.
“We are outraged that the scandal of clergy sex abuse in our Church has been prolonged and perpetuated by coverups in the DWC (Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston). We are also troubled and appalled by the coverup in our diocese of Bishop Bransfield’s outrageous spending,” the group wrote in a letter to Archbishop William Lori in June.
The Diocese has responded by agreeing to an independent outside audit of the church’s books, a move that prompted the laity group to call off a planned protest where parishioners were going to be asked to withhold any donations to the Diocese.
During an interview on Talkline earlier this week, Bishop Brennan said his priority is to simply listen. He will likely get an earful, but he said he’s ready for that. Meanwhile, the issue of what to do with Bransfield is still pending.
Pope Francis said Bransfield cannot live in the Diocese and cannot preside or participate in any Catholic service. The Pope also said Bransfield has “the obligation to make personal amends for some of the harm he has caused.” The specific redress is to be “decided in consultation with” Bishop Brennan.
Brennan pledged to move “expeditiously” on what, if any, punishment Bransfield could be subjected to. He said the options could include removing all or part of his pension and requiring him to pay back the Diocese for the wasteful spending.
Brennan’s acknowledgment of the depth of the scandal and his promise of devotion to reconciliation are a strong beginning for the new Bishop, and a hopeful start down the long road of healing in West Virginia’s Catholic community.