Parishioner concerned about long-term impact of Bransfield report

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A lifelong member of the Catholic Church in West Virginia says he’s concerned about the long-term impact the behavior of former Wheeling-Charleston Diocese Bishop Michael Bransfield will have on the church.

Bill Bissett

Bill Bissett, the president and CEO of the Huntington Area Chamber of Commerce and member of St. Joseph Parish in Huntington, said reports of sexual harassment and lavish spending can be discouraging and some may just leave the church.

“They just go and say, ‘This isn’t for me. I’m out. If you can’t police yourselves–I’m going to go somewhere else.’ I think that’s the big threat to Catholicism,” Bissett said during a Thursday appearance on MetroNews “Talkline.”

Archbishop William Lori released a letter to the Catholic community Wednesday highlighting the results of a five-month investigation into Bransfield which began after he resigned last fall. The probe found allegations of sexual harassment against Bransfield credible while also finding Bransfield engaged in excessive and inappropriate spending during his 13 years as bishop.

A story in the Washington Post, based on the full 60-page investigative report, is more damaging.

“You have a bishop who had very little checks on his power and was also in charge of a Diocese that was very, very rich, surprisingly wealthy,” Washington Post investigative reporter Shawn Boburg said Thursday on “Talkline.”

Former Bishop Michael Bransfield

Part of the investigation focused on Bransfield’s apparent common practice of writing checks to both young priests he alleged harassed and to higher-ups in the Catholic Church. Boburg said the investigative report doesn’t say why the checks were written but Bransfield was placed in influential positions during his time at the Diocese.

Boburg said it’s possible the Diocese and Bransfield may have to answer questions from the IRS about how Bransfield was reimbursed for the approximately $350,000 in financial gifts he gave out.

“They might ask questions– ‘What was the purpose of the money you routed through Bishop Bransfield’s bank account? Was it truly compensation? Do you have records backing it up? Was this truly compensation for services?’ Boburg said. “This money was requested for the specific purpose of giving out checks. So it would be a difficult question to answer for the Diocese in terms of where that tax liability would play out.”

According to the report, Bransfield, who has denied all of the allegations, would regularly dip into money from a $250 million Diocese trust fund that is financed in part by land that produces oil in Texas and brings the Diocese more than $12 million a year.

Shawn Boburg

No one would stop Bransfield, Boburg said.

“There is a finance council that’s supposed to approve and monitor spending. It says they basically just did whatever the bishop wanted,” Boburg said. “The financial manager in charge of the Diocese told investigators they were fearful and he (Bransfield) did whatever he wanted.”

The spending including personal trips to the Caribbean on Lear Jets, Boburg said.

Archbishop Lori addressed the issue in his letter to the Church Wednesday.

“I have been in close collaboration with the leadership of the Diocese, including members of
the Diocesan Finance Council, to identify how best to prevent such behaviors from occurring in the future. Clearly, despite proper checks and balances, diocesan policies and oversight
procedures were subverted and we are determined to prevent this type of lapse from occurring in the future,” Lori wrote.

Bissett said he hopes leaders of the Diocese will say more and say it soon.

“They’ve got to get out in front of this on some way and be less responsive and more proactive and I think that’s still creating frustration and not building any trust,” Bissett said. “I know they’re trying to be slow and careful but swift and sure is the route now.”

Bissett said he has no plans on leaving the Catholic Church. He said his sense is there are parishes that are strong and filled with faithful Catholics.

“What I see when I walk into my church in Huntington—I have great confidence and I see the good work they do and all the great work of Catholic Charities. Unfortunately I think there’s collateral damage because of the alleged actions of Bransfield,” Bissett said.

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