Bishop Bransfield’s fall from grace

The Bible is filled with stories and lessons of sacrifice and humility.  John the Baptist wore clothes of camel hair and lived on locusts and wild honey.  In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he wrote, “I was with you in weakness, in fear and in much trembling.”

Jesus explained in Matthew that he came as a servant. “The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus displayed the ultimate act of humility by dying on the cross for the salvation of others.

Service, humility, sacrifice and rewards beyond our time on earth are among the fundamental tenets of Christianity.  Even the most devout Christians of today do not expect the faithful to wear clothes of camel hair or be nailed to the cross.  However, there is, at the very least, an expectation that faith leaders will not exploit their positions of power and reverence to their advantage.

That expectation within the Catholic Church has been severely damaged by the sex scandal. The church knowingly covered up hundreds of instances of sexual abuse of minors by priests, often shuffling the offenders to different parishes to protect the institution instead of ministering to the abused.

Former Bishop Michael Bransfield

You would think the Church would have learned its lesson, but now we know of serious allegations of misconduct against former Wheeling-Charleston Diocese Bishop Michael Bransfield.  He was forced to resign last year after reports he sexually harassed men in the Diocese.

Five lay investigators reviewed the allegations. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the final report and published a story this week of the findings.  Here are a few of the most significant allegations:

—Bransfield gave cash gifts totaling $350,000 to fellow clergymen “including young priests he is accused of mistreating.”  Bransfield wrote checks from his personal account, but then had the Diocese reimburse him.

—The Bishop used Diocesan funds to pay for his opulent lifestyle. The Post reports during his 13 years as Bishop he spent $2.4 million of church money on travel, including charter jet flights and stays in luxury hotels.   Diocese money was used for 87 purchases totaling $61,000 from a Washington, D.C. jewelry store.

—The church paid $4.6 million to renovate his church residence after a fire damaged a single bathroom.

—“Bransfield and several subordinates spend an average of nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol,” according to the Post’s report of findings, and $100 a day on fresh flowers for the Chancery.

—The investigators determined Bransfield sexually harassed young male assistants, six of whom were “broken by the experience.”

Bransfield told the Post, “none of it is true,” and “Everybody is trying to destroy my reputation.”  Well, that ship has sailed.  The abbreviated report released by the Diocese and the much more detailed reporting by the Post show Bransfield’s behavior was deplorable.

Whatever checks and balances the Diocese had in place failed completely.  The investigation found the board overseeing the Diocese was “extremely passive.”  In addition, some within the church were afraid to complain about the Bishop’s behavior for fear of reprisals.

The failure of the individual has been magnified by the failure of the institution. This is heartbreaking for devout West Virginia Catholics who see the church as an integral part of their lives. They subscribe to the tenets and confess their sins. They tithe, volunteer their time for myriad church functions and put their faith in God to help guide them on a righteous path.

Bransfield strayed so far off course that he should spend the rest of his days seeking forgiveness, while the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese must recover its moral compass and begin the long process of redemption.



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