West Virginia Catholics confronting Bransfield scandal

Most Christians know well a verse in 2 Corinthians 9:7 that comes to mind when the collection plate is passed: “God loves a cheerful giver.”

But many congregants of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston find themselves somewhat reluctant tithers these days because of the scandal surrounding former Bishop Michael Bransfield.

For example, last month, a fundraising letter from the Basilica of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Charleston addressed the issue head-on.  “The news of the credible harassment and financial improprieties concerning Bishop Michael Bransfield have caused many to question their giving,” the letter says.

The letter then goes on to assure that donations to the Catholic Sharing Appeal “support parishes and ministries” and cannot be used by the Bishop.

Mark Switzer, a spokesman for the Lay Catholics for Change, said on Talkline this week that the scandal has caused parishioners to question their giving.  “We certainly understand where people are coming from when they withhold their money,” he said.  “That’s why it’s imperative that the diocese becomes more transparent and accountable for the money that we do send out.”

A church investigation and reporting by the Washington Post revealed exorbitant spending of diocesan money by Bransfield.  His lifestyle was more like that of the “rich and famous” than a Catholic priest, with luxury accommodations, private charter jet trips, Caribbean vacations and nearly 600 cash gifts to fellow clergy.

The evidence of extravagant and inappropriate spending by Bransfield grew last Sunday when the Post reported that $21 million was moved from the church-owned Wheeling Hospital to a special Bishop’s Fund that Bransfield controlled.

According to the Post, the purpose of the fund was to help West Virginians, but several hundred thousand dollars was spent outside the state.  In one instance, Bransfield send two checks totaling $39,000 from the fund to a Cardinal in Rome to help him furnish his apartment. “I fixed that room up for him,” Bransfield told the paper.

This latest revelation was followed by a statement from the recently installed Bishop of the Diocese, Mark Brennan. He said restoring trust in the church leadership is his “highest priority.”

He promised to reveal a plan soon for Bransfield to make amends.  “While it is not possible to undo all the hurt and disappointment his actions have caused, I believe it is necessary for Bishop Bransfield to accept his moral responsibility and make a fair restitution to the people of the Diocese,” Brennan said.

Bransfield’s accountability is essential, but that may not be enough for the laity who have been deeply wounded by the ordeal. The Lay Catholic’s for Change have said that going forward they want the Diocese to be much more transparent about church finances.

“How does this happen without some kind of checks and balances?” Switzer questioned.  “How did the Bishop get away with this for 13 years?  I think we are all appalled, disheartened and wounded.”

Second Corinthians also says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion.” Understandably, many in the Diocese are struggling with that command.



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