WHEELING, W.Va. — Despite criticism that punishment toward disgraced former Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston Michael Bransfield should have been stronger, current Bishop Mark Brennan is standing by the diocese’s “plan of amends.”
The proposed plan was announced last Tuesday where Bransfield would make public apologies and pay $792,638 restitution if he accepts his actions of financial improprieties and alleged sexual harassment and abuse of adults and former students.
“I was not asked to cut off his head, to send him into abject poverty or to humiliate him,” Brennan said on a recent episode of MetroNews ‘Talkline.’ “Rather get him to respond as a Christian man and a former bishop of the diocese and apologize to individuals for wrong behavior towards them and the whole diocese.”
“I’m trying to be realistic as to what could actually be received from him without being so radical in demands that there are no ways that he could meet them.”
The church’s plan of amends comes months after a church investigation into Bransfield on multiple sexual harassment/abuse allegations and misuse of millions of dollars of the church’s money.
Bransfield’s actions such taking millions of dollars from church-owned Wheeling Hospital for the bishop’s fund, lavish spending on vacations, and the diocese looking the other way with abuse allegations were reported and detailed by The Washington Post.
Brennan said that he had met with Bransfield on several occasions during this time to ask the former bishop to come up with his own plan. In those discussions, Brennan said that Bransfield has not admitted to his actions and told him that he does not know who he needs to apologize to.
Other steps could be taken if Bransfield does not come forward and take responsibility, Brennan said.
“I told him, I am not going to put words in his mouth. He’s got to as a Christian man, recognize there are people who credibility believe that he made wrongful advances towards them and also did create a culture of fear in the diocesan offices,” Brennan said.
“People were afraid of him and that’s not the way you should be.”
Mark Switzer, part of the Lay Catholics Voices for Change said on MetroNews ‘Talkline’ that until there is a recognition of what wrong has been done, how can something be amended.
“How do you apply mercy when there is no admission of a problem,” Switzer said. “I personally find it difficult to talk about mercy when the victimizer refuses to accept responsibility for anything that has happened.”
Brennan said there was mercy in the ruling towards Bransfield, who served as bishop of the Wheeling-Catholic diocese from 2005 to 2018, when he retired.
The plan laid out by Brennan last week includes financial restitution including a lower pension benefit of $736 a month, which is a significant drop from over $6,000 a month.
Bransfield also receives reduced health care benefits, giving up a car that the diocese gave him upon retirement, and reimbursing hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal benefits that were not declared for taxes.
If he accepts the plan, Bransfield, 76, also would give up the right to be buried within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston upon his death.
While Switzer believes some of those actions are on the right track, he still finds it disturbing that there was is no plans for structural changes in the diocese.
“Bishop Bransfield did not get away with this without anyone noticing. Why weren’t we informed and why wasn’t there transparency and accountability. We need structural changes,” Switzer said.
According to him, Bransfield eliminated certain lay positions around the state within a year of him becoming the bishop. Switzer said those positions would meet with church leadership often and report what is going on and vice versa.
Brennan wants to bring back the days of lays being more involved and said he has established a pastoral council after meeting with Switzer’s group on November 2. He said the group will have six parts and will discuss matters of church concerns from both sides of the diocese.
There was also an expansion of the diocesan finance council over the past year under Archbishop William Lori, which Brennan pointed out on ‘Talkline.’
Brennan said the biggest thing to do aside from the councils to restructure is to just be truthful among the diocese.
“West Virginia Catholics are very friendly, hospitable group. They have strong faith, resilient faith that has carried them through a difficult time,” Brennan said. “You only regain people’s trust by showing people you are trustworthy. You keep your word and I am trying to keep my word about the whole matter.”
Switzer believes that Brennan is the right man for the healing process. He also said while the church moves forward, the victims of this matter must not be forgotten.
“One thing I don’t want to lose focus of, and I am afraid a lot of Catholics do when they get hung up on the financial side of it. The sexual harassment, abuse, those victims need our support and our love. many times they feel like they are battling the diocese that should be supporting them.”