The revelations about the behavior of former Diocese of Wheeling Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield continue to shock the senses.
The Washington Post and other media, including MetroNews, have reported extensively about Bransfield’s sexual harassing and abusive behavior and opulent lifestyle. But now the Post has released publicly for the first time the independent investigation by the Catholic Church into Bransfield’s abuses.
The Post said it decided to publish the secret report “after church officials declined to say whether they are going to release the report.” The paper blacked out the names of the victims of Bransfield’s alleged sexual improprieties.
The 59-page report is a necessary read for every West Virginia Catholic concerned about how the Diocese operated during Bransfield’s tenure. For the rest of us, the report provides insight into how, even after the previous Catholic Church sex scandals, Bransfield was able to treat the Diocese from 2005 to 2018 like a well-financed playground.
The investigation found that Bransfield engaged in a pattern of sexually harassing young priests and seminarians. The alleged harassment included unwanted hugging, kissing and other physical contact, asking young men to take off their shirts or pants and suggestive sexual comments.
One student said that he believed Bransfield groomed him for exploitation. He told investigators that Bransfield, told him, “Your life is at the will and pleasure of the Bishop when you are in seminary.”
The report added that “In several instances, Bishop Bransfield’s victims have suffered significant mental health consequences. The resounding theme of the victims’ accounts is that they felt powerless as seminarians or young priests in DWC to push back or report their Bishop, and that there was no obvious mechanism to report this conduct and the effect it had on them.”
Much of the rest of the report details Bransfield’s extravagant spending of church funds. The Diocese ran a $187 million deficit over his tenure, “causing the Bishop to draw from the Diocese’s Endowment and Mineral Right account to make up the deficit and pay for various projects initiated by the Bishop.”
The investigation quantified his opulent lifestyle down to the penny. He spent $2,352,424.57 just on travel—airline tickets, hotels, private and rental car services. Nearly $1 million of that went for private chartered airplane service. Another $662,000 was spent on 1st class flights and exclusive hotels in Florida, the Caribbean and in Europe.
He ran up huge clothing and jewelry bills, spending nearly $62,000 at one jewelry store in Washington, D.C. Credit card statements show liquor purchases totaling $145,000. The report found Bransfield was a heavy drinker who also abused prescription drugs.
Naturally, the question is why didn’t someone in the Diocese leadership do something? The investigation determined that three senior Chancery Monsignors knew what was happening but could not or would not stop him. “By failing to take action, the Chancery Monsignors enabled the predatory and harassing conduct of Bishop Bransfield, and allowed him to recklessly spend Diocesan funds for his own personal use.”
The evidence of Bransfield’s extraordinarily bad behavior is overwhelming, but what is more disturbing is that the church hierarchy had neither the will nor the authority to do the right thing while Bransfield held office.
(Editor’s Note: Several weeks ago, DWC Bishop Mark Brennan announced a “plan of amends” for Bransfield. Read about that here.)