Parishioners at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling Say Bransfield Scandal Does Not Rattle Their Faith in God
Scandal Does Not Deter Members of Church
WHEELING — Parishioners of the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston on Saturday said they are focusing their energy on their faith and the church, not on their former leader, Michael Bransfield.
Bransfield, who served as bishop of the diocese for 13 years prior to his retirement in September, faces mounting pressure from an internal investigation accusing him of excessive spending of church funds, sexual harassment of adults within the church, and using millions of dollars of church funds for personal gifts to other church officials, for personal travel, and to renovate his church-owned residence.
At Saturday’s Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, the church’s headquarters in West Virginia, one woman, who did not wish to be identified, said that Bransfield’s position as the former bishop was irrelevant to her faith, as she answers to a higher authority.
“I’m not here because of what’s happened in the past, I’m here because God directed me to this church,” she said. “No matter who’s bishop, the only thing that matters to me is that we’re here to worship God.”
The woman, who had only recently converted to Catholicism, said that Bransfield’s alleged indiscretions and excessive spending did not shake her resolve, even as new allegations came to light while she was exploring the faith.
“I wasn’t born into the church, I chose to come to this church, and this hasn’t dampened my faith one bit,” she said.
Another parishioner spoke more directly about Bransfield personally, angry at the lack of repercussions as allegations and internal investigations mounted.
“He ought to be in prison,” the man said. “Why should (church) laws be different from ours?”
A number of other parishioners who were asked their opinion declined to comment.
Bransfield retired in September. Shortly after he left the diocese, the Holy See launched an investigation into allegations that Bransfield sexually harassed adults.
A panel of five lay people conducted the investigation.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore was appointed apostolic administrator in Wheeling following Bransfield’s departure, and tasked with leading the investigation into Bransfield’s time in West Virginia.
Lori presided over Saturday’s Mass at the Cathedral. On Wednesday, in a letter to the faithful, he said the sexual harassment allegations against Bransfield were “credible” and also detailed excessive and inappropriate spending by Bransfield as bishop.
A preliminary report on the investigation to be sent to the Vatican, detailed by The Washington Post, found the former bishop spent $2.4 million of the church’s money on travel, much of it for personal trips, and an additional $4.6 million to renovate the bishop’s Wheeling residence after a fire.
“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.” Lori previously said.
In a video posted online Friday, Lori said the diocese needs to find a bishop to take the post Bransfield once held in order to begin the process of regaining public trust.
In the same video, Lori apologized for asking that his name, as well as the names of other Roman Catholic Church leaders, be omitted from a preliminary investigative report of Bransfield’s time in West Virginia. Several church leaders, Lori included, were identified as having received personal gifts from Bransfield during his 13-year tenure as bishop.
Among the priests who received gifts, according to the preliminary report, were Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who spoke in Wheeling during the annual Red Mass in 2015; Cardinal Donald Wuerl, retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., who spoke in Wheeling during Red Mass in 2016; Cardinal Raymond Burke, a member of the Vatican Supreme Court; and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who had a role in covering up clergy sexual abuse in that diocese.