How’d He Get Away With It?

To judge by the report investigators submitted on Michael Bransfield, former bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, he didn’t exactly measure up to what most people like to see in a high-ranking church official.

Bransfield, who oversaw West Virginia’s Catholics for about 13 years, spent millions of dollars in church funds for his own benefit and sexually harassed a number of adults, according to the investigation report. I won’t go into the details. If you want to read them, look in the dictionary under “sordid.”

Someone is out to get him, Bransfield has responded. The allegations aren’t true, he insists.

But, just for the sake of argument, assume every word of the report is accurate. A couple of questions come up:

First, the investigation covers Bransfield’s 13 years in West Virginia. What about his career before that, which included a stint (1980-2004) at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.? For a time, he was director of finances, before becoming director of the whole operation.

Second, and of much more concern: If Bransfield did all these things for so long, how did he get away with it?

How does a bishop sexually harass a number of young priests and seminarians, while spending millions of dollars for his personal pleasure, without someone in the Catholic Church hearing about it?

After Bransfield departed the diocese, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore was appointed to lead it and to launch an investigation. Last week, in a letter released to the public, Lori discussed what was learned.

“In some cases, it is apparent that the judgment of diocesan personnel was impacted by the culture of fear of retaliation and retribution that the former bishop fostered,” Lori wrote.

Well, yes. Bransfield had the reputation of someone you should think twice before crossing.

But come on. Was that all? I’m not the only person wondering if there’s more to the story.

An analysis released by the Catholic News Agency notes U.S. bishops will be gathering next week “for their second plenary meeting in the year of serious crisis that began last June.” The event will be held in Baltimore. It will be held “under the specter of another demoralizing scandal” — Bransfield.

It has been revealed that Bransfield handed out $350,000 in cash gifts to some of those he harassed — and to high-ranking church officials.

“Some observers have asked whether bishops can ever really be expected to hold one another to accountability, if five-figure checks are exchanged between some of them with a certain degree of regularity,” the CNA notes.

Well, yes. That ought to be a concern — especially since it seems Bransfield was being reimbursed for his gifts, with church funds.

Much worse behavior has been recorded among a number of other leaders in the church. Some of them apparently had the gift-giving habit, too.

We know now, at least to judge by the investigative report, what Bransfield did. Now, we need to know how he got away with it — and who helped him do so.

Otherwise, the scandal won’t end.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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