Financial Records Reveal Questionable Decisions About Bishops Fund Within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston
WHEELING — Michael Bransfield’s salary as bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston spiked sharply in 2016 — just more than a year after he created his own nonprofit Bishops Fund Inc. to channel money to various West Virginia projects.
Bransfield’s pay increased nearly 60 percent to $215,571 after the Bishops Fund completed its first full year. At the end of 2016, the fund held more than $7.5 million in assets, according to IRS records that were filed by the organization.
While Bransfield’s salary — along with the compensation for the nonprofit’s four other board members — did not come directly from the fund, records show his Bishops Fund acted as an arm of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, funneling money to church entities, many of which had direct ties to board members.
Bishop Bransfield served as the organization’s executive director and board president starting with its inception in late 2014, and had the power to appoint and remove other members of the board of directors, according to tax records.
The board included the Rev. Kevin Quirk, the group’s secretary and then chairman of the boards of both Wheeling Hospital and Wheeling Jesuit University; Lawrence Bandi, the board’s treasurer and president of Central Catholic High School in Wheeling; Bryan Minor, the diocese’s human resources director and executive director of the West Virginia Catholic Foundation; and the Rev. Frederick Annie, one of Bransfield’s three monsignor deputies that also included Quirk.
All five men sat on the Bishops Fund’s board from late 2014 through 2017 as the nonprofit swelled with money.
Tax filings are not yet available for 2018, the year in which Bransfield retired as bishop and then was immediately removed from office — not the church’s typical approach toward a retiring bishop, as they usually stay in office for several months until a new leader is selected.
However, in Bransfield’s case, accusations of sexual harassment and misappropriation of church funds surfaced almost immediately after he left office.
The Bishops Fund reported $8 million in revenue in 2015 and nearly $12 million in 2016 — the year in which the organization gave the former Wheeling Jesuit University an $11.6 million grant, used to purchase the campus property and allow the university to cover a large portion of its debt.
While the IRS filings do not indicate its revenue source, the fund has come under scrutiny after an investigative report by the Washington Post revealed more than $21 million was funneled from Wheeling Hospital into the Bishops Fund.
Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston spokesman Tim Bishop said last week the Bishops Fund was a “separate organization” from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, and the two nonprofits file different federal tax-exempt returns, also known as 990s. However, the three full years in which the records are available for the Bishops Fund revealed the largest benefactors were those organizations helmed by some members of the board.
Following the money
The nonprofit began slow in 2015 with just two grants: a $25,000 stipend to Catholic Charities of West Virginia and $10,348 to Wheeling Central Catholic High School. The fund showed $8 million in revenue that year.
The payouts exploded in 2016. In addition to the $11.6 million to Wheeling Jesuit that year, Wheeling Central received $512,783; the diocese was given $150,000; and Catholic Charities of West Virginia received $66,195. There is no information about how those donations were utilized.
Wheeling Jesuit received another $1 million in 2017, bringing its haul to nearly $13 million.
The next largest benefactor was Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral in Charleston, which received $2.26 million for a multi-million dollar renovation of its sanctuary. Bransfield was there for the dedication in December 2017 to bless the new marble altar.
“This new altar, made of noble stone, permanent and fixed, reminds us that Christ himself is the one true cornerstone of our lives,” he said during that Mass, according to the diocese’s Catholic Spirit newspaper.
That same year, the diocese was given $343,155; Wheeling Central received about $70,000; and the newly-formed Diocesan Real Estate Inc. that Bransfield oversaw took in nearly $50,000.
Other grants included $135,200 to Weirton Madonna High School; $51,446 to Charleston Catholic High School; $33,409 to St. Michael Parish School in Wheeling; $15,328 to St. John Parish in Summersville; and $7,368 to St. Joseph the Worker in Weirton.
The Bishops Fund had $5.73 million in assets at the end of 2017, according to that year’s filing.
Dennis Kozicki, the Wheeling accountant who prepared the tax-exempt 990 forms for the diocese, said he could not discuss the filings.
“I can’t talk about (the tax filings) without permission from the diocese,” Kozicki said when reached by phone Thursday. “You’ll have to talk to the diocese.”
A shakeup at the top
There have been many changes to the diocese since Bransfield was removed in September 2018. Bransfield currently is living near Philadelphia, and could not be reached for comment for this story.
– Quirk, a canonical lawyer, resigned in June as judicial vicar and rector of the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling. He also resigned from his position on the boards of directors at Wheeling Jesuit University — now Wheeling University — and Wheeling Hospital. He was reassigned to serve as priest in residence at the Mater Dolorosa in Paden City and St. Vincent De Paul in New Martinsville parishes and Holy Rosary in Sistersville and St. Joseph in Proctor missions.
Quirk did not return a phone message left for him at St. Vincent De Paul, and a receptionist at Mater Dolorosa said he was no longer there.
– Annie resigned as the diocese’s vicar general in September 2018 and was assigned as assistant priest in residence at St. Mary Parish in Star City, just outside of Morgantown. He retired from the priesthood earlier this year, the diocese said. He could not be reached for comment.
– Bandi, who remains president at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, did not respond to a phone message seeking comment about his time as treasurer of the Bishops Fund.
– Minor, who still holds the position of human resources director at the diocese, also did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.
– The Most Rev. Mark Brennan, former auxiliary bishop at the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was appointed to succeed Bransfield.
Moving the Diocese Forward
As part of the punishment levied by Pope Francis in July, Bransfield is no longer permitted to live in West Virginia or openly practice the Liturgy. He also will soon be ordered by his successor, Brennan, on how to make amends to the diocese.
Brennan is now “days or weeks rather than months” from making the decision on what amends and restitution will be required of Bransfield, according to Bishop, the church spokesman.
“He’s in that process. I’m not sure anything, to this point, has changed that,” Bishop said of the work that began when Brennan was installed in July. “I think Bishop Brennan is taking the steps he has promised to take before coming to the diocese and being installed to make restitution to the harm (Bransfield) has done to the church.”
In a written statement Thursday, Brennan said he is “dismayed” by Bransfield’s “misdeeds” and is working on a resolution for the former bishop to “accept his moral responsibility and make a fair restitution to the people” in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
“It is my highest priority to restore trust in Church leadership and bring about the healing that so many in our Diocese need and desire,” Brennan said.
Bishop said Brennan has spoken to church and diocesan staff, and is traveling the state to meet with parishioners.
“The bishop made clear in his letter to the faithful in September, he’s been so impressed by the active and vibrant faith in his travels in the state,” Bishop said. “His highest priority is to get to know the faithful.”
Meanwhile, an audit currently being performed by CliftonLarsonAllen LLP of Minneapolis is expected to be made public early next year, Bishop said.
“I understand everyone is champing at the bit to get this done, just as much as us,” Bishop said.
Until then, Bishop said Catholics across West Virginia should have faith in the process and trust Brennan will be able to right the diocese.
“What he’s saying is, let’s work together to move forward as a diocese to heal and restore confidence,” Bishop said. “I’m prepared to follow where he’s leading.”