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Survivors Network: Apology ‘Cannot Absolve’ Bransfield

Michael Bransfield, center, the former bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in this 2011 file photo. Bransfield retired in 2018 at the same time allegations surfaced that he had sexually harassed adults.

WHEELING — When Michael Bransfield responded to a 60-page investigation into his sexual and financial impropriety with a three-paragraph statement of apology, a support network for victims of clerical abuse found the disgraced bishop’s act of contrition wanting.

Bransfield was accused of using his position as the former bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston to pocket funds for personal use and to intimidate and coerce at least three men into sexual situations.

Following his resignation in September 2018, an investigation into the matter was opened by The Vatican, which produced the 60-page report on the allegations against him, which was presented to the Archbishop of Baltimore, William Lori, in early 2019.

Bransfield’s reaction finally came this week, along with an official announcement of amends from The Vatican on Thursday. In a letter dated last Saturday, Bransfield denied that his excessive spending — which included reimbursement using church funds for first-class airfare, alcohol and flowers, as well as renovations to his personal home — was improper, but agreed to pay back money demanded in restitution.

Bransfield also apologized for “certain words and actions” that caused clergy and seminarians to feel sexually harassed in his presence.

“Although that was never my intent, if anything that I said or did caused others to feel that way, then I am profoundly sorry,” Bransfield stated.

Judy Jones, Midwest Associate Leader for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Thursday that Bransfield’s apology was evasive and insufficient.

“My first impression on reading his apology letter is that he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong,” Jones said. “…That letter is so lame, and he’s making excuses.”

Jones added that Bransfield’s lack of accountability for his actions, including his resignation in good standing from the church, was disgraceful.

“I know victims of his, they’re going to feel so used. He needs to be held accountable by the justice system,” Jones said. “He’s getting away with it, by writing this letter and paying his money back. He needs consequences, at least to be defrocked.”

Two civil lawsuits have been filed against Bransfield. One is currently ongoing, while another was settled out-of-court. No criminal charges have been filed against him.

In a separate statement, Jones said the brevity and evasiveness of Bransfield’s statement reflected a lack of remorse on the man’s part.

“It is all well and good that former Bishop Michael Bransfield has issued an apology, but a three-paragraph letter cannot absolve the man of the crimes committed, especially when that letter is written more as a defense than a true apology. A true apology from Bransfield would not contain any equivocation or whines about his intent being misperceived, but a simple and straightforward acceptance of his wrongdoing. That is not what parishioners in West Virginia received from Bransfield.”

On the financial side, Bransfield was ordered to pay back the diocese $441,000 for unauthorized benefits during his 12-year tenure. Current Bishop Mark Brennan requested last year that the amends required of Bransfield would include repaying $792,638 in restitution. Brennan said that the repayment of Bransfield’s ill-gotten gains, along with $1.2 million in proceeds from the sale of his Wheeling residence, will go to benefit abuse victims.

Jones said the financial restitution was deserved, but again cited Bransfield’s letter, where he claims he felt the funds were proper, as displaying a lack of remorse in his actions, more apologia than apology.

“It should be done, but he’s acting like he still deserved to get that money,” she said. “The way I see it is, he stole that money.”

In her written statement, Jones said the financial aspect of Bransfield’s scrutiny was the lesser offense, compared to the allegations of sexual harassment.

“We are glad that Bransfield is being made to return the money he stole from parishioners to fund his lavish lifestyle, but this financial impropriety is the lesser of his alleged crimes. … These are not things that can simply be waved away with an apology and we would prefer that Bransfield make his amends through the criminal justice system, not a typewritten letter.

“True change will come when powerful men are held accountable for abusing their power, and we do not believe that the amends plan laid out by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston is close to real accountability,” Jones’ statement concludes.

Bransfield will continue to receive $2,250 per month in retirement stipend, which is the amount recommended by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for retired bishops. Bransfield will also receive health care benefits, but not other perks normally associated with a retired bishop. The total retirement package is about 1/3 of what a bishop of his stature would normally receive.

Canon lawyer Philip Gray, president of the St. Joseph Foundation, said he hadn’t seen a case where the Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged abuse by a clergyman to such a degree before, calling the recognition “unprecedented” in terms of scope, rather than allowing a bishop to retire into obscurity without punishment.

“I think it’s astounding that this level of public presentation of the restitution has been made,” Gray said. “I am not familiar with any case in the recent past in which the bishop was required to make this type of public apology and restitution for the harm that he did. I think that it’s insufficient, but I think, just looking at the broad picture, this is an advancement in the Church’s climate regarding a bishop’s accountability for wrongdoing.”

However, Gray said the restitution fell well short of making amends to the broad-scope victims of Bransfield’s mismanagement, which he felt were Bishop Donahue High School, Wheeling Hospital and Wheeling University, formerly known as Wheeling Jesuit University. The two educational institutions were marked by serious financial insecurity in recent years, with Bishop Donahue closing its doors in 2017, and Wheeling University rebranding in 2019 amid “financial exigency,” slashing numerous educational programs within the school. Earlier this summer, Wheeling Hospital announced plans to seriously reduce staffing, citing millions of dollars worth of financial loss.

“I believe it falls short in one very big area: the restitution identified does not take into account the specific institutions, and the individuals within those institutions, that were negatively affected by his policies,” Gray said. “… All three of those institutions were, from what I understand, negatively affected by his policies and actions, and yet nothing has been identified to correct the harm done. We’re talking hundreds of people directly affected at those institutions. … It’s not just the hospital staff, it’s everyone, all the way down the line.

“The silver lining is that this level of public restitution has been identified and presented is, for the most part, unprecedented in our time.”

Gray lamented that while the level of accountability was unheard of, it remained to be seen whether this was the start of a new era of accountability, or a one-off miracle.

“I’ve been doing canon law too long to believe that one instance is going to set a precedent going forward, so I will only say that I hope it does.”

Brennan called the final amends a “fair and reasonable resolution of this unseemly matter” and said he hopes the issue is now closed so he can now move the diocese forward.

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