Warnings about West Virginia bishop went unheeded as he doled out cash gifts to Catholic leaders
By Robert O'harrow Jr. And Shawn Boburg
July 3, 2019
Photo by Scott McCloskey
|Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, addresses the congregation during Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsburg, W.Va., on June 16. Lori's visit followed the disclosure of Bishp Michael Bransfield's mishandling of church funds. |
Photo by Lexi Browning
|The diocesan property in Wheeling, W.Va., where Bishop Michael Bransfield lived is pictured on June 4. The West Virginia diocese paid $4.6 million to renovate the residence, church records show. |
Photo by Michelle Boorstein
Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield as far back as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.
"I beg of you to please look into this situation," Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, West Virginia, wrote in 2013 to the pope's ambassador to the United States.
But Bransfield's conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to "purchase influence" by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.
"It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter," Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.
At least four senior clerics outside West Virginia who received parishioner complaints about Bransfield also accepted cash gifts from him, more than $32,000 in all, according to an analysis of letters and other documents obtained by The Post.
The previously unreported Quirk letter and the complaints from parishioners raise questions about when Catholic leaders first knew of Bransfield's conduct and why they took no action for years. They also reveal the roots of a church financial scandal that exploded into public view in June with a Washington Post account of the findings of a Vatican-ordered investigation of Bransfield.
Five lay investigators concluded early this year that Bransfield abused his authority by sexually harassing young priests and spending church money on personal luxuries, according to their final report and other documents obtained by The Post. Bransfield spent $2.4 million on travel, often flying in private jets, as well as $4.6 million in all to renovate his church residence, church records show. His cash gifts to fellow clergymen totaled $350,000, the records show.
Bransfield drew on a little-known source of money for the diocese: millions of dollars in annual revenue from oil wells in west Texas, on land that was donated to the diocese a century ago. The wells have yielded an average of about $15 million annually in recent years.
Bransfield wrote more than 500 checks to other clerics during his 13 years in West Virginia, gifts for which he was reimbursed by the diocese. The recipients who also received parishioner complaints include Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, then the nuncio, the pope's ambassador to the United States; Cardinal Raymond Burke, then the leader of the church's judicial authority in Rome; Archbishop Peter Wells, then a senior administrator in the pope's Secretariat of State at the Vatican; and Lori, the archbishop in Baltimore who later oversaw the Vatican investigation launched after Quirk's account.
Bransfield's generosity with church money extended beyond the cash gifts. In 2013, Viganò accepted a half-hour ride on a jet chartered by Bransfield at a cost to the West Virginia diocese of about $200 a minute, documents and interviews show.
In statements, Wells, Burke and Lori said the gifts did not influence how they responded to parishioners' complaints.
Viganò said he did not recall receiving complaints and did not give Bransfield favorable treatment. He said he gave the monetary gifts to charity shortly after receiving them. He said he did not know the private jet provided by Bransfield to an event in West Virginia was paid for by the diocese.
In a phone interview, Bransfield defended his spending as bishop, saying it was justified and approved by financial managers at the diocese. He said many of his accomplishments in West Virginia, including expanding a church-owned hospital and renovating schools, had been overshadowed by the scandal.
Bransfield denied that the monetary gifts were an effort to buy influence. He said he was already successful and did not need favors or special treatment.
"They could do nothing for me," he said. "I was at the top of my game."
Quirk did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Parishioners provided their emails and letters about Bransfield following The Post's story in early June. In interviews, some said they had long wondered why no one had acted on their complaints.
"We felt like there was something up," said Kellee Abner, an anesthesiologist from Charleston, West Virginia. "It is difficult to understand how all the attempts to expose conduct in the diocese could have been ignored by so many for so long."
Since The Post story was published, at least a dozen Catholic clerics, including Lori, have pledged to return money to the diocese of West Virginia. Many said they had not been aware that the money came from church coffers.
In 2005, soon after Bransfield arrived in Wheeling, West Virginia, concerns about his spending became public. The Charleston Gazette-Mail wrote articles in 2006 and 2013 that drew attention to some of his extravagances, noting that Bransfield had a driver, personal chef and a fondness for architectural refinements, such as cherry-wood paneling.
The 2013 story said parishioners accused Bransfield of "living too profligate a lifestyle" and failing to follow Pope Francis' prescription of a modest life for clerics. The next year, The New York Times cited that account in a broader story about financial excesses in the church.
At the time, Bransfield spokesman Bryan Minor described the bishop's spending as reasonable. He said that Bransfield's chef saved the diocese money because he also catered church events.
In the interview with The Post, Bransfield defended the spending on his residence, saying water damage related to a fire in a bathroom was greater than what is reflected in the lay investigators' report. "I did a restoration," he said, adding that from his prior position in Washington he was accustomed to living in a finely appointed home.
Through it all, Bransfield maintained a prominent, sometimes controversial public profile.
He regularly traveled to the Vatican while serving as treasurer of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and president of the board of trustees for the Papal Foundation, a group that channels money from wealthy Catholic contributors into charitable projects favored by the pope.
In 2012, news accounts reported that Bransfield was mentioned by a witness in a Philadelphia sexual abuse trial involving a local priest. The witness testified that the priest on trial once told him that Bransfield had sex with a teenage boy. Bransfield issued a statement vehemently denying the claim. That same year, Bransfield was the subject of news stories when authorities in Philadelphia reopened an investigation into a separate allegation that he had fondled a teenage boy decades earlier while working as a teacher at a Catholic high school. Bransfield denied ever sexually abusing anyone. No charges were brought.
Bransfield told The Post a diocese investigation into the allegations cleared him of wrongdoing.
Some parishioners grumbled about Bransfield from the start. But their anger boiled over in 2012, when Bransfield ordered that a pastor, the Rev. Jim Sobus, be relocated from Our Lady of Fatima Church in Huntington to a remote parish.
Sobus had criticized the church and Bransfield's management, and a handful of parishioners had complained to the diocese about the way Sobus managed a Catholic school and meted out discipline.
Scores of parishioners wrote to Bransfield or signed petitions praising Sobus in unsuccessful appeals to keep him at his home parish, documents show. Sobus was later suspended for failing to report to his new assignment.
Parishioners also reached out to Lori, Viganò and clerics at the Vatican, in letters that sometimes contrasted Bransfield's spending with the modest lifestyle of "Father Jim."
On Nov. 5, 2012, a Catholic activist named Christine Pennington wrote to Lori to complain that Bransfield had a rectory "renovated in high style - granite kitchen, stainless steel appliances, tile floor, all new high end (Thomasville style) furniture," the letter shows.
"At the very least, he has not been a good steward & these are perfect examples," Pennington wrote.
Six days later, Kellee Abner, the anesthesiologist, sent an email to Lori with the subject line: "Confidential and Urgent for Archbishop William Lori." The note said she had a matter of "utmost and urgent" need.
Abner said she received a call back from a Lori spokesman, Sean Caine, and the two discussed her concerns about relocating Sobus. Abner said they also spoke about Bransfield's spending on personal luxuries - such as the lavish renovation of his residence and offices.
"It was, 'This guy is corrupt' and he was trying to crush us," Abner recalled.
Caine told her that Lori had no authority to investigate or discipline Bransfield, she said. "He told me, 'Take it to Rome,' " she said.
Caine told The Post he does not recall the details of that conversation.
In an interview, he acknowledged that Lori received a long, detailed letter from a parishioner about Bransfield's spending on home renovations. Lori considered the complaints "speculative in nature" and beyond his authority to investigate, Caine said.
Even so, Caine said, Lori called Bransfield and raised the concerns with him. "Nothing in that conversation led [Lori] to believe there was anything like the extent of spending, or the potential misuse of church funds, that would be revealed" by the later investigation, Caine said.
Lori began receiving checks from Bransfield in May 2012, the same month he became archbishop, and accepted them annually through 2017. He received a total of $10,500, church records show. After The Post raised questions about the gifts, Lori said he would return $7,500. He said the other $3,000 was paid as stipends and travel reimbursements for celebrating two Masses in the West Virginia diocese.
Abner did take her complaints to Rome, sending Cardinal Burke a 10-page fax about an alleged campaign by Bransfield's team against Sobus, according to receipts she provided to The Post.
"I beg for help from you Father," she wrote in February 2013. "We need to stand up for the Truth as Jesus would want us, but we also need those who will stand with us."
Burke did not respond to her appeals, she said.
"I'm sure that people within the church knew about Bransfield," she told The Post. "There was a whole year of pressure and communication."
Burke received 15 checks from 2008 to 2017 worth a total of $9,700, church records show.
Burke said in a statement that he did not know Bransfield well but that Bransfield regularly asked him to meet with priests who accompanied Bransfield to Rome. Burke said some of the checks were honoraria for these talks about his work at the Vatican. Others were gifts Bransfield sent on holidays or to mark Burke's ordination as a cardinal, he said.
He said he donated the money to charity. "A Cardinal makes an oath not to accept any gift from someone seeking a favor pertaining to his office and work," Burke said in the statement. "In the case of the gifts of Bishop Bransfield, I never had any reason to suspect that anything was awry."
Viganò, the pope's representative in Washington, received multiple letters in 2013 that raised questions about Bransfield's lavish life amid the poverty of West Virginia, documents show.
In March 2013, Christine Pennington, who had earlier written to Lori, sent Viganò a short letter about "the life of luxury, self-centeredness, & abuse of power by Bishop Michael Bransfield, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia."
"To verify my facts, below is a news article from the Charleston, Gazette (WV) outlining the beginning of a 'spending spree,' " she wrote.
The article's headline reads: "Renovations to Bishop's House Top $1 Million."
"West Virginia's Catholic diocese has spent well over $1 million this year on renovations to houses for Bishop Michael Bransfield, including the addition of a 13-foot-long sunken bar and a 100-square-foot wine cellar," says the story's first sentence.
In May, Viganò received a blunt but less detailed letter from Joanna Brown, a parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima Church.
"Bishop Bransfield has been enjoying a self-indulgent lifestyle," Brown wrote in a letter that was copied to two other clerics in Rome. "I want to know why this is being allowed when Pope Francis is preaching the opposite."
In a letter that same month sent to Viganò and copied to cardinals in Rome, parishioners Robert and Virginia Hickman echoed Brown's complaint.
"There are so many 'stories about the lifestyle of the hierarchy of our Diocese that one should investigate for themselves to verify facts," the Hickmans wrote. "Your inquiry and review of all matters in the DIOCESE OF WHEELING/CHARLESTON would be a blessing for all parishioners."
In July 2013, during the flurry of letters, Viganò joined Bransfield in Mount Hope, West Virgina, to celebrate Mass at a Jamboree attended by 10,000 Boy Scouts. Viganò told The Post that he had been stranded at an airport in Charlotte on his way to the event and called Bransfield to let him know. Bransfield sent a chartered jet to pick him up.
Church documents and flight records show a seven-seat Learjet was dispatched to pick up Viganò in North Carolina, flying him 35 minutes to Charleston, West Virginia. The flight cost the diocese $7,687, church financial records show.
Viganò told The Post that he had no reason to suspect the private jet travel was improper. He said he assumed "a generous benefactor" had paid for the jet, citing Bransfield's role as president of a nonprofit that raises millions of dollars from prominent laypeople, the Papal Foundation.
"Given these facts, there was no reason for me to investigate or report anything to the Vatican," Viganò said.
Viganò received two checks worth $1,000 each that year, one in March and the other in December, and $6,000 in all from Bransfield from 2011 to 2015, church records show.
Viganò said he does not recall receiving letters about Bransfield's conduct during his time as nuncio.
"That said, the Nunciature receives many complaints about all sorts of matters every day," he wrote, adding that it was possible letters about Bransfield were not brought to his attention.
The Nunciature in Washington did not return several messages and emails requesting comment.
Viganò's predecessor Pietro Sambi received $20,500 in cash gifts from Bransfield before his death in 2011.
Viganò added that he had heard "rumors" that Bransfield was harassing young priests and misusing diocese money on personal expenses but that those rumors were "never substantiated."
Without elaborating, he said Bransfield once called directly to preempt a rumor of sexual misconduct. "On one occasion," Viganò said, "he called me to alert me that I might hear about possible accusations against him. He denied any wrongdoing."
Caine, Lori's spokesman, offered a different account, citing internal documents he would not release. He said "that as early as May 2013 that the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, was aware of concerns about spending by Bishop Bransfield."
In August 2015, Sobus himself wrote a three-page letter to Pope Francis to complain about Bransfield's "unjust administration of our diocese." Sobus raised concerns about a custom-made fireplace in the bishop's office, personal companions who traveled first-class with Bransfield abroad at church expense and other luxuries.
"You spoke about the lavish lifestyles of clergy and the poor witness they give. Bishop Bransfield has remodeled and renovated several properties owned by this diocese to use as his mansions. He has spent millions of dollars doing so," Sobus wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Post. "Newspaper reporters have spoken out against his lavish lifestyle. Please note, this diocese is located in the poorest state in the US!"
A few weeks later, Sobus received a brief note from Wells, the chief of staff at the Vatican's Secretariat of State. "I assure you that a copy of your letter has been forwarded to the Congregation for the Clergy, which has competence over such matters," Wells wrote.
A spokesman for Wells told The Post his involvement ended there.
Wells accepted $6,500 from Bransfield in 13 checks from 2009 to 2015, records show.
"Archbishop Wells, then Monsignor Wells, never knew, nor suspected, that the gifts in question - usually received around Christmas and Easter by personal check - were derived from diocesan funds. Archbishop Wells had absolutely no knowledge that Church patrimony was being harmed by receipt of these gifts," the spokesman said. "Importantly, Bishop Bransfield neither requested nor received favored treatment of any kind from Archbishop Wells."
In a February 2016 letter, an archbishop from the Congregation of the Clergy urged Sobus to show obedience to the church and, as a solution to his problem, to reach out to Bransfield for "the good of your soul."
"The bishop of Wheeling-Charleston appears quite ready to make some provisions for you," wrote Archbishop Joel Mercier.
In August 2018, the claims against Bransfield took on a new significance when Monsignor Quirk, a vicar and one of Bransfield's closest aides, became a whistleblower. Quirk wrote a scathing eight-page letter to Lori, the Baltimore archbishop, that drew on years of close observations of Bransfield's conduct.
"I present the following as reason for this request, which I realize to be extraordinary in nature but which I judge to be in keeping with the demands for justice, as a means to repair scandal already caused and to prevent its further spread, and to protect the faithful of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston from further harm," Quirk wrote on Aug. 8, in a letter that was ultimately distributed to multiple people.
Quirk, 52, is a canon lawyer who served as Bransfield's judicial adviser and played a prominent role in church operations and Bransfield's personal affairs.
In his letter to Lori, Quirk justified his decision to turn on Bransfield, citing his firsthand accounts of drug and alcohol abuse and sexual harassment, along with Bransfield's excessive personal spending.
"The effects of alcohol abuse appear to be increasing, impairing his Excellency's ability to function, such that it can be said that he is impaired from dinner time each evening until lunch time the next day," Quirk wrote. "[H]e is intentionally using Vicodin so that he is at least medicated if not high while exercising the Pontificals."
Quirk said he witnessed Bransfield inappropriately hugging young priests and caressing their faces, and he alleged that Bransfield "takes a prurient interest in certain men, even coaxing shirtless photographs of them, which he retains on his cellphone."
Quirk provided inside financial documents to support his claims that Bransfield spent excessively on personal luxuries, the letter said. That included almost $134,000 over five years on flowers for friends and $55,000 in other gifts such as hams and fruit baskets, according to the letter. Quirk also wrote that Bransfield installed a $161,000 custom-made floor for two rooms in a townhouse that was being renovated for his use in his retirement - and later decided to live elsewhere because the townhouse was too small.
Bransfield told The Post that he did not abuse alcohol or prescription medicine, adding that "no one has seen me inebriated." He said any photographs of shirtless men on his cellphone had been sent to him and were innocuous. He acknowledged ordering the custom floors and sending flowers, hams and other gifts but said he did not know the costs involved.
In describing the cash gifts Bransfield gave to other clergy, Quirk used the term "simony" - the buying or selling of church offices or positions. Quirk wrote that Bransfield's gifts to Catholic leaders and young priests "were corrupting these relationships into utilitarian bonds of dependence."
He asked Lori to help arrange for Bransfield to be removed and replaced by someone from outside the state.
The lay investigative team was appointed by Lori one month later. Their report, delivered to Lori in February, faulted Quirk and two other vicars for enabling Bransfield's conduct and called for their dismissal.
Before sending it to the Vatican in March, Lori ordered that the names of recipients of cash gifts, including his own name, be removed.
Lori told The Post that including the names of senior clerics who received money from Bransfield might have suggested that "there were expectations for reciprocity," adding that "no evidence was found to suggest this."
Several days after the Post story about the Bransfield investigation, the diocese announced that Quirk and two other vicars had resigned.
In a recent video statement, Lori acknowledged that "Bishop Bransfield engaged in a pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending."
Lori said he could not explain how it happened.
"Friends, there is no excuse, nor adequate explanation that will satisfy the troubling question of how Bishop Bransfield's behavior was allowed to continue for as long as it did without the accountability that we must require for those who have been entrusted with so much, both spiritual and material," Lori said.