The Washington Post
October 26, 2019
By Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg
The idea came to West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield while he was in Rome visiting an old friend, a powerful cardinal at the Vatican. Bransfield thought the cleric’s apartment was barren and lacked a comfortable room for watching television.
After Bransfield returned to West Virginia, in May 2017, he sent the cardinal a $14,000 check. “I fixed that room up for him,” Bransfield said in an interview with The Washington Post.
The gift, one of two Bransfield sent to Cardinal Kevin Farrell, was an extraordinary gesture from a religious leader in a state plagued by poverty. Even more unusual was how Bransfield obtained the cash he gave away.
The untold story behind those gifts illustrates how $21 million was moved from a church-owned hospital in Wheeling, W.Va., to be used at Bransfield’s discretion. It adds a new dimension to a financial scandal that has rippled through the Catholic Church since Bransfield’s ouster last year.
A Post investigation found that the money Bransfield sent to Farrell was routed from Wheeling Hospital to the Bishop’s Fund, a charity created by Bransfield with the stated purpose of helping the residents of West Virginia, tax filings show.
As Bransfield prepared to write the first of his personal checks to Farrell, a church official arranged to transfer money from the Bishop’s Fund into a diocese bank account — and then from there to Bransfield’s personal bank account, an internal email obtained by The Post shows.
“Bishop Bransfield made very specific requests,” said Bryan Minor, a Bishop’s Fund board member and diocese employee who wrote the email and arranged the transfers for the gifts to Farrell. “He wanted to have a discretionary fund.”
Bransfield used Bishop’s Fund money for a variety of purposes, including church projects in West Virginia that burnished his reputation as a generous benefactor.
The bishop also drew on it to send the second check to Farrell for the apartment, this time for $15,000, church financial records and emails show.
In all, $321,000 was sent out of West Virginia, in apparent contradiction to the stated purpose of the Bishop’s Fund, The Post found. Church officials have declined to identify the out-of-state recipients.
The hospital was the charity’s only source of funding, tax filings and hospital audits show. As a nonprofit institution that relies heavily on federal funding through Medicare, the hospital is subject to restrictions on how it uses its money.
In the interview with The Post over the summer, Bransfield defended the cash gifts to Farrell, saying they were “funds that I had raised.” He and his attorney did not respond to subsequent questions about The Post’s findings.
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