‘He hurt people’: West Virginia’s long-faithful Catholics grapple with news of bishop’s misconduct

By Julie Zauzmer
June 19, 2019

A firefighter smokes a cigarette outside the Westphal Hose Co. No. 5 firehouse in Martinsburg, W.Va., on Sunday. The town battles poverty, as does the state of West Virginia.
Photo by Lexi Browning

Archbishop William Lori, of Baltimore, shakes hands with members of the congregation after mass at the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsburg, W.Va., on Sunday. Lori and other members of Catholic leadership received thousands of dollars in church funds from West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield.
Photo by Lexi Browning

A parishioner reads before mass at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va., on Sunday.
Photo by Lexi Browning

Nancy Ostrowski knows this state. And she thought she knew her bishop.

Her family has been attending St. Joseph Catholic Church since the Romanesque Revival building was dedicated in 1860, just before West Virginia broke away from Virginia to support the Union. Her ancestors saw the heady years of Martinsburg’s heyday, when the mills running day and night here supplied clothing to the world, and the heavy decades of struggle when those mills closed down.

Ostrowski knows West Virginia’s isolated Appalachian crannies, pockets of desperate poverty where people like her — people who’ve kept their Catholic faith for generations — might drive all the way across their county to attend the one shrinking Catholic church around.

She thought Bishop Michael Bransfield, who led the statewide Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston from 2005 until his abrupt retirement under church investigation last year, held those places in his heart. He visited those mountain hamlets. He wrote about their needs in the diocesan newsletter that she always read.

“He seemed to have a real sense of duty and caring to the people of the state. That made it doubly shocking,” Ostrowski said on Sunday, as she left Mass at that brick Romanesque temple her forefathers helped build. “For all intents and purposes, he seemed to be a very good bishop. But he was leading a double life.”

Rumors had circulated for years about Bransfield. But Ostrowski and many fellow parishioners first learned that he was suspected of misconduct when he retired suddenly last fall, and Pope Francis asked Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori to conduct an investigation. Details were elusive, until a Washington Post investigation this month.

The Post reported Bransfield’s extravagant spending: millions on personal travel and renovations to his residence, $182,000 on daily fresh flower deliveries, $350,000 in cash gifts to powerful cardinals as well as to men who had accused him of sexual harassment.

Catholics across the state felt betrayed. Within days, hundreds had signed a petition calling for major reforms from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and even from the Vatican.

The surprise, West Virginians say, is twofold — first, how Bransfield used the diocese’s money; and second, that there was ever so much money to begin with. West Virginia has one of the smallest Catholic populations in the country and is one of the nation’s poorest states, with a median household income above only Louisiana and Mississippi in 2017, according to the Census Bureau.

Unbeknownst to parishioners: the Wheeling-Charleston diocese was bequeathed land in Texas in 1904, where oil found later now brings in nearly $15 million a year on average.

“My gosh, this should be enough money to help these people. And they’re sitting on it, and spending it in very selfish ways. That was my reaction, my very first reaction,” said Suzanne Kenney in Morgantown.

Kenney thought of the families in the southern part of the state, who are still living in trailers years after their homes were washed away by floods. She thought of the desperately poor families scrounging for food and diapers she saw at the nonprofit organization in Marion County that she recently retired from.

Kenney and a small group of fellow Catholics, almost all of them active volunteers in their parishes, wrote a petition last week calling for reforms ranging from financial audits, to support for sexual abuse victims, to an audacious demand that a selection committee — instead of the pope — pick the next bishop.

More than 400 people signed in four days.

Those who are still practicing Catholics in West Virginia today, like Catholics almost anywhere in the United States, are a hardy bunch. They perhaps heard rumors of priests who abused children in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, but if they did, they stayed Catholic. Then they learned, along with the rest of the nation, of the staggering extent of the abuse crisis when the Boston Globe exposed the scandal in 2002, and they stayed Catholic. When the scandal roared back to life last year, in the form of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that inspired similar probes across the country, they stayed faithful to a church under criminal investigation.

While many Catholics left — so many that about one out of every eight Americans is a former Catholic — these West Virginians stayed steadfast. In a heavily Protestant state, where only 4 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, they kept their churches going, even in the most hardscrabble rural communities where less than 100 people in a far-flung parish might drive to church for Mass.

So this week, West Virginia’s Catholics did what they have always done: They kept showing up. On Sunday, in churches across the state, parents brought their children to Mass and watched proudly when they acted as altar servers. Parish volunteers passed baskets for the offering, and members opened their wallets, as they do every week, and filled them.

Lori, who is in charge of the West Virginia diocese in the absence of a bishop, received a warm welcome when he came to Martinsburg on Sunday.

On Queen Street, where businesses like a bustling diner and a spiffy pottery shop stave off the fate of the stores around them with “closed” signs in the windows and paint peeling, Lori stood in his episcopal finery on the steps of St. Joseph’s church, shaking churchgoers’ hands beneath the shade of the grand old Greek portico.

Lori was one of the many bishops who received checks from Bransfield, totaling $10,500. When an initial investigative committee made their report about Bransfield’s conduct in February, Lori took out the names of 11 clerics who received the checks — including himself — before sending the report on to the Vatican.

After The Post’s report came out, Lori said he regretted removing the names. In his homily in Martinsburg, he expressed remorse repeatedly — “I acknowledge some of my decisions thus far have not been the right ones” — but never specified what he was apologizing for.

Ushers collected the offering from the congregation, presenting Lori with the largest basket full of crumpled bills. One mother whispered to a small boy, “You want to see him come down with his staff, the bishop?” and nudged him toward the aisle to watch in awe.

Many parishioners expressed disgust with Bransfield for his deeds, but not with Lori for concealing them.

“He’s got a very tough job,” said Larry Burkhart, a lifelong West Virginian who came away impressed by Lori’s message. “He faced up to it. He’s doing the best he can.”

In Charles Town, Penny Fuller looked out at the lush green fields of grain surrounding her parish church and recalled her former esteem for Bransfield. She once struck up a conversation, telling him that she was from Philadelphia where he formerly served, and she was impressed by the attention he paid her. “He seemed a very cultured, refined, intelligent man. I was shocked,” she said.

But others said that Bransfield’s taste for the high life was an open secret among many parishioners.

“Oh, there were so many signals. He wore a lot of regalia. He talked a lot about money,” said Jan Yates, as she manned the table at her Shepherdstown parish where raffle tickets for a quilt crafted by women in the congregation were selling for one dollar.

When Bransfield dedicated this church’s new building in 2008, she said, his expectation for ceremony seemed to her to contrast with the purposely elegant but humble St. Agnes building, where parishioners sit facing each other in an almond-shaped rounded sanctuary with spare decor and no altar.

“He had to have lots of pomp and circumstance,” Yates said. “That’s not who we are. This is a cinder block church. This is Christianity, and this is West Virginia.”

Catholics across the state mused about what the money that Bransfield spent on himself could have gone to instead. For Anna Lehew, it was obvious: the four Catholic schools, all the Catholic schools in Marshall County, that she and other parents fought unsuccessfully for years to prevent the diocese from closing down.

“As many years as Bransfield was there, the diocese literally existed to benefit him and those at the top with him. That’s how I feel,” Lehew said. She still dreams of Catholic education returning to Marshall County. The parents group has taken their case all the way to the Vatican.

“He hurt people,” said Chuck Pierpont. He’s given so much of himself to his parish — as a council member, as a cantor, as an usher, as whatever role needs to be filled. And he knows his fellow members don’t have much to spare, but many take their church donations as a deep responsibility. “They tithe. Ten percent of everything they bring in, every week.”

Now that parishioners fear their funds might just be going to finance a bishop’s fancy lifestyle, they may stop giving. Standing at the edge of the baptismal font cut into the concrete floor of his Shepherdstown parish, Pierpont said, over the sound of the trickling water, that he fears the funds that keep this building going will dry up.

About a quarter of Catholics nationwide told Pew Research Center recently that they’ve reduced their church donations due to church scandal. About the same number said they go to Mass less often, too. So Pierpont worries about an even more important resource disappearing: the people.

Last Easter, for the first time he can remember, no one was immersed in this baptismal font. There were no new Catholics, here, to baptize.


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