Pope Won’t Defrock Bishop Accused of Sexual Harassment and Misusing Money

By David Gee
Patheos blog
July 20, 2019

The former leader of West Virginia’s Catholic diocese spent millions of dollars on personal travel and $350,000 on gifts for young priests — including some he’s accused of sexually harassing — yet Pope Francis has decided not to defrock the bishop.

The pope said he wouldn’t revoke Bishop Michael J. Bransfield’s status with the Roman Catholic Church, but did issue sanctions, which were announced following the investigation into accusations of sexual harassment and financial misconduct:

The sanctions, ordered by Pope Francis and detailed in a letter posted to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s website, prohibits Bransfield from public ministry and from residing in his former West Virginia Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Bransfield also has “the obligation to make personal amends for some of the harm he caused,” the nature of which will be decided by the new bishop.

Bransfield stepped down in September when an aide came forward with an inside account detailing years of sexual and financial misconduct, including a claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by gifting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to senior Catholic leaders. News of the allegations rocked parishioners in Wheeling-Charleston diocese, which Bransfield has led since 2005, and left other Catholics in the state feeling betrayed.

So, Bransfield is banned from public ministry, banned from living in a specific church house, and will be asked to make amends for the harm caused. In other words, it’s all about the optics.

It’s interesting that, even in this age of heightened awareness surrounding these issues, Pope Francis decided not to make an example out of Bransfield. He wanted to punish him enough so that people won’t think he’s weak on abusive conduct… without going an inch further.

This isn’t even the first time Francis has treated Bransfield with undue favor. Late last year, Francis waited until the bishop was retiring before he decided to initiate an investigation.

How many bad actions, if not crimes, can you be accused of before the Church takes it seriously enough to kick someone out for good? As many commenters noted, Bransfield would have to do something truly awful to get defrocked… like advocate for women’s reproductive freedom or officiate a gay wedding.

A slap on the wrist won’t deter abuse. In case there was any doubt, this is just more evidence that the pope is hardly eager for change, and that the Vatican must be reformed in a way that limits the extreme potential for abuse and cover-up.


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