New Wheeling bishop pledges to address scandal

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
August 22, 2019

Bishop Mark Brennan entered the Cathedral of St. Joseph amid all the pomp, procession and fanfare typical of a bishop's installation.

Less typically, he wasted little time in naming the elephant in the cathedral, acknowledging the alienation of many West Virginia Catholics in the wake of sexual and financial scandals that brought an abrupt end to his predecessor's tenure.

"The scandals we have learned about have caused painful disappointments, anger, confusion and distrust of church leaders," he said in his homily. "We have to face that situation with open eyes and determined spirits to bring about lasting change."

The Boston-born bishop, who spent much of his career as a Maryland parish priest before becoming an auxiliary bishop in Baltimore, was appointed in June by Pope Francis as bishop of Wheeling-Charleston.

The diocese estimates it has nearly 75,000 Catholics across the entire state, with a significant amount concentrated in the Northern Panhandle, where cities like Wheeling and Weirton share the industrial and Catholic immigrant heritage of the Ohio River Valley communities in neighboring states.

Bishop Brennan, wearing white and patterned vestments and a tall miter, the hat symbolic of his office, entered the cathedral shortly after 2 p.m. behind a lengthy procession of scores of priests and several bishops from throughout the region.

The walls of the small yet ornate cathedral, adorned with murals of numerous saints, reverberated with organ- and brass-accompanied hymns.

At the start of the service, a delegate of Pope Francis read the proclamation appointing Bishop Brennan to his new post, and he was ceremonially guided to his cathedra, or bishop's chair, and granted the symbolic crozier or shepherd's staff.

Bishop Brennan then formally pledged to fulfill his task as pastor to the West Virginia flock.

For all the traditional ceremony of the installation, Bishop Brennan will have little time to savor the moment, as he’s tasked with leading a muck-out operation in the scandal-plagued diocese.

Pope Francis had abruptly accepted the resignation of his predecessor, Bishop Michael Bransfield in September 2018, just days after that bishop offered it as required upon his 75th birthday.

It was unusual that the former bishop's resignation was accepted so soon and without a successor in place, but the following months have brought revelations that the former bishop sexually harassed young priests and spent lavishly on luxuries and on gifts to fellow clerics he hoped to influence.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who oversaw the West Virginia diocese during its past several months without a bishop, welcomed Bishop Brennan in opening remarks at the installation.

"You are the Lord's answer to our prayers. No pressure there," Archbishop Lori said. He said he knew Bishop Brennan for many years and called him the "real deal."

While Thursday's service included a Mass and the rituals of installation, it was not an ordination because Bishop Brennan was already ordained a bishop in 2017, when he became an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

In his homily, Bishop Brennan cited one of the day's scripture readings, in which the prophet Isaiah said that people "in darkness have seen a great light."

He said many West Virginia Catholics may be feeling like they're in darkness amid the scandals both in this state and throughout the Catholic Church amid revelations that have shaken the church, including the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report into sexual abuse in six dioceses.

But he lauded those who have persisted in spite of their understandable outrage, thanking priests for continuing their ministries, parents and teachers for continuing to nurture children in the faith and charitable workers for continuing to meet dire needs in the state.

"We dare in this church to offer something better, good news in the midst of bad news," Bishop Brennan said. "We can reject the sterile pessimism" of the world.

He asserted that the church's good news of Jesus can overcome "not only the misdeeds of a former bishop and clergy sexual abuse," but also "great obstacles in the path of human development. "

That includes social isolation; the opioid epidemic, which has been "robbing us of our relatives and friends"; and the economic hardships of factory closings, lack of opportunities and "some big businesses that act like bullies."

His new flock applauded his plea to them: "Work with me to let the light ... in this beautiful part of God's creation, West Virginia."

Pope Francis has imposed sanctions on former Bishop Bransfield, which included prohibitions on presiding at Mass publicly or living in West Virginia, where he had planned to retire, and a requirement that he make amends for misspent funds.

One of Bishop Brennan’s tasks will be to decide how those amends are made.

After Bishop Bransfield's resignation, a subsequent investigation by a diocesan commission found the harassment allegations to be credible and that Bishop Bransfield had spent excessively on his residence, tapping oil royalties that had been given to the diocese.

The report has not been made public, despite calls for disclosure by church members and public officials, but details were reported by The Washington Post. Among the revelations was that Archbishop Lori himself was a recipient. He has pledged to return the funds.

Bishop Brennan thanked Archbishop Lori for administering the diocese during the past several months.


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