Philly Native and Ex-bishop Michael Bransfield Apologizes for Financial and Sexual Impropriety — Yet Still Says He Did Nothing Wrong
By Jeremy Roebuck
August 20, 2020
|DALE SPARKS / AP|
The Rev. Michael Bransfield — the Philadelphia-raised priest and former West Virginia bishop who resigned in 2018 amid a scandal over his lavish spending and sexual misconduct allegations — issued a tepid apology Thursday, his first to Roman Catholic faithful in his former diocese and one made under orders from the Vatican.
Despite saying he was “profoundly sorry” if anything he said or did made priests of seminarians uncomfortable during his 13-year tenure at the helm of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield continued to defend himself and took no responsibility for the millions he spent on pricey personal accommodations in one of the country’s poorest states.
“I am writing to apologize for any scandal or wonderment caused by words or actions attributed to me during my tenure,” he wrote in a letter dated Saturday and posted to the diocesan website by his successor Thursday.
Bransfield’s missive came nearly two years after Pope Francis banned him from celebrating Mass or living in West Virginia, and authorized an internal church investigation into his conduct.
His successor, Bishop Mark Brennan, said in a separate letter posted to the diocesan website Thursday that the apology was a requirement of a restitution plan recently approved by the Vatican and with which Bransfield was ordered to comply.
That plan also called for the former bishop’s stipend to be cut to $2,250 per month — about $3,950 less than the average benefit package given to retired prelates in the United States — and required him to pay back the diocese $440,000 in misspent money.
That stipulation is the first time a retired U.S. bishop has been ordered to make reparations to his former diocese. But the punishment devised by the Congregation for Bishops in Rome was far less than the $800,000 restitution payment and stipend of $736 a month that Brennan had recommended nearly a year ago.
Bransfield, in his letter Thursday, said he had already paid the sum required. But he added: “I have now done so, even though I believe that such reimbursements to me were proper.”
Questions surrounding his behavior in West Virginia and during his time as a priest in the Philadelphia Archdiocese intensified during a new wave of scrutiny over the role Catholic bishops had played in covering-up decades of sexual abuse involving clergy and the hierarchy, following a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report.
Sexual misconduct allegations dating back from before his elevation to the hierarchy had dogged Bransfield — from a devout family that has produced several well-connected Philadelphia priests — who spent years as a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia before being named in 2004 to lead the diocese of 117,000 Catholics in the Appalachian foothills . Bransfield built a reputation as one of the U.S. c hierarchy’s chief fund-raisers. (He had previously served as president of the Bala Cynwyd-based Papal Foundation, one of the largest Catholic fund-raising organizations in the nation.)
In 2007, a former student at Lansdale Catholic High School accused Bransfield of molesting him in the late 1970s and early ’80s while he served as a teacher at the school, a charge the prelate forcefully denied.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia referred the complaint to Montgomery County prosecutors. But in a break with practice, church officials under former Philadelphia Archbishop Justin Rigali conducted their own internal investigation instead of referring the matter to its civilian review board, designed to conduct independent examinations of abuse claims.
Then, in 2018, new allegations began to emerge from seminarians and priests in West Virginia who described Bransfield’s inappropriately touching and kissing them at his residence in Wheeling or on out-of-town trips. In a lawsuit, one former priest described his former boss as a “sexual predator” prone to binge-drinking of orange liqueur and venting his lust on subordinates.
A Vatican-ordered investigation found the allegations of Bransfield’s West Virginia accusers to be credible in a report made public by the Washington Post last year.
The probe also determined that Bransfield had improperly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of diocesan money on private jets, large quantities of alcohol, lavish furnishings for his Wheeling home, and cash gifts to influential clergy across the United States and in Rome.
Bransfield, who had been living in Roxborough after his ouster from West Virginia, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing, saying of his accusers in an interview with The Inquirer last year: “They’re all out to destroy me.”
As recently as earlier this month, Brennan told the West Virginia news website MetroNews that he hadn’t heard from Bransfield in ages.
“Whatever he is doing, he is doing … in a dark hole,” the bishop said. “We do not know exactly what he is up to. We have not been in communication.”