Sexual abuse isn’t the only scandal confronting the Catholic Church. There is a growing recognition that financial abuse is more prevalent than most Catholics think. Look no further than the case of the disgraced former bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia: Bishop Michael Joseph Bransfield.
Once a little-known leader in the Church, Bishop Bransfield burst into the spotlight last year. A close associate of the disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Bransfield suddenly resigned in a cloud of suspicion. The Vatican ordered an investigation into allegations of abuse and misuse of funds. It found that Bransfield lived like a king, not a bishop – in one of the nation’s poorest dioceses, no less.
Bransfield’s tastes were extravagant and his expenditures obscene. They included $4.6 million on a complete home renovation following a small fire in a bathroom; $2.4 million on travel, including luxury hotels and chartered jets; $1,000 a month on alcohol; and daily flower deliveries totaling $182,000, to name a few examples. Whenever anyone raised objections, Bransfield’s response was simple and usually the same: “I own this.”
Bransfield also doled out $350,000 in gifts to other priests and bishops, in an apparent attempt to curry favor and ward off bad press coverage. The investigation’s final report, in addition to detailing the financial scandal, also included accusations from nine individuals alleging sexual abuse or harassment. It appears that Church money wasn’t the only thing Bishop Bransfield grossly misused.
These findings spurred the Vatican to action. Last month, Rome banned Bransfield from exercising any public ministry. He is also prohibited from living in his former diocese. The new bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, Bishop Mark Brennan retains the right to demand additional penance and amends from his disgraced predecessor, although it remains to be seen if he will do so.
The Vatican’s actions are a satisfactory conclusion to the Bransfield scandal. Yet some important questions have yet to be answered. Chief among them: How could this have happened in the first place?
Every Catholic diocese in America has a council – mandated by canon law – that’s supposed to prevent this sort of thing. The so-called “Finance Councils” are composed of lay Catholics (ordinary people who aren’t ordained) with expertise in monetary matters. Usually meeting once a month, these councils pore over the accounts and expenditures of the relevant diocese, faithfully stewarding the Church’s money. Clearly there was a breakdown in Wheeling-Charleston. Finding what went wrong and fixing it essential.
Yet this leads to another question: Are the Finance Councils in other dioceses doing their due diligence, too? Is the Bransfield situation a rarity, or more common than we think?
Finance Councils at every level need need to renew their focus. If they aren’t meeting regularly – at least once a month – then they need to start doing so. They must retain outside and inside auditors to assure compliance with good governance under current canon law. Each diocese should also make sure it has put the best and most principled people on the Council. They need lay leaders who are both holy and hell-raisers – the kind of people who care about the Church’s health and are willing to fight to keep it healthy.
Full story at Real Clear Religion.