Church must deal with 'fear factor' keeping bad bishops in power

Church must deal with ‘fear factor’ keeping bad bishops in power

Church must deal with ‘fear factor’ keeping bad bishops in power

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., is seen in this 2012 file photo. On July 19 the Vatican announced disciplinary measures for the bishop, who retired in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct and financial improprieties. (Credit: Tim Bishop/Catholic Spirit via CNS.)

“Fear” is a word you see a lot in the 60-page report on Bishop Michael Bransfield, which was published on Monday by the Washington Post.

News Analysis

“Fear” is a word you see a lot in the 60-page report on Bishop Michael Bransfield, which was published on Monday by the Washington Post.

The report into the former bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which encompasses the entire state of West Virginia, was commissioned by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who was tasked by the Vatican to investigate allegations of sexual and financial misconduct during the 13-year reign of Bransfield, who retired in 2018.

The Post had reported on the document previously, having been leaked a copy in June, but decided to publish the full report two days before Christmas.

The report is a tale of an often-intoxicated predator, freely spending the diocese’s money, with no check on his power.

This behavior, according to the report, even predated Bransfield’s time as a bishop, with reports of misbehavior going back to his time at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he spent most of his priestly career before his episcopal appointment.

Witnesses reported sexual comments, unwanted touching, and other harassment and abuse throughout Bransfield’s career, but no one said anything.

Why? Fear.

Priests and seminarians knew their careers were in the hands of the bishop; this is especially true of seminarians, who could easily be denied ordination if they reported Bransfield’s behavior.

Although West Virginia is one of the country’s poorest states, with relatively few Catholics, Bransfield headed one of America’s most cash-rich dioceses, thanks to a century-old generous bequest.

Bransfield treated this money like his personal piggy bank, spending hundreds of thousands on private planes, first-class hotels, expensive restaurants, and gallons of alcohol.

Again, no one complained, because they feared the repercussions.

The hammer may now be seen to be coming down on Bransfield who in July was basically banned from public ministry by Pope Francis, but he was still allowed initially to resign at 75, the mandatory age of retirement for bishops. In addition, he has been asked to make financial restitution to the diocese, but there is no mechanism in place to force him on the matter.

In fact, no one can force a bishop to do anything except the pope.

Although canon law requires various diocesan boards and councils to assist a bishop, they are all appointed by him, and usually serve at his pleasure. There is nothing to force a bishop to appoint anyone who would challenge him to a diocesan finance council, for example, and the report commissioned by Lori pointed out that Bransfield kept these bodies impotent.

Since almost all dioceses in the United States used fixed terms for priest assignments – as opposed to the permanent assignments technically favored by Church law – even parish priests know they can face retaliation if they speak out against any impropriety by a bishop.

In other words, it’s easy for a bad bishop to use fear to act with impunity, as we have seen not only in the career of Bransfield, but also with that of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick – a co-consecrator of Bransfield – and the deceased founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado. (coincidentally, the Legion just published its own report on sexual abuse within their religious congregation.)

RELATED: Legion of Christ finds 33 priests, 71 seminarian sex abusers

The Bransfield report offered several suggestions to help combat this problem, including the institution of a third-party reporting system, so whistleblowers can report allegations without fear of retribution.

It also suggests that potential bishops receive psychological testing to determine whether they are susceptible to use sexual harassment or other abuses of power.

This would require a complete change on how the Vatican vets bishops – which now relies on the recommendation of other prelates, primarily the papal representative to the country. Questionnaires are sent to various people – often diocesan officials where the prospective bishop serves – but these are under the “pontifical secret” and can’t be spoken of publicly. Prospective bishops aren’t even formally interviewed, let alone assessed by a psychologist.

More troubling is the story behind the publication of the report. Although written in February, it has not been officially released by the Church. Officials in Wheeling-Charleston and Baltimore have told the press the report is the property of the Holy See, and not theirs to release – and according to the Post, have even refused to give it to civil authorities that have requested the document (despite the knowledge someone leaked it to the Post in the summer.)

The entire story of the Bransfield case shows that accountability and transparency are still a work in progress in the Church.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome


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