The diocese did not hire a real estate agent, advertise the property’s sale online or hold an open house. Instead, as allegations of sexual and financial misconduct against Bransfield spilled into public view in June, the church sold the property to a wealthy Wheeling, W.Va., resident for $1.2 million.
Church officials said the private sale was a way to avoid paying commission to real estate agents, but it also had the effect of keeping the public from taking the full measure of Bransfield’s extravagance and excess.
More than just an opulent private retreat for a high-spending bishop, Elmcrest was the site where the heavy-drinking cleric quaffed Cointreau and made unwanted sexual overtures toward younger priests in a basement with a custom-made sunken bar, according to a confidential report by church investigators for the Vatican completed earlier this year. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the report and published a redacted version online on Dec. 23.
In his 13 years as bishop, Bransfield spent more than $2.4 million traveling the world, often by private jet, and gave fellow clerics hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts that originated from the diocese’s accounts, church documents show. Nowhere did he spend more church money than on the turn-of-the-century mansion at 52 Elmwood Place in Wheeling, according to investigators.
What started as a modest renovation before Bransfield’s arrival in 2005 soon sprawled, at his insistence, into a costly undertaking, according to the construction manager, architect and four others involved in the project. By the time it was finished, the residence would feature a $20,000 dining room table, a master bath with a heated floor and a climate-controlled wine cellar that could store hundreds of bottles, they said.
“It was always, ‘this’ or ‘that’ is what the bishop wants,” said Jim Baller, who served as the construction manager during most of the renovation.
Baller said Bransfield wanted trees planted to create a buffer between the house and nearby Interstate 70. He also wanted parts of the seven acres surrounding the home landscaped and large areas covered with sod, Baller said. A fish pond and waterfall were built as the centerpiece of the grounds.
Reached by phone, Bransfield declined to comment except to say that he did not “know anything about” extravagant spending on the residence.
He made a similar claim to the investigators hired by the church to scrutinize his conduct, blaming subordinates and saying he provided little input on the residence, the investigators wrote. Bransfield’s “version of events is inconsistent with a number” of other witness accounts, they wrote.
Bransfield also has said that the residence was one of many renovation projects he pursued on behalf of the church and that he hoped to leave behind a building that could be used long after he was gone.
Asked about such furnishings as the table, a spokesman for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston put the responsibility squarely on Bransfield, whose retirement in September 2018 was hastened by allegations of sexual and financial misconduct.
“The former bishop engaged in a luxurious lifestyle and misused diocesan funds, both in conducting his official responsibilities, and personally, when no official purpose was involved,” spokesman Tim Bishop said.
The Post obtained the confidential report and wrote about many of its major findings in June and in several subsequent stories. The church has declined to release the report, and details it contains about spending on the residence and other properties had not been made public.
According to the report, Bransfield also developed ambitious plans for other church properties where he might want to stay. Near an airport he frequented in Charleston, W.Va., for example, Bransfield ordered costly renovations to a house at a diocese pastoral-care facility, a property that became known as the Southern Residence. The renovations, which were largely undertaken in 2008 and 2009, continued over “several phases” and ultimately cost $722,000, investigators wrote.
By 2013, Bransfield, then 70, had taken on another project: planning where he would live in retirement. A nonprofit church corporation was developing a set of townhouses in Wheeling, and the diocese set aside the largest one — a 1,800-square-foot unit — for Bransfield, according to the confidential report.
At Bransfield’s request, according to church documents and interviews, a small chapel was constructed, with a stained-glass window and a pulpit, and a special shower that generates steam was added to a bathroom.
The diocese spent more than $697,000 on renovations and interior decorating on the townhouse property, according to the report, including $161,000 for handcrafted, notched wood flooring in two rooms.
The diocese official in charge of buildings and property told the report’s authors that ordinary procedures for the funding of such projects were not followed. “He noted that there was never a budget for this project and he was unsure how ‘it ever got this far,’ ” the investigators wrote, without naming the individual.
John Reardon has held the position since 2010. He did not respond to messages seeking comment.
In September, a property manager showed two Post reporters the still-empty townhouse unit. It was fully furnished, with Persian rugs in the dining room and bathroom. A contractor’s list from 2017 that had been left behind in the garage listed 10 outstanding matters identified by Bransfield’s interior decorator, including installing a cedar liner in what was to be the bishop’s closet. On the list was a note: “We discussed matching the wine storage area, Bishop Bransfield said that was not necessary.”
By 2018, Bransfield had decided the townhouse was too small because it would not permit him in retirement to have a live-in “priest secretary,” according to a letter a member of Bransfield’s senior staff sent to church leaders in 2018, reporting the staff member’s concerns about inappropriate behavior and lavish spending.
Bransfield then wanted the church to purchase a stand-alone ranch house for him nearby. “His Excellency now wishes to have this home purchased . . . and renovated by his interior decorator at the Diocese’s expense,” the letter stated, according to a copy obtained by The Post. The nonprofit church group that had built the townhouses made an offer of $625,000 for the home to fulfill Bransfield’s wishes, the staff member added. The effort was later abandoned.
Of all the properties, Elmcrest, the residence in Wheeling, has been most identified in the public consciousness as a symbol of Bransfield’s spending.
“I’m a Catholic — I’m a parishioner down the street, and for years it has just bugged me to no end,” said Baller, the construction manager. “I’ve seen them waste all that money on that place and then turn around and ask us every Sunday to donate more, donate more — always asking for money. It’s sickening.”
Within six months, the price tag for renovations had topped $1.5 million, according to one of the people familiar with the project. That person and three others agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from the church, which is a presence throughout Wheeling, including in the hospital system and at Wheeling University.
Building permits filed with the city in 2005 show estimates — for removing asbestos, rebuilding the interior, installing a new roof and installing Pella windows — that add up to $925,000.
After the work was completed, the diocese spent an average of more than $380,000 a year for a dozen years — totaling almost $5 million more — for Bransfield’s entertaining and to meet his demands for upkeep of the grounds, according to the report.
Bransfield took note “if one leaf was out of place,” said one former church official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. Another said Bransfield complained so frequently of imperfections in the sod that maintenance workers sometimes went so far as to paint patches of brown grass green to placate him.
Repair or replace?
In January 2005, a plumber accidentally started a fire in a second-floor bathroom of the residence while welding pipes in preparation for Bransfield’s arrival, according to a report by fire investigators. By the time firefighters arrived, smoke and flames appeared to be extending into the roof, Michael Witt, Wheeling’s chief fire inspector, told The Post.
Two estimates from the church’s insurance carrier soon concluded that the roof and many interior walls would have to be replaced, at a price of about $700,000, according to Witt and a former church official. Witt said the cost of the repairs was equal to “the full replacement value” of the house.
A diocese official urged Bransfield to take the insurance money and buy a new home, according to two people with knowledge of the events at the time.
Bransfield declined to use the insurance money to purchase a new home. In an interview with The Post last summer, Bransfield blamed the renovation costs on the fire damage. “What happened with the residence, there was a fire,” he said. “I did a restoration. . . . When you have a big house flooded, the walls expand and contract. They never talk about the fire.”
Denis Gill was the architect assigned to the project.
Bransfield wanted nearly every surface replaced, according to Gill and others who described the work in interviews. By the summer of 2005, the renovations were discussed at weekly meetings involving senior church officials and construction managers.
They plotted out plans for the bishop’s upstairs study and bedroom, including the master bath with a new shower with water jets on three sides that would double as a steam chamber, fed by a unit in the basement, Baller and another person involved in the renovation said. There would be modernized fireplaces and an exercise room. Downstairs, wall sconces and original fixtures were boxed up and sent for restoration. A new kitchen with a large island was planned, as was a sun room.
In the unfinished basement, Bransfield wanted the 2,000-square-foot area remade as an entertainment space. “The bishop said he wanted to bring clergy into the room and make a pleasant place where they could play cards,” recalled Gill, who is now retired.
Bransfield said he wanted a built-in bar modeled after the cocktail lounge in the Hollywood home of entertainer Bob Hope, Baller and two others involved in the renovation said. Bransfield had spoken at Hope’s funeral Mass in 2003 and remained close with Hope’s widow, Dolores, who provided interior decorating advice before her death in 2011.
The basement floor was excavated so the area behind the bar was three steps below grade, putting the person serving drinks at the same height as those who were seated. A person deeply involved in the work said Bransfield told him at the time that he liked to be able to “look directly into the eyes” of the people to whom he was serving drinks.
On a far wall, Bransfield envisioned a fireplace surrounded by stone. Masons were brought in, adding to the 25 to 30 people working for almost a year at the construction site, Baller said.
The house had a small, unheated storage area in the basement that was called the “wine cellar.”
During the initial renovation, “We added some lattice work to put the bottles in, and nice lighting,” Gill said. But Bransfield deemed the wine cellar insufficient — too close to a heating unit and at risk of temperature fluctuation, another of those involved in the renovation said.
After Gill left the project, Bransfield determined that he needed a full climate-control system for the space, the person said.
“A top-of-the-line bottle rack was made” that would hold hundreds of bottles, the person recalled. “I went in there a couple times and saw some of the booze — Dom Pérignon, all expensive booze.”
'He liked to decide'
After Elmcrest was remodeled, Bransfield had a large piece of artwork depicting the Last Supper hung in the dining room and regularly entertained visiting clergy and sometimes civic leaders, a frequent guest at the house said.
A personal chef prepared the food, the report said. A church official typically announced the meal, “Your Excellency, dinner is served,” the guest said.
“You would wait for the bishop to seat you,” said the guest. “He liked to decide where everyone sat in relation to everyone else.”
After dinner, Bransfield would retire to the sunken bar in the basement to watch movies, often drinking a half bottle or more of the French orange liqueur Cointreau, according to the report, which cited 40 interviews, including some witnesses to Bransfield’s behavior.
“Dinner guests who only visited occasionally were not invited to join the Bishop in the basement for after-dinner drinks, but he expected his Priest-Secretary, the Vicar General, overnight guests, and certain of his ‘favorite’ young priests . . . to sit in the basement and be in his company,” the report stated. “One witness described this as ‘watching the Bishop watch television.’ It was a ritual that none of the witnesses who experienced it reported that they enjoyed.”
The Post reported in June that the church investigation found that Bransfield’s lieutenants had instructed young priests to “make your boundaries clear.” But they also told them that they had no choice but to join Bransfield when he requested them to travel with him or sleep over at his residence, the report states.
As the evenings progressed, Bransfield often consumed large amounts of alcohol and opioid painkillers, the investigators found. After one young seminarian pressed Bransfield about his pattern of excessive drinking, the report said he developed a ruse of drinking Cointreau from a teacup while watching movies.
“The chef or others would bring him ‘tea,’ which was simply a teacup filled with Cointreau,” the report stated. “No one was fooled by the ‘tea’ ruse.” A footnote in the report states: “Bishop Bransfield emphatically denied ever drinking Cointreau from a teacup.”
By late in the evening, Bransfield’s words would begin to slur, and he would “make a weird ‘snapping’ motion in the ear of a man in whom he was interested,” the report said.
One seminarian told investigators that he loathed staying at the bishop’s residence and “described multiple instances of overly aggressive hugs in which the Bishop would grab and squeeze various parts of the witness’s body.”
In another footnote in the report, investigators said that Bransfield “denied engaging in any sexual harassment or sexual activity with any priest or seminarian, either verbally or suggestively by his conduct.”
Sometimes, Bransfield would invite seminarians to his study on the second floor and walk them along an inner hallway in his suite adorned with pictures of his career, according to someone familiar with the bishop’s routine. Three of the photos were of Bransfield with different popes.
“He would be showing pictures and all of a sudden you’d be in his bedroom; the pictures would lead right inside,” the person said.
Inside the bedroom in recent years were other pictures.
Sometime during or after 2015, according to the report, Bransfield insisted that two young priests have formal portraits taken for their families to celebrate their ordinations. Months later, the two saw that Bransfield had hung their individual portraits on his bedroom wall, “positioned such that the Bishop could view them from his bed.”
Interest in the house
After the church began investigating allegations of abuse brought by seminarians who had stayed in the bishop’s home, Bransfield retired abruptly in the fall of 2018.
As the home sat empty into the spring, David H. McKinley, the founder of a wealth management firm in Wheeling, said he approached the diocese about purchasing the home.
“My wife and I had been looking for a home for several years,” McKinley said in an interview. “The truth is, there are not a lot of homes of this size and with such characteristics in the Wheeling area. We happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
McKinley also knew something about the home. The architectural and engineering firm founded by his father, David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.), a congressman, had designed and managed the renovations. The younger McKinley was not affiliated with the company then but now serves as chairman of the board.
McKinley also served on the board of Wheeling University, alongside one of Bransfield’s lieutenants.
McKinley said he is no longer affiliated with the university and is not Catholic. Bishop, the church spokesman, said that McKinley’s firm does not manage any church holdings and that the diocese considered the sale to him an arms-length transaction.
Bishop said the diocese was confident in proceeding with the private sale because in addition to McKinley, four other “prequalified buyers” had expressed interest in the property. He shared with The Post a cover sheet of an appraisal it had done on the property in the fall of 2018. It pegged the market value of Bransfield’s residence at $1.5 million, or 20 percent higher than what it sold for.
Bishop declined to say whether anyone other than McKinley made an offer, saying bids were placed confidentially.
Lee Paull IV, president of Paull Associates Insurance/Real Estate in Wheeling, said the church was never going to get what it put into the property.
“In D.C., this is maybe a $10 million home, but in Wheeling, the market wouldn’t support that,” Paull said.
Michael Hudimac, a retired paramedic, wrote a letter to the editor of the Wheeling News-Register in October criticizing the sale.
“Congrats to Mr. McKinley for getting such a great deal on a home worth double what he paid,” Hudimac wrote. “The victims of Mr. Bransfield deserved more.”
The church had emphasized that proceeds from the sale would go toward supporting programs for survivors of sexual abuse.
In an interview, Hudimac said his issue is not with the buyer, but with a house he cannot stand to look at when he passes it on the interstate.
“I try to turn my head,” he said. “It still hurts. People here, they never expected a bishop to act like that. They were trusting, and they were betrayed.”
Shawn Boburg, Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.