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West Virginia bishop calls for predecessor, accused of sex and financial misconduct, to pay $792,000 in restitution and to apologize

Bishop Michael Bransfield blesses parishioners after a mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in 2010 in Whitesville, W.Va. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

West Virginia’s new bishop Tuesday called for his predecessor, Michael Bransfield, to pay the diocese $792,638, apologize to victims and to the diocese, and lose his place in the diocesan cemetery as part of a restitution package for alleged financial and sexual misconduct that some church experts say is a first for a bishop.

The announcement by Bishop Mark Brennan follows a statement in July by Pope Francis that Bransfield’s replacement should decide how the ousted leader “make personal amends.”

“I wish to make clear that it is not my intention to impoverish the former bishop,” wrote Brennan, saying the dollar figure isn’t exactly the amount of diocesan money Bransfield is accused of misspending or using for lavish personal expenses. “We regard the former bishop’s acceptance of this plan of amends as an act of restorative justice. It is also for his own spiritual good and his own healing as a man who professes to follow Christ. All proceeds from Bishop Bransfield’s repayment will be directed to a special fund to provide for the counseling, care and support of those who have suffered sexual abuse.”

Bransfield stepped down in September 2018 amid allegations he misused church money and sexually harassed seminarians and young priests, claims that he has denied. Reached late Tuesday, he declined to comment, except to say he wasn’t expecting Brennan’s announcement. “I’m just absolutely shocked this happened today.”

An internal church report obtained by The Washington Post earlier this year found that during his 13 years as leader of the West Virginia church, Bransfield spent millions of dollars of diocese money on extravagances, including travel on chartered jets, lavish furnishings at his official residence and nearly 600 cash gifts to fellow clergymen.

Subsequent Post reporting found that $21 million was moved from a church-owned hospital in Wheeling, W.Va., to be used at Bransfield’s discretion. The money was moved into the Bishop’s Fund, a charity created by Bransfield with the stated purpose of helping residents of West Virginia, tax filings show.

Brennan, who was named earlier this fall as bishop, on Tuesday afternoon issued a nine-point list of amends that requires Bransfield to:

  • Pay $792,638 to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and another $110,000 to the IRS for taxes that the diocese says should have been paid on personal spending.
  • Lose the normal retirement package for bishops and instead get the monthly stipend of a retired priest who had worked 13 years, which equals $736 per month.
  • Be responsible for his own long-term health care, pharmacy and disabilities benefits.
  • Lose the right to be buried in the diocesan cemetery.
  • Issue apologies to the diocese staff, Catholics of the diocese and those he allegedly sexually harassed “for the severe emotional and spiritual harm his actions caused.”

Brennan’s letter said he had offered Bransfield the chance to give input on what restitution should be and that Bransfield declined.

Kurt Martens, a canon law professor at the Catholic University of America, said this is the only case he’s heard of involving a bishop being made to pay restitution — publicly or privately.

“It’s pretty revolutionary in a way. It’s challenging the old boys’ network,” Martens said. “I think that will mean a lot for victims.”

But David Clohessy, former and longtime director of the survivors’ group SNAP, said it’s “irresponsible and inaccurate to suggest that Bransfield alone should make reparations.” Other church officials, he said, knew of or suspected misconduct but ignored or hid it, he said. “Those individuals — and the institutions that likely still pay them — must be identified, admit their wrongdoing, and take steps to reduce the damage they’ve caused and are still causing by their secrecy and deceit.”

Police in Washington are investigating an allegation that Bransfield inappropriately touched a 9-year-old girl during a church trip to the nation’s capital in 2012, according to a subpoena and a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.