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Vatican agrees to weakened restitution for West Virginia bishop accused of sexual and financial misdeeds

Michael J. Bransfield, a former bishop in West Virginia, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 9, 2004, in Wheeling, W.Va. (Dale Sparks/AP)

The Vatican has approved much-reduced reparations, including an apology letter that takes no direct responsibility, for the former head of a West Virginia diocese accused of misusing millions in church money and sexually harassing fellow clerics.

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield stepped down in September 2018 as leader of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese amid allegations that he spent millions on personal extravagances and gifts to fellow clerics and that he harassed seminarians and young priests who worked for him.

After an internal Vatican investigation concluded that the allegations were true, Bishop Mark Brennan, Bransfield’s successor in West Virginia, drew up a restitution plan in November that he said would be “an act of restorative justice” for Bransfield to accept.

“It is also for his own spiritual good and his own healing as a man who professes to follow Christ,” Brennan wrote when announcing the plan last fall.

Some canon law experts said it was the first case they had heard of involving a bishop being made to pay restitution — publicly or privately.

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In addition to calling for Bransfield’s replacement to come up with a restitution plan, the Vatican also prohibited Bransfield from public ministry and from residing in the West Virginia diocese.

But on Thursday, Brennan’s office announced the final plan approved by the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops, which sharply reduces the money Bransfield was supposed to pay the diocese — money that was to be set aside for victims of abuse. The initial plan called for him to pay $792,638; the Vatican deal agreed to $441,000, according to a letter Brennan wrote to the diocese.

Brennan had called for Bransfield to lose his church-paid health care and the normal $6,200-per-month retirement package for bishops and instead receive the monthly stipend of a retired priest who had worked 13 years, about $736 per month. Under the Vatican deal, however, West Virginia’s diocese will still cover Bransfield’s health insurance, and his monthly stipend will be $2,250.

Brennan had also called for Bransfield to apologize to diocesan staff, Catholics of the diocese and those he allegedly sexually harassed “for the severe emotional and spiritual harm his actions caused.”

Bransfield’s “letter to the faithful,” dated Aug. 15, instead says he is sorry “for any scandal or wonderment caused by words or actions attributed to me.”

He acknowledges being reimbursed by the diocese for personal expenditures “that have been called into question as excessive” and writes that he has “been advised” to pay back the money.

“I have now done so even though I believed that such reimbursements to me were proper,” the letter says.

The church money Bransfield spent included a $15,000 gift to a cardinal in Rome to improve his apartment there and $4.6 million to renovate his Wheeling residence after a fire damaged one bathroom.

In Bransfield’s letter, which the Vatican approved, he says there are allegations that some priests and seminarians “feel sexually harassed.” He added: “Although that was never my intent, if anything I said or did caused others to feel that way, then I am profoundly sorry.”

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At least six of Bransfield’s clerical assistants in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston “were broken by the experience” of their superior’s harassment, one of his assistants told investigators in the internal church investigation.

Bransfield has denied wrongdoing all along, and he expressed shock last fall at Brennan’s restitution proposal. Reached earlier this month by The Washington Post, he declined to comment, saying only that he was confident a deal would be reached.

The Vatican media office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on why the Congregation of Bishops softened Brennan’s proposed restitution.

Diocesan spokesman Tim Bishop said the plan represents “a historical moment in the American church” because a bishop was required to reimburse a diocese, apologize and have his stipend reduced. “These measures were all a part of Bishop Brennan’s plan of amends, and he is happy that the Vatican used them in their final determination.”

In a letter to the diocese Thursday explaining the plan, Brennan said he had been able to offer “extensive input, as the representative of the Catholic people of the Diocese.” He also cited “consideration of governing factors in both civil and canon law.”

Vincent DeGeorge, a former West Virginia seminarian who says Bransfield kissed and groped him and pressured him to sleep over and watch porn, said in a statement Thursday that the message from his former bishop “does not meet the basic conditions of Catholic contrition, or apology.”

“In the Catholic tradition, we do not apologize for actions ‘attributed to’ us or for hypothetical ‘ifs,’ ” DeGeorge wrote.

DeGeorge also noted that the internal church investigation, called for by Pope Francis and carried out by five lay investigators, said its work left “significant reason for concern” that Bransfield in the past sexually abused minors.

“It is truly unfathomable that the Catholic Church continues collaborating with Michael Bransfield,” DeGeorge wrote.