The Slatest

Catholic Church Reimbursed U.S. Bishop Who Paid $350,000 to Clergy After Wild Tales of Sex, Drugs, and Luxury Living

Pope Francis celebrates a priesthood ordination and mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on May 12, 2019.
Pope Francis prays in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on May 12.
Filippo Monteforte/Getty Images

,The Catholic Church always provides good fodder for Hollywood-like thrillers, that is the inner workings of the church often include the fundamental elements of a good cinematic tale, namely: sex, drugs, money, and, inevitably, a cover-up. A new Washington Post investigation in to the church has everything Hollywood could hope for, implicating a former Catholic bishop in West Virginia who spent millions on a lavish lifestyle in one of the poorest states in the country and gave away as much as $350,000 in gifts to clergy before being ousted from the church in September amidst claims of sexual abuse and financial impropriety. Nine men in the Wheeling-Charleston diocese accused Bishop Michael Bransfield of groping, kissing or exposing himself to them or commenting on their bodies. The hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts from Bransfield were given to young priests he is accused of mistreating, as well as to powerful cardinals in the U.S. and the Vatican itself.

The details of Bransfield’s misconduct were outlined in a confidential internal Vatican investigation following Bransfield’s resignation last fall. The instances of abuse, reported by the Post, are staggering:

There were “troubling hugs” from Bransfield, the seminarians and young priests told investigators. On some of these occasions, they alleged, Bransfield appeared to be intoxicated. Others said he warned them not to “get fat.” One said Bransfield slapped him on the buttocks at Castel Gandolfo in Italy, the summer residence of the pope… One seminarian recalled sitting on Bransfield’s lap, being kissed by the bishop and thinking: “I either do this, or I have to completely reinvent my life.” Bransfield asked him to take his pants off, but he refused, the seminarian told investigators. The seminarian later suffered an emotional breakdown and became deeply depressed, the report says.

The report went on to detail what appeared to be hush money to victims and payments to senior church figures. The final report on the matter, however, at the behest of the archbishop overseeing the investigation William Lori of Baltimore, edited out the names of the 11 clerics, including Lori himself, who were the recipients of Bransfield’s largesse. Lori told the Post the names were cut because including them, he said, “could inadvertently and/or unfairly suggest that in receiving gifts for anniversaries or holidays there were expectations for reciprocity.”

“Bransfield wrote at least 565 checks that were recorded as ‘gifts’ and made out to the clerics by name. The documents obtained by The Post do not make clear why Bransfield gave the gifts, though the recipients of the largest amounts were among the most influential members of the Catholic Church, clerics whose opinions carry weight with the Vatican,” according to the Post. “The gifts came as a succession of younger male clerical assistants complained to church officials in West Virginia that Bransfield was sexually harassing them. “

The hundreds of checks were written by Bransfield from his personal account and then reimbursed by the West Virginia diocese, a legally dubious move for the church, which operates as a tax-exempt nonprofit that is required to use the money for charitable ends. “[Bransfield’s] compensation was increased by an amount that covered the gifts, plus the tax burden that resulted from the increased compensation, a practice known as ‘grossing up,’ according to the report and emails among top diocesan officials,” according to the Post.

The Vatican report found that Bransfield’s engaged in pattern of indulgence and abuse. From the Post:

Bransfield spent $2.4 million in church money on travel, much of it personal, which included flying in chartered jets and staying in luxury hotels, according to the report. Bransfield and several subordinates spent an average of nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol, it says. The West Virginia diocese paid $4.6 million to renovate Bransfield’s church residence after a fire damaged a single bathroom. When Bransfield was in the chancery, an administrative building, fresh flowers were delivered daily, at a cost of about $100 a day — almost $182,000 in all. Bransfield, 75, drew on a source of revenue that many parishioners knew little about, oil-rich land in Texas donated to the diocese more than a century ago. He spoke of church money as if it were his to spend without restriction, according to the report.

Bansfield, who was also found to abuse alcohol, oxycodone, and other prescription drugs, denied the allegations of sexual abuse and activity with young priests, as well as financial abuse, telling investigators that church aides oversaw the extravagant renovations of his residence and that it was back problems that prompted his luxurious travel because it made him unable to fly economy.