Archbishop picks auditor to review Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston finances

Group suspends campaign to halt donations

PARKERSBURG — A Catholic lay group has suspended its campaign to withhold donations to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston after the archbishop Wednesday announced a new independent auditor has been appointed, with among its first priorities being a “thorough audit of all diocese accounts.”

Archbishop William E. Lori, apostolic administrator for the diocese, said CLA (CliftonLarsonAllen) LLP, a national financial auditing firm, will be the auditor of record for the diocese.

The announcement comes after Lay Catholic Voices for Change encouraged parishioners in the diocese to withhold contributions beginning Sunday pending a financial audit. The diocese conducted an investigation of former Bishop Michael Bransfield and among the findings were lavish spending on personal residences, travel and alcoholic drink and gifts to other clergy, according to The Washington Post, which obtained the confidential report that was sent to the Vatican.

Lay Catholic Voices, based in Morgantown, Wednesday suspended its Not a Dime for the Diocese Campaign pending the audit and the release of the results.

“This is an important first step in a long process of reform,” said Charles DiSalvo, a member of the Lay Catholic Voices steering committee. “It is a basic structural change that will help bring about a healthier distribution of power between the hierarchy and West Virginia Catholics. Up to now, the diocese has kept the laity in the dark regarding its actual income and expenditures. With this increased measure of information, West Virginia Catholics will be that much more empowered to see that the funds they entrust to the diocese are spent properly.”

The decision to hire the accounting firm was made with the Diocesan Finance Council, the diocese said in a press release. The results of the audit will be published in their entirety, the diocese said.

The diocese is routinely audited with portions of the audit report published in the diocese newspaper, The Catholic Spirit.

“I am grateful to the members of the Finance Council who are working to identify best practices nationally that will help strengthen our financial protocols and procedures and ensure the trust and confidence of all,” Lori said. “A commitment to responsible financial stewardship must be a non-negotiable as we deploy diocesan resources to advance the work of the Gospel across the state of West Virginia and to serve critical needs.”

Also being implemented by the Finance Council is a review policy to ensure checks and balances are enforced and internal controls and spending practices are strengthened.

Lori has expanded the Finance Council, following the revelations that the former bishop “engaged in a practice of excessive spending by bypassing policies and procedures designed to protect against such activities,” the diocese said. The publication of audited financial statements for the diocese will serve to ensure adherence to rigorous financial controls, the diocese said.

Changes already have been made to how parishes and missions which cannot sufficiently provide for their support, are funded, the diocese said.

The new assessment model benefits parishes, particularly those which support Catholic schools, and smaller parishes in debt, the diocese said. The model is the formula used to calculate the 3 percent assessment on all parishes in the diocese, which is combined with more than $5 million in diocese funds each year.

Under the new model, assessments will be lower than roughly 90 percent of other dioceses across the country, the diocese said.

Other changes to improve accountability and transparency include the introduction of an independent third-party reporting system that will allow any person to report concerns about or instances of financial mismanagement, sexual harassment or abuse by members of the clergy, the local bishop, lay employees or volunteers of the diocese.

On July 2, the board of the Bishop’s Fund voted to dissolve itself with its remaining assets transferred to the general account of the diocese, the diocese said. The entity was created in 2014 as a discretionary fund to support capital projects and programs.

Also, the sale of the official bishop’s residence, which Lori ordered last month, is under contract and is expected to be finalized in the coming days, the diocese said.

Lay Catholic Voices said the diocese has agreed to all of its demands, that it hire a new auditor, publicly disclose results of the audit and announce a timetable for the completion of the audit and information release.

“I am very encouraged by the response from our diocese and look forward to future opportunities for diocesan and lay dialogue,” Lay Catholic Voices member Frances Brownfield said. “This is a first step in the restoration of trust within our community of faith.”

The release of the financial information “is a huge stride for us,” member Judy Pazerski said.

Jess Mancini can be reached at jmancini@newsandsentinel.com.