Alcohol, alleged sexual harassment, lavish spending: Inside Michael Bransfield’s time in Wheeling
WHEELING — With former bishop Michael Bransfield issuing a six-sentence letter of apology to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston last weekend for years of alleged sexual and financial abuse, the church hopes to consider the matter closed. The marks from his tumultuous term of office, however, remain.
Bransfield issued his statement in a letter dated Aug. 15, claiming he did not mean to make those under his power feel sexually harassed, as well as denying that a pattern of excessive and lavish spending was inappropriate. Nevertheless, he agreed to comply with a demand from The Vatican to pay back $441,000 and to take a reduced retirement package, in what one canon lawyer described as an “unprecedented” show of accountability from the church.
Bransfield was installed as bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in 2005, taking over from Wheeling native Bernard Schmitt, who had been bishop since 1989 and had retired the year prior.
Before becoming bishop, Bransfield served as director of finance, executive director, and, ultimately, rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Attempts this week to reach Bransfield were unsuccessful.
WHO’S BRANSFIELD’S ‘NEXT PRETTY BOY?’
According to the investigation commissioned on behalf of Archbishop William Lori, who led the diocese for about a year following Bransfield’s departure in September 2018, Bransfield’s misconduct began far earlier than his time as bishop, with several witnesses telling lay investigators that he had engaged in “a decades-long campaign of predatory behavior” beginning in 1982 while serving in several official capacities at the National Shrine. One former colleague described Bransfield as “creepy.”
Those in contact with the man say he would frequently insert sexual comments into conversation, shower cash and favors on young men in whom he was interested, discuss sensitive church matters with young seminarians and initiate unwanted touching — beginning with hugs and stroking the face — and escalating to “increasingly sexualized” actions.
Upon his ordination as bishop in 2005, Bransfield was said to have told the vicar general, Frederick Annie, and judicial vicar, Kevin Quirk, he required a priest-secretary to live with him at his Wheeling residence, which mirrored the lifestyle he kept as rector at the National Shrine — such an arrangement in Wheeling had not been used since 1962. Several witnesses described the priest-secretary position as being less a clerical support role and more of an appointment as Bransfield’s companion and servant. Bransfield was widely known to be a highly social person who found it difficult to be alone.
According to the Bransfield report, the seminarian appointed to be Bransfield’s priest-secretary was given wide authority in the church, planning the pastoral calendar and traveling across the state on the bishop’s behalf, serving as his “right hand.” One man who served as Bransfield’s secretary described the appointment as “a way of life.”
However, the man said he found it difficult to cope with Bransfield’s lifestyle and his alcohol abuse. Bransfield also began touching him inappropriately, insisting on hugs that turned into Bransfield stroking the man’s chest. When rebuffed, Bransfield would push back, telling the secretary he was “obsessed with himself” and accusing him of reading too much into things. The man reported to diocesan investigators being “frozen in fear,” difficult to admit to himself that he was the victim of sexual harassment by someone he considered a father-figure. The years when this abuse occurred have been censored in the released version of the church’s report.
The priest-secretaries who succeeded the first victim were said to have alternated between two categories: young priests chosen for their skill on the job, and young priests who matched Bransfield’s “type,” said to be tall, slim, usually blonde men. The report states that nearly every person interviewed said Bransfield harped on their appearance, warning them “not to get fat” and asking when they would be hitting the gym. One such person tasked with assisting Bransfield was allegedly told by the vicar general Annie to take the position in order to “save a priest” from the role. One man, who by his own admission was not Bransfield’s “type,” said he did not experience sexual harassment as the others did, but observed Bransfield manhandling others.
The succession of aides continued up through 2017. The bishop’s proclivities were apparently well-known by the seminarians, who reportedly told one man that he was being sized up to be Bransfield’s “next pretty boy.” The man told investigators that he would have “slugged” Bransfield if he attempted to escalate things, and that Bransfield hovered outside his door while staying at his residence.
The report also states there was no evidence that Bransfield may have sexually abused minors, but stated there was “significant reason for concern that this occurred.” Both Quirk, the judicial vicar, and one interviewee described Bransfield as “predatory” toward the altar servers at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling, where he refused to allow girls to serve and demonstrated growing over-familiarity with the young boys. Quirk said “the best he could do” was to try to make sure Bransfield wasn’t left alone with the children after services.
Three high-ranking clerics, Annie, Quirk and Anthony Cincinnati, were his chief enablers, according to the Bransfield report. All three were removed from their postings as vicar general, judicial vicar and vicar for clergy, respectively, in 2019, just after the report was released. Each was reassigned to lesser-ranking positions throughout the diocese.
Annie, described as Bransfield’s “second in command,” told investigators he observed Bransfield’s pattern of alleged sexual behaviors, but dismissed concerns as “these were men in their 20s and 30s,” discounting the power discrepancy between Bransfield and his aides as being a situation where they could leave if they wished.
Quirk was responsible for summoning young seminarians to Bransfield’s residence or to accompany him on trips, telling the seminarians “your presence is required” when he encountered resistance. Quirk told investigators he encouraged the seminarians to stay on the phone with him to dissuade Bransfield from being inappropriate, which he knew happened frequently.
Cincinnati, describing himself as a “priest for the priests” due to his position, described nearly all the priest-secretaries as having been “broken” by the experience with Bransfield, especially one who had evidently been driven to drink in order to cope with the former bishop’s proclivities. The report notes none of the seminarians and priests interviewed as potential victims described Cincinnati as someone they felt they could go to for support. Cincinnati said he personally felt shocked and disgusted at Bransfield’s actions, such as casually including him in suggestive dialogue. Despite this, he did nothing to stop Bransfield or help his victims.
‘WATCHING THE BISHOP WATCH TELEVISION’
Bransfield’s alcohol abuse was well-known by those in his companionship, including diocesan staff and his aides, something which dated back to even before he was ordained. According to the Bransfield report, he was said to drink to excess on a nightly basis, following a typical pattern of pre-dinner drinks, wine with dinner, and once dinner guests had left, after-dinner drinks while he watched television, which he expected Annie, his secretary, his “favorite” pet priests and any overnight guests, to join him for. One person described this ritual as “watching the bishop watch television,” which was universally described as unenjoyable.
During this time, Bransfield frequently drank a half-bottle or more of Cointreau, an 80-proof, orange-flavored liquor, each evening. When friends confronted Bransfield about his drinking habits, he began drinking “tea,” which consisted of Cointreau in a teacup, investigators learned. Bransfield was reportedly a sloppy drunk who liked making late-night phone calls.
Many of Bransfield’s unfortunate favorites learned not to accept his calls after 9 p.m., and Annie said he knew better than to discuss church matters past a certain point. Many of Bransfield’s guests said they were glad when he would let them retire to their rooms, because they no longer had to endure the man.
The report notes it’s unclear if Bransfield’s tendencies with his aides were exacerbated by his drinking — as they were known to happen anywhere, anytime. However, Quirk reported his first and only such encounter with Bransfield occurred while the bishop was inebriated. Still, he was known to be a hazard in other ways, once attempting to throw a newspaper into a gas fireplace before Quirk stopped him. Another victim said a drunken Bransfield exposed himself one night in Charleston.
Bransfield was also said to be on a laundry list of prescription medication, which one of his aides was tasked with picking up from Wheeling Hospital. Many expressed concern among themselves that Bransfield was known to mix these with his nightly drinking, with one saying Bransfield would likely just “not … wake up” someday from his drug and alcohol abuse. Annie recounted one particular instance in 2015, when Bransfield appeared to be having a stroke, and begged the bishop’s doctor to consult him about the abuse.
THE ROOT OF ALL EVILS
Money flowed through Bransfield’s hands like water, and much of it on himself, according to the report. Of the $119 million the diocese spent from 2007 to 2018, $6 million was specifically for renovations to Bransfield’s three properties — $4.6 million on his Wheeling residence, $737,244 on his Charleston home and $697,106 on his proposed Wheeling retirement condo, on which work was halted in September 2018.
Bransfield created the Bishops Fund in 2014, which generated funding through Wheeling Hospital’s malpractice insurance entity, Mountaineer Freedom Risk Retention Group. Bransfield was said to have seen “extra pockets of cash” accumulating on the group’s balance sheet, and wanted access to that money, thus leading to the creation of the Bishops Fund, apparently without the consultation of Wheeling Hospital’s board.
More than $21 million was funneled from Wheeling Hospital into the Bishops Fund and helped to pay for about $17 million in projects across the state over the next few years, according to Internal Revenue Service filings by the nonprofit.
Along with Bransfield, members of the Bishops Fund included Quirk, the group’s secretary and then chairman of the boards of both Wheeling Hospital and the former Wheeling Jesuit University; Lawrence Bandi, the board’s treasurer and president of Central Catholic High School in Wheeling, and now current chairman of Wheeling Hospital’s board; Bryan Minor, the diocese’s human resources director and executive director of the West Virginia Catholic Foundation; and Annie.
The vast majority of grants from the fund went toward what is now Wheeling University, with the rest going to other causes such as Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral in Charleston, Wheeling Catholic Central High School and Catholic Charities.
Bransfield was said by numerous witnesses to have treated the diocese’s treasury as his wallet, often saying, “I own this” with regards to DWC money and even with Wheeling Hospital. Bransfield’s credit card, which was paid by the diocese, was recorded as having spent over $2.3 million on travel expenses alone, more than $225,000 on personal expenses, and more than $62,000 on jewelry. Bransfield was known to almost exclusively fly first-class, with his and any traveling companions’ expenses compensated — the vast majority of the time being for personal trips, rather than business.
Also notable in the expenses are his liquor purchases. The report states while most purchases were made in Wheeling by Bransfield, Annie notably put more than $50,000 on his card at a Morgantown business owned by a personal friend of his. He later said this was done to disguise the amount of liquor being purchased from internal review.
MEA CULPA? OR NOLO CONTENDERE?
Bransfield tendered his resignation in September 2018, which Pope Francis accepted immediately along with an order to launch the investigation into the sexual abuse and financial impropriety allegations against him. After nearly two years, orders finally returned from The Vatican earlier this month, demanding an apology from Bransfield to his parishioners, as well as paying back $441,000 in restitution. This is a little more than half of what Bishop Mark Brennan, who was installed last summer as the new head of the state’s diocese, originally wished to seek from his predecessor: $792,638, which was determined from a review of Bransfield’s spending habits.
Bransfield technically fulfilled the apology by issuing a four-paragraph statement dated last Saturday. In it, he “apologize(d) for any scandal or wonderment caused by words or actions attributed to me” during his time as bishop. Bransfield defended his spending by saying he believed the reimbursement for personal expenses using church funds was “proper.” He also denied intent in making people “feel sexually harassed” in his nearly 30 years of working with young priests and seminaries, adding, “if anything I said or did caused others to feel that way, then I am profoundly sorry.”
Bransfield’s letter has been roundly criticized since its public release Thursday, both by lay people reacting to his words and organizations meant to help others like his victims. Judy Jones, Midwest Associate Leader for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called Bransfield’s letter “lame,” pointing out that even while nominally apologizing for his actions, Bransfield defended himself or denied his actions in the same breath.
“A true apology from Bransfield would not contain any equivocation or whines about his intent being misperceived, but a simple and straightforward acceptance of his wrongdoing. That is not what parishioners in West Virginia received from Bransfield,” Jones said in a written statement following Bransfield’s announcement.
Despite the reaction to his statement, Brennan said Thursday he hopes to “move forward,” echoing statements upon his installation that he felt the disappointment of parishioners in their former shepherd, and hoped to help the community move on while healing the distrust Bransfield engendered.
Bransfield will receive a reduced pension of $2,250 per month, along with health benefits, in his retirement. He will not receive other perks a retired bishop would expect. The entire retirement package is estimated to be about a third of what a less embattled bishop might enjoy.
St. Joseph Foundation President Philip Gray, who has worked in canon law for many years, said Thursday that seeing such sanctions against an accused bishop was nearly unheard of, and expressed a hope that such retribution could be the start of a new era for accountability within the church, although he said such a thing might be a long shot.
Alan Olson can be reached at email@example.com.