Imagine every negative stereotype about a high-ranking official in the Catholic Church. Now imagine all of those stereotypes allegedly embodied in one man.
A report from The Washington Post revealed documents that allege former Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield, the head of the Catholic Church in the Mountain State, lived an opulent lifestyle on the church’s tab, abused alcohol and pills and sexually assaulted younger priests and seminarians.
Bransfield resigned, as is required by the church, when he turned 75 last year. After that, an investigation into the former bishop was immediately launched.
The results of that investigation and other information uncovered by The Post show a disturbing pattern of sexual harassment. It hints the behavior might have extended toward altar servers, saying other clergy were afraid to leave such servers alone with Bransfield, but doesn’t include anything specific.
The church itself has said in previous reports that Bransfield was “credibly” accused of sexual harassment of adults. In the report, there are numerous specific alleged incidents of sexual advances on younger clergy. Their only avenue of complaint was a position occupied by church officials that Bransfield wrote numerous high-dollar checks to (he also reportedly gave money and gifts to some of the most powerful clergy in the entire Catholic Church), implying that to pursue a remedy against Bransfield would be a career-ending, if not soul-crushing, decision.
While the incidents laid out are not always time specific, and didn’t all allegedly occur in West Virginia, the behavior described is horrifying and infuriating. Bransfield came to West Virginia in 2005, well after the Catholic sexual abuse scandal had been exposed. If Bransfield did the things of which he’s accused, it is not only monstrous, but also shows a complete lack of cognition on the state of the church.
There also is a sort of contemptible detachment visible when the man who represents the Catholic community of one of the poorest states in the U.S. is reportedly taking frequent first-class flights to Rome and other destinations (Bransfield claims he has a bad back and, therefore, cannot fly coach). According to The Post, Bransfield spent $2.4 million on travel during his 13 years as bishop in West Virginia.
This goes along with allegations of spending tens of thousands of dollars on jewelry and having his salary bumped to cover taxes on reimbursements he received after spending hundreds of thousands on personal expenses and gifts. So much for the meek and their inheritance.
Bransfield has strongly denied the allegations against him, but there is a lengthy paper trail when it comes to the expenses and a large number of accusers with similar stories as it pertains to allegations of harassment or sexual abuse. And, if Bransfield was living luxuriously and engaging in predatory behavior while buying off anyone who could have held him accountable, it begs the question of how many other high-power clergy were or still are doing the same?
It shows that not everything was solved when the systematic allowance of abuse and suppression of victims’ stories came to light in the early 2000s. It shows that people in power, whether it be government or religion, can very easily take advantage of that power, becoming corrupt and corrupting others.
Most glaringly, it shows that the Catholic Church still has a long way to go toward transparency, cleaning up its act and reinstating anything resembling trust that it is following its holy mission.