Former bishop Michael Bransfield, the head of the Catholic Church in West Virginia for 13 years, was “very concerned about his legacy.” Those are the words of Mark Phillips, the former chief of staff of what was Wheeling Jesuit University, provided in a written response to questions from The Washington Post.
Surely by now, Bransfield, the former leader of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, has grown used to disappointment on that front.
Already accused of sexually assaulting young seminarians and spending millions of church dollars on a lavish lifestyle, it appears Bransfield diverted money from Wheeling Hospital into a slush fund to dole out checks for expensive gifts, according to The Post. He reportedly wrote checks for a total of $29,000 to help a powerful cardinal in Rome renovate living quarters Bransfield reportedly thought were too austere. How generous.
With hospital money, Bransfield — who headed up the board and considered it “my hospital,” according to The Post — established the Bishop’s Fund, intended, at least on tax documents, as a way to “provide charitable care to the people of the diocese.”
Instead, he spent millions on vanity projects within the state. When he wanted to send money elsewhere, which would have violated tax laws and possibly draw the ire of the Internal Revenue Service, he simply used the account as a holding area for money that would eventually be transferred to the diocese. Bransfield was able to then direct the money wherever he wanted, using vague descriptions on financial records, to avoid legal entanglements.
Hospital board members who talked to The Post say they don’t recall ever authorizing transferring large sums of money into the Bishop’s Fund. Records, such as meeting minutes, from board meetings where such an action would have been approved do not exist.
Accusations of abuse at this stage, although disgusting and disturbing, are a matter for civil courts. Spending millions on private jet travel and luxurious accommodations while preaching humility and leading the church in an impoverished state is an outrage, but Bransfield was allowed to do it. The penalty from the Catholic Church as a result of its own investigation into Bransfield’s conduct was to essentially de-frock him, although that decision came after he was already technically retired.
But Bransfield could be in an entirely different type of very real trouble this time. Wheeling Hospital gets a lot of its money from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Diverting those federal dollars into another fund for any other purpose is, quite literally, a crime.
Whether he’s prosecuted or not, Bransfield can rest assured that his precious legacy has been shattered, and the pieces are ground to dust with each new report that surfaces.