The former Catholic bishop of West Virginia spent church money on “luxury items” – including liquor, travel and home renovations – and faces “credible” accusations that he sexually harassed adults under his authority, according to a report issued under a new Catholic policy to address misconduct by bishops.
The investigation into Bishop Michael Bransfield, formerly the head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, was led by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore. It is the first in the United States to use the so-called “metropolitan model” since the church’s sexual abuse crisis escalated last summer.
Under that model, when an accusation arises against a bishop the complaint is handled by the local archbishop, or metropolitan. Those are usually the leaders of the region’s biggest cities, hence the name. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is expected to formally adopt the new model at a meeting next week in Baltimore.
Bransfield, 75, whose cousin is a senior official in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, had been West Virginia’s senior Catholic bishop since 2005. He resigned last September as Pope Francis announced an investigation into his conduct.
That investigation, described by Lori in a public letter to West Virginia Catholics on Wednesday, characterizes Bransfield’s 13-year tenure as plagued by misspending and sexual misconduct.
Lori’s letter was issued on the same day the Washington Post published an extensive investigation into Bransfield’s alleged misconduct in West Virginia. Lori had planned to send the letter since last week, when he met with members of the finance council West Virginia, said Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese.
“Regarding allegations of sexual harassment of adults by Bishop Bransfield, the investigative team determined that the accounts of those who accused Bishop Bransfield of sexual harassment are credible,” Lori said.
“The team uncovered a consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestive comments and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority,” Lori said.
The church-run investigation, conducted by five lay experts in civil law, finance and canon law, found no “conclusive evidence of sexual misconduct with minors,” Lori said.
But Lori’s letter states that Bransfield “engaged in a pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending.” Bransfield “initiated and completed extensive and expensive renovations to his private residences in both Wheeling and Charleston, as well as his intended retirement residence, the construction of which was halted at my request,” Lori wrote.
He notes in the letter that Bransfield gifted money to other clergymen, including Lori.
The investigation further found that Bransfield “misused Church funds for personal benefit on such things as personal travel, dining, liquor, gifts and luxury items,” Lori wrote. The letter did not specify how much church money was misappropriated.
“There is no excuse, nor adequate explanation, that will satisfy the troubling question of how his behavior was allowed to continue for as long as it did,” Lori wrote.
When contacted Wednesday afternoon by CNN, Bransfield said, “The allegations against me are all false. I was very surprised to see Archbishop Lori’s letter today and I look forward to defending myself in Rome.” He declined further comment.
A spokesman for Archbishop Lori declined to release the full report, saying it belonged to the Vatican, where it will be used to decide Bransfield’s fate within the church and potential punishment.