Archbishop admits Bransfield spent excessively during time as bishop

WHEELING –Archbishop William E. Lori admitted Wednesday former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield “engaged in a pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending” during his tenure in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston as news reports revealed he spent millions on travel and to renovate his church-owned residence.

The Washington Post, citing a confidential draft report on Bransfield to be sent to the Vatican, reported Wednesday that the former bishop spent $2.4 million of the church’s money on travel, much of it for personal trips, during his 13-year tenure. He also reportedly spent $4.6 million to renovate the bishop’s Wheeling residence after a fire.

Citing church records, the Post also said Bransfield and subordinates spent an average of nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol.

The Post also reported Bransfield made $350,000 in hushmoney payments to other clergymen he was accused of mistreating during his time, according to church records obtained by the newspaper.

Lori, archbishop of Baltimore, was appointed apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston last September after Bransfield resigned as bishop. At that time, Pope Francis also ordered an investigation of Bransfield’s conduct.

The archbishop — “in the spirit of full disclosure” — acknowledged that he received financial gifts totaling $7,500 from Bransfield for various occasions over the years.

In a letter issued Wednesday to priests and laity of the diocese, Lori outlined the investigation’s findings the apostolic administrator addressed allegations of sexual harassment of adults and financial improprieties by the former bishop.

“The investigation found that Bishop 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 at the time of my appointment as apostolic administrator of the diocese,” Lori said. “The investigation further found that Bishop Bransfield misused church funds for personal benefit on such things as personal travel, dining, liquor, gifts and luxury items.”

Addressing “how such behavior was able to occur,” Lori said that “it is evident from those who spoke with investigators that the bishop’s management style and personality undermined the effectiveness of diocesan policies, controls and oversight procedures. In some cases, it is apparent that the judgment of diocesan personnel was impacted by the culture of fear of retaliation and retribution that the former bishop fostered.”

He added, “Clearly, despite proper checks and balances, diocesan policies and oversight procedures were subverted and we are determined to prevent this type of lapse from occurring.”

Lori, in his role as apostolic administrator, has made the determination “to immediately list for sale” the Wheeling-Charleston bishop’s residence at Elmwood Place in Wheeling.

Built between 1908-10 and located in the Parkview-Elm Grove section of Wheeling, the house belonged originally to William E. Weiss, a founder of Sterling Drug Co.

“The home, replete with many original furnishings, was purchased from Linsly Institute in 1963 for $63,000 by the late Bishop Joseph H. Hodges and has served since that time as the residence of four bishops of Wheeling-Charleston. It will serve this purpose no longer,” Lori said.

The Post reported that mineral rights from land in west Texas donated to the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese in the early 20th century helped to fund the diocese. Oil was later discovered beneath the land and generates nearly $15 million in annual revenue, which has bolstered an endowment that is currently estimated at $230 million, according to financial documents obtained by the Post.

“In light of what I have come to learn of Bishop Bransfield’s handling of diocesan finances, I have returned the full amount to the diocese and have asked that it be donated to Catholic Charities,” Lori said. “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 without the accountability that we must require of those who have been entrusted with so much — both spiritual and material –as bishops and pastors.”

He said the diocese is “committed to bringing about the healing that the good people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston require” and asked for the opportunity to “work relentlessly to regain their renewed trust and confidence.”

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