Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

It’s time for another trip into my GetReligion folder of guilt. That’s where news features go that I know are important, but I cannot — quickly — spot the issue that is nagging me.

Thus, the story gets filed away, while I keep thinking about it.

In this case, we are talking about a Washington Post story that is an important follow-up on the newspaper’s investigation into charges of corruption against Catholic Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of West Virginia — an important disciple of the fallen cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. Click here for the first GetReligion post on this topic, by Bobby Ross, Jr.

The headline on this new expose states: “Warnings about West Virginia bishop went unheeded as he doled out cash gifts to Catholic leaders.” Yes, this story is about money, money, money and then more money.

Oh, there is some signs of sexual harassment of seminarians in there, but that doesn’t seem to interest the Post team. And there are hints that some of the conflicts surrounding Bransfield may have had something to do with Catholicism. Maybe. Hold that thought because we will come back to it. Here is the overture:

Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield as far back as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.

“I beg of you to please look into this situation,” Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote in 2013 to the pope’s ambassador to the United States.

But Bransfield’s conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.

“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Then there is the big thesis statement:

At least four senior clerics outside West Virginia who received parishioner complaints about Bransfield also accepted cash gifts from him, more than $32,000 in all, according to an analysis of letters and other documents obtained by The Post.

As it turns out, lots of people received money from Bransfield.

The key, to the Post team, is that several conservative Catholic leaders got checks from this important McCarrick colleague. The story does note: “Bransfield wrote more than 500 checks to other clerics during his 13 years in West Virginia. …” But the important checks were to conservatives such as Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, at that time the pope’s ambassador to the United States; Cardinal Raymond Burke, then the leader of the church’s judicial authority in Rome; and of State at the Vatican; and Lori, a strong Catholic voice on religious-liberty issues.

Was this money, in effect, a form of bribery?

As I read the story, and received emails from Catholic readers, I kept thinking about two things:

(1) Were these particular Catholic leaders in a position, at this time, to act against Bransfield? The Vatican is kind of like the military, in that certain people have the right to discipline officers and others have to wait their turn. I was never clear that, other than Lori, these men — take Cardinal Burke, for example — was in a position to take action against the West Virginia shepherd.

(2) I kept thinking about a term that I have encountered many times as a religion reporter — the “pastor’s discretionary fund.” Most pastors and priests that I know have this kind of fund, a line item in the parish budget, containing contributions given to them with no specific purpose in mind. Pastors are allowed to use this for ministerial purposes, base on their own “discretion.”

Often these actions are kept private. The pastor may pay for a staff member to get to go to a training conference that the church heard about at the last minute. But most of the time, in my experience, these funds are used to help needy people who, quite literally, knock on the church door. They may be used to help a single mother whose car breaks down and she cannot afford repairs — threatening her ability to get to work. Or maybe there is an elderly parishioner who is behind on her power bills and needs quick help.

How to respond? The pastor turns to his discretionary fund, rather than trying to find a specific parish or diocesan fund to tap.

Can this kind of fund be abused? Yes. I have seen that happen. Is that the norm? No way.

While reading the Post piece, I kept wondering: How many of the Bransfield checks to these church leaders were deposited in discretionary funds? The money may have been spent wisely or poorly — but that is a separate issue than the fact that the checks were accepted.

Note this interesting passage concerning Cardinal Burke:

Burke received 15 checks from 2008 to 2017 worth a total of $9,700, church records show. Burke said in a statement that he did not know Bransfield well but that Bransfield regularly asked him to meet with priests who accompanied Bransfield to Rome. Burke said some of the checks were honorariums for these talks about his work at the Vatican. Others were gifts Bransfield sent on holidays or to mark Burke’s ordination as a cardinal, he said.

He said he donated the money to charity. “A Cardinal makes an oath not to accept any gift from someone seeking a favor pertaining to his office and work,” Burke said in the statement. “In the case of the gifts of Bishop Bransfield, I never had any reason to suspect that anything was awry.”

Does that prove that there was zero problem with these rather small financial gifts? No way. But the facts presented here do not prove that these gifts were all that unusual or that the money was used in an improper manner. In other words, there’s a whole lot more reporting that needed to be done — reporting as deep as the Post material about the spending abuses attributed to Bransfield.

However, let me end by noting that all of this money talk was not the issue that, for me, complicated my reactions to this Post expose.

No, I kept wondering if the conflicts surrounding Bransfield were rooted, in some way, in issues of Catholic worship and theology. In my experience, there is usually some uniquely CATHOLIC angles in Catholic conflicts of this kind. I am talking about conflicts linked to issues of liturgy, worship or doctrine.

Here is the passage that caught my eye:

Some West Virginia parishioners grumbled about Bransfield from the start. But their anger boiled over in 2012, when Bransfield ordered that a pastor, the Rev. Jim Sobus, be relocated from Our Lady of Fatima Church in Huntington to a remote parish.

Sobus had criticized Bransfield’s management of the diocese, and a handful of parishioners had complained to the diocese about the way Sobus managed a Catholic school and meted out discipline.

But scores of parishioners wrote to Bransfield or signed petitions praising Sobus in unsuccessful appeals to keep him at his home parish, documents show. Sobus was later suspended for failing to report to his new assignment.

What was that all about? It sounds, to me, like a conflict between a conservative priest and a liberal bishop, perhaps on liturgical matters or even (wait for it) the Latin Mass.

Was this conflict between a priest and his bishop important, in this case?

Well, this priest’s name comes up 13 times in this Post report. This priest’s supporters contrasted his modest approach to life with that of the bishop. One parishioner, an anesthesiologist from Charleston, W. Va., named Kellee Abner, sent information to Burke:

Abner did take her complaints to Rome, sending Cardinal Burke a 10-page fax about an alleged campaign by Bransfield’s team against Sobus, according to receipts she provided to The Post. 

“I beg for help from you Father,” she wrote in February 2013. “We need to stand up for the Truth as Jesus would want us, but we also need those who will stand with us.”

Again, these conflicts focused on this specific priest.

Like I said, it’s clear that this conflict — the actions taken against Father Sobus — is crucial to some of the most vocal critics of Bishop Bransfield. It seems that this was the last straw.

OK, I’ll ask: What was that conflict about? I kept wondering if there needed to be a sidebar to this long Post feature explaining how the clash between the bishop and Father Sobus fit into this larger picture.

Yes, I understand that “follow the money” is an important and useful doctrine linked to in-depth coverage of scandals. However, on the religion beat, it also helps to ask questions about faith, doctrine and worship.

Sometimes, Catholic scandals involve Catholic issues.

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