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Friday, April 3, 2020

New bishop says Bransfield should pay church nearly $800,000, apologize to alleged victims

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By Chris Dickerson | Nov 26, 2019


CHARLESTON  – The new bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston says former Bishop Michael Bransfield should pay the church nearly $800,000 and apologize to make amends for his alleged financial and sexual misconduct.

Bishop Mark Brennan announced the “plan of amends” for Bransfield on Nov. 26. He suggested Bransfield should have made the amends himself, but said the church has chosen to provide an outline for him to do so.

“I’m hoping he will see the value of himself as a Christian man,” Brennan said during a press conference.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose office had filed litigation against the Diocese regarding Bransfield’s alleged conduct, said he still wants more done.

“While today’s announcement by Bishop Brennan represents a step forward, justice will not be served until the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese releases all of its investigative reports on Bishop Bransfield, tightens its internal controls to protect children, and implements concrete measures to provide assistance to the many victims of sexual abuse and pedophilia needing medical, social, or mental health services,” Morrisey said in a statement. “It is time for the Diocese to truly come clean and begin to put this horrific scandal behind it.

“The subpoena from our office is likely the only reason we have a list of Diocese priests who are credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. The Diocese shouldn’t need more prodding from our office to do the right thing.”

The plan introduced by Brennan calls for Bransfield to pay $792,638 and provide public apologizes to the diocese and his alleged victims. In July, Pope Francis had said Brennan should decide how Bransfield would make amends.

“I wish to make clear that it is not my intention to impoverish the former bishop,” Brennan wrote in a letter about the plan. “We regard the former bishop’s acceptance of this plan of amends as an act of restorative justice.

“It is also for his own spiritual good and his own healing as a man who professes to follow Christ. All proceeds from Bishop Bransfield’s repayment will be directed to a special fund to provide for the counseling, care and support of those who have suffered sexual abuse.”

Bransfield resigned last year amid allegations he misused church money and sexually harassed seminarians and young priests. He has denied those claims.

Brennan’s plan for Bransfield included the following:

X Pay the Diocese $792,638 and another $110,000 to the IRS for taxes that the diocese says should have been paid on personal spending.

X Lose the normal retirement package for bishops and instead get the monthly stipend of a retired priest who had worked 13 years, which equals $736 per month.

X Be responsible for his own long-term health care, pharmacy and disabilities benefits.

X Lose the right to be buried in the Diocese cemetery.

X Issue apologies to the Diocese staff, members of the Diocese and those he allegedly sexually harassed “for severe emotional and spiritual harm his actions caused.”

X Return or pay for the car he was provided at retirement.

Earlier this month, Wood Circuit Judge J.D. Beane dismissed one claim filed by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and certified two questions to the state Supreme Court.

Wood Circuit Judge J.D. Beane’s Nov. 6 order granted the Diocese’s motion to dismiss claims by the AG’s office under the state Consumer Credit and Protection Act. It also stayed the litigation until the certified questions are answered.

“A panoramic view of the entire relationship between church and state arising from application of the Consumer Credit and Protection Act to religious schools reveals, not dimly but clearly, an excessive entanglement of government and religion, which is prohibited under federal and state constitutions,” Beane wrote.

Morrisey’s office had claimed the Diocese violated the act by failing to disclose sexual misconduct by school and camp employees with minors to parents, the diocese knowingly hired pedophiles and did not conduct background checks on employees.

A spokesman said the Diocese is “pleased and grateful” that Beane concurred with the belief that the complaint isn’t valid.

“Looking ahead, we are confident that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals will affirm the Circuit Court’s decision,” Tim Bishop said. “The Diocese wishes to again assert its full commitment to the protection of those young people entrusted to its care in its primary and secondary schools across the State of West Virginia through its ‘Safe Environment’ program.

“We have no more sacred trust than the nurturing of these young minds and souls and have instituted rigorous standards for all who bear responsibility for their care: priests, religious clergy and sisters, lay educators, employees and volunteers.”

The first certified question is whether the Consumer Credit and Protection Act applies to religious institutions regarding the sale and advertisement of educational and recreational services. Beane says it does not.

The second question is if the cumulative impact of the relationship between church and state constitutes an excessive entanglement which is prohibited by the state and federal constitutions. Beane says it does.

Morrisey's office, which initiated its investigation in the fall of 2018, brought the action against the Diocese and Bransfield for violations of the state’s consumer protection laws, in addition to seeking a permanent court order blocking the Diocese from the continuation of any such conduct.

Morrisey filed suit against the Diocese and Bransfield in March alleging the Diocese knowingly employed pedophiles and failed to conduct adequate background checks for those working at the Diocese’s schools and camps, all without disclosing the inherent danger to parents who purchased its services for their children. The complaint was amended in May to include several more counts and new evidence.

The updated complaint, filed May 21 in Wood Circuit Court, included a new count of unfair competition and new evidence of the church's failure to conduct background checks and report abuse. The amended complaint also includes allegations the Diocese chose not to publicly disclose a report of child sexual abuse by a teacher in 2006 and permitted several individuals to work or volunteer at Catholic schools without adequate background checks.

The count of unfair competition in the amended complaint alleges the Diocese omitted the fact that it knowingly employed priests who had admitted to or been accused of sexually abusing children in advertising materials for prospective students. It says those materials also didn’t mention the Diocese didn’t do background checks on its employees.

Bransfield also has been named as a defendant in at least two civil lawsuits by individuals who claim he sexually abused them. One of those cases has been settled.

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