Pope gives West Virginia diocese new leader after scandal

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Michael J. Bransfield, Michael Bransfield

FILE – A 2015 file photo shows West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, then-bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. In a news conference scheduled for Tuesday, July 23, 2019, West Virginia’s Roman Catholic Diocese says it’s set to discuss its “future leadership,” 10 months after the resignation of Bransfield. (Scott McCloskey/The Intelligencer via AP, File)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s new Roman Catholic bishop vowed Tuesday to work toward restoring faith in the diocese after a scandal over the former bishop’s sexual harassment of adults and lavish spending of church money.

Pope Francis named Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Mark Brennan to lead the state’s Catholics. The 72-year-old Brennan replaces Bishop Michael Bransfield, who resigned in September after a preliminary investigation into allegations of sexual and financial misconduct.

“I want you to know how acutely aware I am of the deep disappointment and pain that you have experienced as a result of your former bishop’s misdeeds,” Brennan said at a news conference in Wheeling. “I’m not a magician. I’m not a wonder worker. I’m your brother in Christ. And I’m willing to work hard with you to make this corner of the Lord’s vineyard a place of faith as steadfast as the mountains, of hope as invigorating as fast-flowing streams, and of love as welcoming as the sun.”

Last week, Francis barred Bransfield from public ministry and prohibited him from living in the diocese, while warning that he will be forced to make amends “for some of the harm he caused.” Brennan will now help decide the extent of those reparations as he seeks to restore trust among the Catholic faithful.

“He is still subject to the authority of the church, and I’m hopeful that that will be enough to get him to cooperate,” Brennan said.

If not, Brennan said, decisions on Bransfield’s “abusive behavior” will be made after he consults with local church leaders.

Coming on the heels of a new wave of sex abuse allegations in the U.S., the Bransfield scandal added to the credibility crisis in the U.S. hierarchy. Several top churchmen received tens of thousands of dollars in church-funded personal gifts from Bransfield during his tenure in Wheeling-Charleston, which is in one of the poorest U.S. states.

Brennan said a main focus would be on rural poverty and victims of the opioid crisis, which has hit West Virginia particularly hard. The state leads the nation by far in the rate of opioid deaths.

Brennan referenced John Denver’s song, “Thank God, I’m A Country Boy,” which includes the line, “Life ain’t nothing but a funny, funny riddle.”

“Life can certainly seem like that when we’re facing opioid deaths, loss of jobs, people moving out of the state, loss of population, just the hard grind of work, raising kids, paying the bills, not knowing how it’s going to work out,” he said.

Brennan, a Boston native who was ordained in Washington D.C., in 1976, spent time studying Spanish in the Dominican Republic and completed his theology studies at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He was named auxiliary bishop of Baltimore in 2016 and has ministered to the city’s Hispanic community.

After Bransfield’s resignation, Francis asked Baltimore Archbishop William Lori to oversee the diocese temporarily and complete a full investigation. The findings, first reported by The Washington Post, determined that Bransfield spent church funds on dining out, liquor, personal travel and luxury items, as well as personal gifts to fellow bishops and cardinals in the U.S. and Vatican.

Lori has said that Bransfield was able to get away with his behavior for so long because he created a “culture of fear of retaliation and retribution” that weakened normal checks and balances in the diocese. The diocese’s vicars have all resigned and been reassigned to parish work, and Lori recently announced new auditing and other measures to ensure church funds are properly administered.

Bransfield had been investigated for an alleged groping incident in 2007 and was implicated in court testimony in 2012 in an infamous Philadelphia priestly sex abuse case. He strongly denied ever abusing anyone and the diocese said it had disproved the claims. He continued with his ministry until he offered to retire, as required, when he turned 75 last year.

He has disputed the findings of Lori’s investigation, telling The Post “none of it is true,” but declining detailed comment on the advice of his lawyers.

The Wheeling-Charleston diocese includes nearly 75,000 Catholics and 95 parishes and encompasses the entire state of West Virginia.

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Associated Press religion writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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