West Virginia Troubles: Details about +Bransfield

In the years before he was removed from ministry for alleged sexual harassment and financial abuses, Bishop Michael Bransfield was reimbursed by the church for cash gifts he gave to fellow clergymen, records show.

Source: W.Va. bishop gave powerful cardinals and other priests $350,000 in cash gifts before his ouster, church records show

This story outlines a pretty amazing (in the worst way) failure of a bishop, his staff, and the diocesan boards. While he spent a large sum of money, I am glad that it wasn’t more and I’m glad that the diocese had random income-producing property to fund it. Any financial abuse in the non-profit sector is horrible and criminal, but I’m glad people in this incredibly poor region of the country didn’t donate that money he spent in such reckless ways.

The sexual abuse scandal is definitely the highest priority to resolve, but in my lifetime, financial abuse and mismanagement will be the next.

We Know Nothing about +Vigano’s Memo

I got caught last night offering a brief opinion on +Vigano’s memo and Pope Francis’ response on Facebook last night while sharing yesterday’s post about bishops who need to resign. In the Facebook post, I offered that Pope Francis’ response was underwhelming and I stand by that.

To catch up, Archbishop Vigano was the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States from 2011-2016, the end of Pope Benedict’s papacy and the first few years of Pope Francis’ papacy. The Nuncio has a dual function—they are the governmental ambassador of the Holy See to the United States and he is the Pope’s representative to the United States.

The Nuncio does not have any real administrative power over the Church in the U.S. He isn’t the head of the Church in the States (nor is the USCCB in most areas as far as that goes).

Anyhow, +Vigano wrote a memo stating that, among other things, Pope Benedict XVI had secretly restricted then-Cardinal McCarrick’s ministry and Pope Francis reversed it.

Yesterday, while in transit back to Rome after an Apostolic Visitation to Ireland, Pope Francis took questions aboard the papal flight. Here is the relevant section from Catholic News Agency‘s translation:

Greg Burke: Thanks, Holiness. Let’s go to the question from the English-speaking group. Anna Matranga from the American television, CBS.

Anna Matranga, CBS: Good evening, Holy Father.  I’ll return to the subject of sex abuse about which you’ve already spoken. This morning, very early, a document by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano’ came out. In it, he says that in 2013 he had a personal talk with you at the Vatican, and that in that talk, he spoke to you explicitly of the behavior of and the sexual abuse by former-Cardinal McCarrick. I wanted to ask you if this was true.  I also wanted to ask something else: the Archbishop also said that Pope Benedict sanctioned McCarrick, that he had forbidden him to live in a seminary, to celebrate Mass in public, he couldn’t travel, he was sanctioned by the Church.  May I ask you whether these two things are true?

Pope Francis:  I will respond to your question, but I would prefer last first we speak about the trip, and then other topics.  I was distracted by Stefania, but I will respond.

I read the statement this morning, and I must tell you sincerely that, I must say this, to you and all those who are interested.  Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment.  I will not say a single word about this.  I believe the statement speaks for itself.  And you have the journalistic capacity to draw your own conclusions.  It’s an act of faith.  When some time passes and you have drawn your conclusions, I may speak.  But, I would like your professional maturity to do the work for you. It will be good for you. That’s good. (inaudible)

Matranga:  Marie Collins said that after she met you during the victims gathering, that she spoke with you precisely about ex-Cardinal McCarrick. She said you were very tough in your condemnation of McCarrick. I want to ask you, when was the first time that you heard talk about the abuses committed the former cardinal?

Pope Francis: This is part of the statement about McCarrick. Study it and then I will say.  Yesterday, I had not read it but I permitted myself to speak clearly with Marie Collins and the group, it was really an hour-and-a-half, something which made me suffer a lot.  [The Holy Father continued on a different topic discussed during the Irish victims gathering.]

via Catholic News Agency

About +Vigano’s Memo: I don’t know. If fully accurate, it is damning. I caution that we seek verification and investigation. The more incredible the claim, the more we should be cautious to accept it or deny it at face value. As lay Catholics or file-and-rank clerics, I don’t think we know enough yet and it is incredibly confusing.

Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa whom I know personally as he was the vocations director for the Diocese of Austin when I was a seminary applicant (I opted to suspend my application shortly before starting). I know him to be a wise and thoughtful priest. He published on his public Facebook page:

I count myself blessed that it was Archbishop Viganò who called me to tell me that I was appointed fourth bishop of Tulsa. The allegations he details mark a good place to begin the investigations that must happen in order for us to restore holiness and accountability to the leadership of the Church. [Emphasis mine]

Bishop David Konderla, via Facebook Sunday August 26th

A plain reading of that to me reads that he is offering his own credibility that +Vigano is a solid source.

Even more surprising, Bishop Strickland of Tyler, Texas issued a letter to his entire diocese to be posted at all Masses and on all parish sites/social media accounts where he states +Viagno’s accusations are credible.

+Wuerl’s spokesman has apparently confirmed that he cancelled a meeting of perspective seminarians with +McCarrick. Why would he have done that if, as he said, he wasn’t aware of allugations against +McCarrick, which +Vigano directly states that he did know?

From reactions like this, wow. There must be something to this. Pope Francis has a lot of explaining to do!

But, at the same time, Fr. Matt Malone, SJ, editor of the Jesuit-ran America magazine posts on Twitter a thread of various times that after these sanctions were placed on +McCarrick that +McCarrick celebrated Mass publicly and/or traveled. Some of these times included Pope Benedict and/or +Vigano. Separately, I’ve seen a photo of Pope Benedict greeting +McCarrick during his exit from the Vatican upon his resignation.

+Vigano, before being nuncio, was, in lay terms, the mayor of Vatican City and ruffled feathers. Part of these disagreements and internal battles were leaked out by Pope Benedict’s butler in an affair reported as VatiLeaks. Some opinion sites have offered that +Vigano is doing this in retribution against other Curial officials who had a hand to play in that affair.

Also being reported is that +Vigano shut down an investigation and ordered letters destroyed concerning Archbishop John Neinstedt‘s mishandling of an abusive priest allowed to stay in ministry after being credibly accused and lying about it. +Neinstedt’s actions led to criminal charges being filed against the Archdiocese, which were dropped after the Archdiocese (under the leadership of a different bishop after +Neinstedt’s resignation in disgrace) admitted wrongdoing. So, +Vigano’s hands aren’t clean either. Why did he wait until now to say something?

So, did Pope Francis knowingly overturned secret sanctions? Did Benedict really put the sanctions on him? Why were they secret? Were they not enforced? Is everything here fully accurate or is there another side not being told yet?

The point: There is far more unknown about what’s going on than known. Allegations need to be investigated and rushing to judgement—that Pope Francis is guilty of cover up, that +Vigano dropped a hit piece, or anything in between—isn’t what we need right now.

About Pope Francis’ response: It is underwhelming. Period.

He doesn’t confirm or deny anything. He says that believing the document—or not—is an act of faith. He throws this back to journalists to figure it out. He wants us to form our opinions and once we do, then he’ll say something? So, if we think he did it then he’ll admit or defend himself? If we think he didn’t do it, he’ll just stay above the fray?

There are plenty of other non-answers that I would have accepted for the time being.

If he would have said “While in Ireland, my focus is on this pastoral trip. The World Meeting of Families was an important gathering and the Irish people have suffered greatly at the hands of the Church. Due to the energy I put into this visit and meetings, I have not reviewed +Vigano’s memo in-depth yet. This is a serious matter and we should investigate all of these accusations.” Okay, cool. Basically a no comment yet, but we should confirm the truth.

I don’t believe the Pope’s response should be read as an admission of guilt or “no content” or anything like that.

But, it definitely didn’t give me anything to think that the Vatican is taking this seriously.

Bishops Must Resign

I suggest that the Church proactively open every diocesan archive and get everything out in the open. Radical transparency is needed after realizing that a decade and a half after the sex abuse crisis exploded onto the scene, there is far more unknown than known.

Once the archives are opened and more of the truth is known, what should happen to those clerics named?

For those who priests or deacons who committed abuse, the Dallas Charter (2018 revision) is good. The priest or deacon is to never serve in ministry ever again. The Church must inform local authorities so appropriate criminal investigations can occur. From my limited scope of awareness, this is something good that came out of the Boston crisis that is (generally) being followed.

My home town, Wichita Falls, had the pastor removed when a review of his file revealed he had admitted in 1999 to Bishop Joseph Delaney before his ordination to the sexual assault of a minor in the 1970s. Ignoring that +Delaney ordained him after knowing about this, once the new bishop, Bishop Kevin Vann, discovered the admission in his file, he was immediately removed from ministry and the local authorities in Fort Worth and in the jurisdiction where the abuse took place were notified.

These policies gave me hope that the Church was better than it was before. That the priest in Wichita Falls wasn’t realized anew until 2006 when someone happened to stumble across it only validates we need to investigate every diocese.

The rules and process for what should happen to offending priests or deacons isn’t the weakness right now. It is about holding bishops accountable.

Before going further, I’ve read a lot of ideas for what we should do next. “The ‘gay subculture’ in seminaries demand that we ban gay priests.” “We should end the ‘imperial episcopate’ and do away with any bishop who isn’t a residential ordinary”.

I believe that this—holding bishops accountable to the decisions they have made with regard to protecting predatory and abusive priests—is too important to lump into larger conversations about long-term structural changes. As much as anyone, I’d love to have a conversation about my ideas on how to better structure parish leadership, but I don’t want to water down that we need better accountability for bishops first and foremost.

“Every bishop should resign!” I don’t agree. There are bishops who are actively and openly condemning the coverups by their brother bishops and inviting authorities to investigate their own dioceses. Justice is not served by removing innocent men from office.

1. Immediately, any bishop is determined to have knowingly moved abusive priests with credible or confirmed accusations back into ministry without restriction should resign. It doesn’t matter if the moves happened before or after the Dallas charter. At this point, they should offer this of their own free will.

I am willing to give some benefit of the doubt—maybe—to bishops who, before the Dallas Charter, was informed by a treatment facility that a priest could return to ministry, then put him somewhere in restricted ministry away from children or vulnerable adults. I don’t know if there have been a case of that.

If you caught your cousin stealing money from the cash register of the family business, even if you welcome him back, you’re not going to put him in front of the cash register without second thought. If you did, you’re stupid. Even without the Dallas Charter, it should be common sense that a priest who sexually abuses or assaults a minor shouldn’t be given unrestricted access to minors. Bishops who did not exercise this common sense should not be in governance.

2. Every one of these bishops should have their name and corresponding files turned over to civil authorities. Many of these cases won’t be strong enough for actual criminal prosecution, but let’s have the experts—law enforcement and prosecutors—make that call. I really don’t think any of them meant for children to be harmed, but their neglect and giving primacy to the abuser or reputation of the church is morally repugnant and should be considered criminal.

3. A canonical tribunal should be held. There isn’t a stated rule in Canon Law that covers, as far as my little not-a-canon-lawyer-mind knows, priestly transfers like this. There is the handy Canon 1399 that basically is a catch-all—do something bad and it’s really bad—then a penalty can be applied. I’m torn here because I don’t know what canonical penalties should be applied. Should he be barred from any episcopal ministry? As in, not allowed to ordain men to the priesthood (as sometimes a diocese lacking a bishop or a religious order will invite a bishop to ordain their candidates to the priesthood), etc? Retain the title or be stripped of it? Should they live private lives and not function publicly as a priest?

I lean toward a suspension of episcopal ministry as the default.

I hesitate to add a fourth—should a resigned/suspended bishop be put to work? Depending on his case, should he be assigned to work at one of the many parishes in America who lack a residential pastor? Or as an associate pastor at an understaffed church? Prison chaplain? I do not at all mean Cardinal Law being appointed the archpriest of St. Mary Major in Rome—a relatively cushy gig. I don’t know—just living an early retirement somewhere doesn’t feel just to me when their failure to govern is causing so much strife in the Church.

There needs to be accountability structures moving forward. That’s for another piece. But first, let’s figure out everyone who we know to have been credibly accused and those bishops who allowed them to remain in the shadows.

What Should Have Happened in 2002

In 2002, “Boston” became synonymous for “the” Catholic sex abuse crisis. The Boston Globe broke the story on how Bernard Cardinal Law, his predecessors, and others within the Archdiocese of Boston had shuffled predatory priests from parish to parish.

One notorious one, whom I intentionally am not using his name, molested over 130 children starting in the 1960s who had been removed from multiple parish and sent to “treatment” multiple times had continually been put back into ministry without informing anyone in these new assignment of the wolf in sheep’s clothing being sent in.

The Church—at least some of it—was shocked and horrified. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered and formulated the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, commonly known as the Dallas Charter, after the city where they had met to create it.

Ironically, perhaps, Dallas itself was known already in Catholic sex abuse circles for Rudy Kos. Then-Father Kos had molested who knows how many boys, resulting in three convictions for aggravated sexual assualt and given a life sentence. Bishop Grahmann and his predecessor, Bishop Tschoepe, had heard multiple complaints. +Grahamm’s inaction included telling Kos “Stop. Don’t have little boys overnight. I’ll move you if you do.” A civil jury ordered the Diocese of Dallas pay $119.6 million— $119,600,000—to about a dozen victims for the Diocese’s gross conduct (using a couple definitions of gross there). After appeal, the final award was around $30M, which was the largest amount awarded to victims before Boston and near the top still for victims of a single predator.

The Dallas Charter was approved by the Vatican and became “particular law”, meaning it was canon law for the United States, and decreed various changes including the immediate removal from ministry of any deacon or priest credibly accused of sexual misconduct with a minor and, how most lay Catholic see it, required training and background checks for everyone volunteering in the Church in areas where they would interact with children or vulnerable adults. It was a watershed moment. Today, one thing you may hear is that as shocking and disgusting news is coming out on an almost daily basis now, is that the vast majority of these cases are from before the Dallas Charter. That’s true. It is of little comfort to me from the pews though.

Why then was the Grand Jury report in Pennsylvania such a punch to the gut? The raw numbers were sickening. 300 priests, 1000 victims, just within that state (and not even every diocese, as two had previously been investigated). But to me, that wasn’t the only thing.

16 years after Boston, personally, I felt good about the Church and sexual abuse. Yes, there was a problem. We took action and created safe environments. As a Church, we are better now. That’s true. I realized how little comfort that is today though.

One thing we should have done in 2002 and didn’t was to draw back the curtains everywhere. It was and has been easy to think of this as a problem in Boston. I’m naive and figured that all this was happening there. Not here. I don’t know if there was any cover-up in the Diocese of Austin or not, but after the Grand Jury report, I don’t know isn’t good enough.

What we should have done and what we should do now is get every single skeleton out of the closet. Every diocese and religious order should invite, beg for, and/or hire an independent investigation of all of their archives. Every credible allegation should be published. At the end of this, there should never be another story from years ago being dripped out over the next 16 years.

Every diocese and religious order should invite, beg for, and/or hire an independent investigation of all of their archives.

The story of Holy Angels made an impact on me. As detailed by the New York Times, Fr. John David Crowley was a beloved pastor of the parish for nearly 34 years when he unexpectedly retired in 2003. He sounded like he was a good priest—welcoming, supportive of the community, well-loved. It didn’t seem to be some weird creeper or anything. Reading his bio, he sounded to be a model pastor.

When the allegations about him were made known to the bishop, then-Bishop Wuerl (now the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, DC)—on the Independent Review Board’s suggestion—offered him retirement without faculties or a canonical trial. The retirement without faculties would mean he could ride off into the sunset and then never publicly function as a priest. He was allowed to not reveal the circumstances to the parish who, understandably, protested. 2000 signatures. Some chewed out Bishop Wuerl when he visited the parish to meet with parishioners who wanted him to remain. They could tell retirement wasn’t really his idea.

If I’m thinking of Fr. Crowley’s interest, it was kind of the Church to offer him a nice exit while removing him from ministry. But, the Church should not be thinking of Fr. Crowley’s interest. The Church should be interested in the poor, the marginalized, the victims. Hopefully the victims that reported him knew he was retiring for that reason, but what about any other victims of this man? I’m not an expert, but it seems to be a common thread that this is often a repeated offense when he gets away with it previously.

According to the report, he was accused by two different victims. Are there others? Are there others who felt alone and thought no one would believe them against this amazing, beloved priest? How many of them were never able to process or get counseled? Did they turn to drugs or alcohol? Did they abuse people in their lives (in any form of abuse)? Who knows. It’s been 15 years since he left ministry seemingly in good standing.

This is stupid. As the Church, what the hell are we doing?

By having open and radical transparency, we stand with victims. They are not alone. They are loved. The Church, their community of faith that they believed in just as much as any one of us, supports them, not those the attacked them. When one victim has the courage to come forward, we should do due diligence, absolutely,  but then we should try to find any others so that we can support them too and justice can be served.

Every diocese and religious order should compile a list of every credibly accused cleric and make it widely available. This would be both to encourage silent victims to know that they’re not alone and demonstrate the transparency that the laity now demand to restore credibility.

The Church should do this now. We should not wait for civil authorities to want to investigate. We want this. We want to be the beacon of light we are called to be and with these sins on our corporate conscience, we won’t be.

The Abuse Continues

The Pennsylvania Attorney General released the grand jury report looking at clerical sexual abuse across the commonwealth in six of the eight dioceses. The other two were previously investigated.

In the lead up to the release, I had heard it was going to be bad. Real bad. It is.

Just in Pennsylvania, 300 priests over 70 years.

And while the numbers alone are horrible, I read some of the accounts; some of the details not published in the papers. I struggle to find the words.

The level of sin and evil exhibited by these men is incredible. These crimes were against the weakest of us—our children. They were not the results of someone who was sick and struggling. They were not the results of someone having a moment of failure. 

They were the actions of sinister men deliberately and intentionally committing some of the most egregious offenses against nature and morality. They were calculated efforts to abuse children and to coerce submission through their role as our highest moral authorities, our representatives to us and to God of our faith. These were not men struggling with some part of themselves that they tried to use their faith to combat. There were men who used their faith as a tactical weapon against these poor children.

And worse, others around them supported them in doing it. Sure, there are sometimes bad apples in a bunch but for the other priests and bishops who knew about these things to let them go? To hide them? To move them?

For some time, there was talk about the various recovery programs that priests used to be sent to for these crimes. At the time, so the talking points go, there was an understanding that this could be “treated”. Call it denial or something, but I gave the benefit of the doubt to those accounts. Yes, we know better now, but back then, maybe that really did make sense.

After hearing about the scope, reading the accounts, and attempting to internalize and grapple with what the authorities of my faith did, no. That line of argument does not past muster. There is no way that anyone hearing these accounts could think that all someone needed to do was go to treatment to “cure” them. Either these other priests and bishops stuck their heads in the sand and refused to hear what actually happened or they are far more disgusting than we as the American Church have ever been prepared to admit.

I want to be able to propose ways to stop this from ever happening again. Not the sexual abuse—though that should absolutely stop—but this institutional culture. Even after the Dallas Charter and all that we, as a church, have realized since 2002, how are there still more new accounts coming to light from decades ago that were known? Why are there redacted names of priests in the grand jury report of previously known events that weren’t made public. Even in those cases where it was deemed the accusations were not credible, is there enough transparency to vouch for that?

I wish I could write a polished post that would give some glimmer of hope. I can’t. Not right now. I can only remind myself that our faith is in Jesus Christ, not in the ministers of the Church. 

(Not So) Final Words on the Sex Abuse Scandal

When I was a student at UT, I had a meeting with then-Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin in his office at the Chancery. I met with him there a few times for a few different things and I couldn’t tell you which of those applied in this case. I can’t remember much from the conversation except one story that has stuck with me all of these years.

Bishop Aymond was telling of a conflict within a parish he was mediating. Two factions within the parish were causing hay to fly, not listening to one other, not respecting one another, etc. Finally, out of frustration, Bishop Aymond, as the story was told, said “It’s not about you! It’s not you either, it’s about Jesus Christ!”

That’s where I’m at with the latest round of sexual abuse issues in the Church.

I really don’t know what happened in any particular church, school, camp at any particular time nor do I know what did any bishop, the pontiff included, do or not do in response to any of these particulars. I don’t know if they were acting in good faith; I don’t know if any individual was trying to stage a cover-up.

All in all, to me and for me, it doesn’t matter.

I believe that the Holy Father is the Vicar of Christ on earth, but I remember that the Rock–Peter, the first Pope–publicly rejected being associated with Jesus. The Holy Father, by virtue of the position and the office, deserves our respect and, as Catholics, we should defer to him. He isn’t infallible (except, as crystallized by Vatican I, when he speaks ex cathedra, which virtually never occurs. Twice since 1800). He’s human. He sins.

That being said, I’m far from being convinced these latest reports are examples of a pope sinning. Simply can’t trust the New York Times anytime there’s an opportunity to bash the Church.

The men who abused their power, our trust by not only breaking their vow, but by abusing children deserve as much as both the Catholic and secular legal systems can throw at them. God is merciful, but that does not equal a free ride. Bishops erred, perhaps sinfully so, in how they, or let those under them, handle situations. I honestly believe that in the vast majority of bishops are truly trying to do the best they can and, in the past, they didn’t appreciate the seriousness of the issue. I don’t know if, when much of this abuse took place, anyone had a full appreciation of the serious nature of these acts.

Ergo, mistakes were made. But, the Church is trying to learn from them and doing a fine job of it at that.

I’m digressing from my original point. None of that matters. When it comes down to it, it’s not about the Pope or the Cardinals. It’s not about the media (or whether or not they trying to report on this matter in a responsible way in all organizations–Catholic, governmental, secular–or if they actually are simply attaching the Church). Honestly, it’s not about these priests of whom all Catholics are ashamed and it’s not about the victims, although all of our prayers should be with them.

It’s about Jesus Christ.

As the sun prepares to rise on this Holy Thursday, Jesus Christ is all that matters. From the first days of the Church, he chose men who were weak, sinned, would fail, would be tempted and used their gifts to spread the Gospel message to all of us who now teach and profess the Catholic faith.

Jesus Christ is the head of the Church and Christ alone can the Church have hope in tomorrow. Jesus Christ is the truth and through Christ alone can the truth can be not only known, but understood.

Jesus Christ is the only hope for these men who did the unspeakable to those Jesus himself commanded us to protect the most.

Jesus Christ is the only one who can truly bring healing to the victims. The Church, as the Body of Christ, must bring Jesus to these victims, but in a truly humble, contrite way. We, as the people, need to get our own egos out of the way so Jesus can work through us.

The Holy Father and the Church have their roles in bringing me closer to Christ. The richness of our faith. Guiding me when I stray. Ensuring that my work reflects my faith. But at the end of the day, it’s not about the Church. It’s about Jesus Christ.

My faith is not shaken by these reports, whether they are 10% or 100% based on fact. Why? My faith isn’t defined or built on a foundation of Pope Benedict XVI or Bishop Vasquez or Father Bill. My faith is in the Way, Truth and the Light–Jesus Christ. Christ is infallible–always and in all things and at all times. The Church could be as corrupt as it was during the worst of times, but it truly doesn’t change the faith.

My final thoughts on the sex abuse scandal is that all of this is sickening, disgusting and horrible. Law enforcement should do whatever they can. Church officials should do whatever they can. However, for me, for my personal spiritual journey, it doesn’t matter. “The path to heaven is heaven because Jesus said ‘I am the way'”. I’m seeking heaven. I’m seeking Christ. That’s my focus. That’s my aim. Everything else takes a back seat.

Update: It is now August 2018. A lot more words are needed.