The U.S. bishops arrive in Baltimore next week for their second plenary meeting in the year of serious crisis that began last June.
They will meet, again, under the specter of another demoralizing scandal. This one, again, involves a well-connected bishop, a ledger of extravagant gifts, and allegations of abuse from priests and seminarians subject to the bishop’s authority.
The Washington Post reported June 5 that a months-long ecclesiastical investigation of Bishop Michael Bransfield, formerly of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, uncovered evidence that the bishop had a reputation for being sexually inappropriate with seminarians and young priests, that he may have had a substance-abuse problem, and that he used diocesan funds generated from its Texas oil fields to support a lifestyle of luxury, and to give $350,000 in cash gifts to Vatican officials, fellow bishops, and other clerics.
More troubling, the Post’s report suggests that when seminarians and young priests raised concerns about Bransfield’s behavior, they were met with indifference, from authorities unwilling to intervene.
Some Catholics have already noted that Bransfield’s gift-giving habit likely demonstrates how Theodore McCarrick’s ecclesial career prospered during his decades of sexual abuse.
Like Bransfield, the former cardinal is reputed to have given large cash gifts to brother bishops and to Vatican officials, which might have contributed to his apparent ability to escape the consequences of his actions, and to navigate curial back channels with ease.
In light of the Bransfield report, Catholics are now asking whether there is any evidence that an apparent culture of clubby loyalties cultivated through “personal gifts” has actually come to an end.
Some observers have asked whether bishops can ever really be expected to hold one another to accountability, if five-figure checks are exchanged between some of them with a certain degree of regularity.
It might be difficult, some Catholics note, to tell someone to change his ways after he has given you $29,000 to renovate your apartment.
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