Archbishop – can you share with readers your impressions of the Diocese given your nearly 10 months as Apostolic Administrator?
I have been so inspired by the abundant evidence of faith across the State of West Virginia. Everywhere I go I encounter people of all ages and background who are committed to their Church and are living true Christian faithfulness amidst their families, workplaces, and in their communities. As well, the parishes, schools and charitable institutions of the Diocese are providing much needed support to meet the needs of West Virginians of all faiths. It is a wonderful testament to the faith of the people and the selfless example of the priests, deacons and religious of the Diocese. I’ve also been so very touched by the kindness of so many – the words of support and assurance of prayers. Whenever the time comes for me to turn-over the responsibility of the Diocese to the next bishop, you can be sure that there will always be a special place in my heart for the good people of Wheeling-Charleston.
The nation’s Catholic bishops have just concluded an important meeting in Baltimore – what were the key results?
Most importantly, we bishops approved new requirements of accountability for ourselves and all future American bishops. We also approved a protocol giving bishops the authority to enact restrictions on retired bishops accused of sexual abuse or who failed to take necessary measures to prevent abuse. We upheld zero-tolerance for abuse, which has been the standard since 2002, and passed measures that bind bishops to all the same codes of conduct that apply to clergy within their dioceses. We also agreed to set up an independent, third-party system that people can use to report allegations against bishops – whether sexual in nature, financial or other impropriety. I should point out that the policies and procedures that will now be adapted nationally have already been in place in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and are in the process of being implemented here in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
These have been very challenging times for the Church in West Virginia in particular – what do you say to those who might question how things have gotten to this point?
I made it very clear that there is no excuse, nor adequate explanation, that can satisfy the very justified questions that so many have about the former bishop and his actions, as revealed by the preliminary investigative report and now reported by the news media. Given that the report has now been submitted to the Holy See, which has not yet rendered final judgment and action against Bishop Bransfield, I am not in a position to discuss in detail the findings. That said, it is clear that many of the essential protocols and policies governing the expenditure of Diocesan funds were set aside. I continue to work with the members of the lay Diocesan Finance Council to assess what went wrong and to put in place rigorous controls to ensure that these failings do not happen again. The very troubling accounts of sexual harassment of adult priests and seminarians is totally unacceptable and a violation of the moral law and obligations of a priest and bishop. We are with those individuals to provide the support and resources they need to achieve healing. We are fully committed to bringing about the reform that these tragic events have revealed as necessary. It will inevitably require all of us to bring about the renewal that is so needed by living conspicuously the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in true service to others and most especially, to those in greatest need. We cannot allow these failings to slow our efforts or obscure the light of God’s great love among us.
As you recently communicated to the diocese, the investigation you were responsible for overseeing revealed compelling evidence of sexual harassment and financial impropriety by the former bishop – what can we expect in terms of action?
The Holy See now has the report from the preliminary investigation that was carried out by five lay professionals over a 5-month period. The findings are clear and deeply troubling and confirm the credibility of the allegations that were brought forward to me last year. It will now be up to the Holy Father, Pope Francis, to make a final determination and render full judgment on the former bishop, the timing of which is uncertain. In the meantime, I made the decision – given the credibility of the allegations – to suspend the former bishop’s priestly and episcopal faculties both in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, and in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. I have further taken steps to address personnel and policy concerns that came to light as a result of the investigation. My intention is to prepare a full report for the new bishop, who will have the canonical authority to take further, binding action for the good of the local Church.
You were criticized for redacting the names of several bishops and cardinals who received gifts from the former bishop – including yourself – can you review why that was done?
Let me be clear, this was a decision that I would make very differently today. It was a mistake not to disclose the names of certain members of the hierarchy – bishops and cardinals, as well as priests – including my own, if only for the perception that was created by omitting them. That said, the decision at the time was guided by the fact that the initial draft of the report did not include all recipients of gifts by the former bishop, but a partial list of names. It was a concern, shared by the investigators, that including just these names could lead some to conclude that the checks from the bishop were improper or that there was an expectation that the gifts would yield favors or something in return. The investigators found no evidence of this. And, in some cases, the checks were not gifts at all, but were stipends for legitimate reasons such as speaking engagements, or travel to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston for special Masses or events. The investigators did not look into the recipients or the reasons for the checks they received from the bishop, so it was agreed that including only their names would not be prudent. But again – it is clear that the decision to redact names was a mistake and I regret the perception created by that decision.
In accepting gifts from the former bishop – were you aware that they were actually from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston?
I received $7,500.00 over a number of years from the former bishop. The additional amount referred to in media reports relates to stipends and travel costs for speaking engagements and special events that I was asked to attend in the Diocese. The largest portion of the $7,500 was given on the occasion of my installation as Archbishop to help defray some of the costs associated with that occasion. I also received five annual gifts of $500 at Christmastime. Since learning that these gifts were from diocesan funds, I have returned the full amount to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston with the request that the funds be donated to Catholic Charities. It is my understanding that others have done similarly.
How did the news media obtain the investigation report that you were not allowed to release, and will you now publish it?
It is not fully clear how the news media obtained information from the preliminary investigation. As I was charged with overseeing the investigation for the Holy See, it has never been my report to release. Following its completion, I requested permission from the Holy See to provide key findings, recognizing the desire of many to understand in greater detail the scope of the investigation and its main conclusions. When I received permission to do so, I shared those details with the priests, deacons, religious and the Faithful of the Diocese. https://dwc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Letter-to-the-Faithful-6-5-19.pdf
The credibility of both priests and bishops has been seriously compromised as a result of the sex-abuse crisis which has been at the forefront now for a number of years – how can it be restored?
This is a central question that weighs on my heart and mind. The reforms of 2002 are working, as evidenced by the extremely low number of new allegations of sexual abuse of children and we must continue these efforts to ensure that there is no place within the Catholic Church for any person who would harm a child. However, as the Theodore McCarrick and Bishop Bransfield cases have shown, greater accountability and transparency are needed surrounding the discipline of bishops. We bishops must be held to the same rigorous standards that we require of priests, deacons, lay employees and volunteers. As shepherds charged with the awesome responsibility to care for souls, guide our priests and steward the resources of the Church, bishops must be beyond reproach and serve with Christ-like humility, care, concern, and compassion for all. But it is in what we do each and every day, and how we bear witness to Jesus who is the One true Shepherd, that will enable us to rebuild and maintain trust and credibility.
Can you give us a status update on the investigation of Bishop Bransfield by the Holy See and the timing of the appointment of a new bishop?
I have received no word from the Holy See regarding the status of the investigation of Bishop Bransfield since I submitted the results of the preliminary investigation. It is my prayer that the next bishop will be a person of true holiness and unquestionable integrity, and also a person who demonstrates a deep commitment to the Christian service that has been so evident to me in my travels around the Diocese. The local Church needs a pastor who is eager to get to know the great people across this state and work each and every day to bring about the healing and renewal that is so needed.
Can you say anything about your decision to reassign the three Vicars of the Diocese?
I was sent to oversee an investigation on behalf of the Holy See which is proving very instructive about the reforms needed to restore trust and credibility. Ultimately, the new bishop will be responsible for the future direction of the Diocese. The recently announced personnel actions represent what I felt were in the best interests of the Diocese and those involved. I have continued to work closely with the lay leadership of the Diocese, including members of the Finance Council, to address failures exposed by the report and reserve the right to take further actions within the scope of my authority—personnel or otherwise— as I deem necessary for the good of the Diocese.
What would you say to someone who is questioning their Catholic faith or who is considering becoming Catholic in the midst of this turmoil?
I would remind that person that it is God Himself who calls and invites us to be members of His Church, the Body of Christ. I would point that person to the many acts of faith that are carried out daily by the Faithful which represent the fullness of our faith and which fulfill Christ’s command to feed the hungry, clothe and provide comfort to those in great need, give shelter to the homeless, care for the sick and suffering. And I might ask them to reflect on the passage from Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”