Wheeling, W.V., Jul 18, 2019 / 03:22 pm (CNA).- In the wake of reports of financial and sexual misconduct on the part of former Bishop Michael Bransfield, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia announced several new financial policies and procedures for increased transparency.
These new policies include the use of a new third-party auditing firm which will audit the diocese and publish the findings annually, the expansion and strengthening of the diocesan finance council, and the dissolution of the discretionary “Bishop’s Fund,” among other changes.
In a July 17 letter, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who serves as Apostolic Administrator of Wheeling-Charleston, announced the financial policy changes, which were decided at a meeting with the diocese’s finance council.
“From my visits and communications with people from throughout the Diocese I clearly understand that the Church has a long way to go to regain your confidence and trust,” he said.
The reports about Bransfield’s “excessive spending and extravagant lifestyle,” as well as sexual misconduct, Lori said, have caused “great pain and caused many to rightly ask: How could such behavior go unchecked for so long a time? Is there a process in place to check a bishop’s behavior when he takes advantage of his co-workers or when he misuses diocesan funds that should be dedicated to the Church’s mission?”
“These are questions that must be addressed not only in West Virginia but also in the wider Church,” Lori added.
Lori was named apostolic administrator of Wheeling-Charleston in September 2018 by Pope Francis, following a series of allegations made against Bransfield including sexual and financial misconduct.
According to reports made public by the Washington Post, Bransfield used diocesan money to fund an extravagant lifestyle, including luxurious personal travel, a multi-million dollar home renovation, large monthly amounts spent on alcohol and fresh flowers, and large financial “gifts” to other members of the clergy.
The gifts of money he conferred on fellow clergy in the years leading up to his retirement totaled $350,000, the Washington Post reported.
An investigation into Bransfield also found that while there was not conclusive evidence that he sexually abused minors, there was credible evidence of Bransfield’s sexual misconduct with adults.
Bransfield’s resignation was accepted by Pope Francis last September, eight days after he turned 75, the age at which diocesan bishops are required by canon law to submit a letter of resignation to the pope. Lori subsequently barred him from public ministry in both Wheeling-Charleston and Baltimore.
In his July 17 letter, Lori also announced that a third-party reporting system was being put in place in the diocese, “to make it easier to report abuse, harassment and malfeasance by bishops.”
Other policy changes include rebalancing the distribution of resources in the diocese so that greater resources will remain with parishes, restructuring the diocesan school board, enhancing the training of advisory bodies, reviewing the administration of Wheeling Hospital and Wheeling Jesuit University, and entering into a Contract of Sale for the former bishop’s home.
Lori added that a review of best financial practices for the diocese is still underway, and that additional details or updates will be announced “in a spirit of openness and with the goal of restoring your confidence and trust” as they are made.
“When a bishop is entrusted to care for a diocese, he is expected to be a wise and honest steward of its resources. He has responsibility to ensure that these resources are for the Church’s mission of faith, worship and service. The Church has also put into place structures to help ensure that funds are used well and wisely,” Lori said.
Several such checks and balances existed under Bransfield, though he managed to circumvent them. Lori said he hopes the new policies will strengthen the measures in place and prevent such financial abuse by bishops in the diocese in the future.
Lori added that although bishops, like priests, do not take a vow of poverty, “they are expected to lead a simple lifestyle and to manage their own finances.”
“Excessive financial expenditures and the personal use of diocesan funds by any bishop stands in contrast to those bishops who engage in responsible stewardship of the resources entrusted to them and who abide by the fiscal policies and controls in place to ensure a fiscally healthy Church,” he said.
Lori concluded his letter by calling for prayer for the appointment of a new bishop to the diocese, and urged Catholics to entrust the future of their diocese to God.
“In the darkest days of exile, Jeremiah told the Chosen People that God had plans for them, plans for ‘a future full of hope,’” Lori said. “As a diocesan church rooted in Christ’s saving love, how much more confident we should be as we look to the future? Together, as the People of God, let us walk together, undaunted.”
According to diocesan spokesman Tim Bishop, Lori’s letter was sent directly to approximately 40,000 Catholics in the diocese, and it was published on the diocesan website and through its social media channels as well.
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