Trust in church leadership damaged

Most of the nearly 75,000 West Virginians who are members of the Roman Catholic faith have unshakable reverence for the church itself, by all appearances. But trust in the church’s leaders is another thing entirely. It has been damaged greatly during the past several years.

It is that fact that should guide Archbishop William E. Lori. Though he normally presides over Baltimore-area church affairs, he was named last year to administer the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. That decision was made by the church’s highest earthly authority, Pope Francis.

Lori was placed in charge of the diocese after its former bishop, Michael J. Bransfield, was, in effect, sacked by church officials. An investigation into his personal behavior and his administration was launched.

Last week, the diocese released a letter from Lori on the subject. It explained investigators had determined allegations Bransfield sexually harassed some adults were credible.

And, the letter continued, massive financial improprieties by Bransfield were uncovered. In essence, the former bishop was living a life of luxury — financed by church funds.

Directly or indirectly, then, gifts given to the church by the faithful were helping to finance Bransfield’s $1,000-a-month tastes in liquor, his lavish ($4.6 million) renovation of his residence in Wheeling and his desire to travel ($2.4 million).

But those details were missing from Lori’s letter. So was nearly all the information investigators unearthed about 565 gifts of money, totaling $350,000, Bransfield made to other people. Many were church officials. Some were lower-ranking clergy the former bishop allegedly harassed sexually.

Those details were provided in a Washington Post story based on a copy of the 60-page report on the Bransfield investigation. Someone, perhaps a church official, leaked the document to the Post. Interestingly, Lori’s letter was dated the same day the Post published its story.

In his missive, the archbishop stated that “in the spirit of transparency,” he had decided “more must be said about the report’s findings…”

Precisely. But church officials have refused to make the entire report, or even a version in which the names of Bransfield’s alleged victims are redacted, public.

That will not do. In effect, such a stance asks that West Virginia’s Catholics — and their many neighbors of other faiths who share their concerns — trust the church hierarchy. Again. But trust must be earned. If the human beings who administer Roman Catholic affairs on Earth want it, they should make the Bransfield report public. Then, they should follow up with another investigation — of how the former bishop managed to get away with his alleged misdeeds.


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