The Vatican on Friday announced sanctions against retired West Virginia bishop Michael Bransfield, but stopped short of defrocking him, after investigating accusations of sexual harassment and financial misconduct.
The sanctions, ordered by Pope Francis and detailed in a letter posted to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s website, prohibit Bransfield from public ministry and from residing in his former West Virginia diocese. Bransfield also has “the obligation to make personal amends for some of the harm he caused,” the nature of which will be decided by the new bishop.
Bransfield stepped down in September when an aide came forward with an inside account detailing years of alleged sexual and financial misconduct, including a claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders. News of the allegations rocked parishioners in Wheeling-Charleston diocese, which Bransfield has led since 2005, and left over Catholics in the state feeling betrayed.
The Friday statement, under the letterhead of the Apostolic Nunciature United States of America, said the sanctions were determined based on the findings of the investigation of “allegations of sexual harassment of adults and of financial improprieties by Bishop Bransfield.”
The Washington Post previously reported that senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican had received warnings about Bransfield as early as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.
Church records showed Bransfield spent more than $2.4 million in church money on travel, including chartered jets and luxury hotels. Documents also revealed Bransfield spent $182,000 in daily fresh flower deliveries and doled out $350,000 in cash gifts to powerful cardinals, in addition to young priests who had accused him of sexual harassment.
The Post found that Bransfield wrote checks from his personal account and was reimbursed by the West Virginia diocese, which boosted his compensation in accordance with the value of the gifts. Bransfield has defended his spending as bishop, previously telling The Post it was justified and approved by financial managers at the diocese.
In 2012, news accounts reported that Bransfield was mentioned by a witness in a Philadelphia sexual abuse trial involving a local priest. The witness testified that the priest on trial once told him that Bransfield had sex with a teenage boy. Bransfield issued a statement denying the claim. That same year, Bransfield was the subject of news reports when authorities in Philadelphia reopened an investigation of a separate allegation that he had fondled a teenage boy decades earlier while working as a teacher at a Catholic high school. Bransfield denied ever sexually abusing anyone. No charges were brought.
Bransfield told The Post that a Philadelphia archdiocese investigation into the allegations cleared him of wrongdoing.
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The Washington Post’s Robert O’Harrow Jr., Shawn Boburg and Michelle Boorstein and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.