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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (ChurchMilitant.com) - West Virginia Catholics have won a crucial victory in the struggle to purge their diocese of corruption.
On Wednesday, Abp. William Lori, apostolic administrator of Wheeling-Charleston, announced a raft of reforms aimed at strengthening oversight of diocesan finances. The move came just before a lay-led financial boycott of the diocese.
In a public letter, Lori pledged to hire an outside auditing firm to conduct an annual independent review of diocesan income and expenditures, and to publicly report its findings.
Mountain State faithful are applauding the archbishop's move. Charles DiSalvo, a member of newly founded reform movement Lay Catholic Voices for Change (LCVC), called it "an important first step in a long process of reform ... a basic structural change that will help bring about a healthier distribution of power between the hierarchy and West Virginia Catholics."
"Up to now, the diocese has kept the laity in the dark regarding its actual income and expenditures," DiSalvo added. "With this increased measure of information, West Virginia Catholics will be that much more empowered to see that the funds they entrust to the diocese are spent properly."
Lori's announcement comes in the wake of last month's Washington Post bombshell report revealing that in his 14 years as head of Wheeling-Charleston, Bp. Michael Bransfield misappropriated millions of parishioner dollars on personal luxuries and showered fellow clergy — including Lori — with hundreds of thousands in cash gifts.
West Virginia Catholics were stunned to learn, for example, that Bransfield, a protégé of serial homosexual predator Theodore McCarrick, spent $100 a day on flowers and $1,000 a month on alcohol. After a small fire damaged a single bathroom inside his chancery, he spent $4.6 million on a top-to-bottom renovation of his quarters — this, in one of the nation's most impoverished regions.
In September, Bransfield — whom Abp. Carlo Maria Viganò described last month as a "perfect example" of the "corrupt gay mafia" running the Church — resigned in disgrace amid allegations that as bishop he sexually abused seminarians and young priests in his charge. After a Vatican-ordered investigation, Lori suspended Bransfield from ministry in March pending a final decision from the Holy See.
Observers note that though Lori made no mention of it in his letter, his decision came just days before a donations boycott was set to begin — a lay-led embargo on contributions led by Lay Catholic Voices for Change.
In a July 9 letter to the archbishop, LCVC warned that in response to the archbishop's refusal to implement a series of recommended safeguards — including hiring an outside auditor — it intended to rally West Virginia Catholics to cut off contributions to diocesan coffers with its "Not a Dime for the Diocese" campaign.
"We set forth ... a variety of remedial actions you and the Diocese could take to repair the trust that has been breached," the group said, referencing a June letter to the archbishop outlining needed reforms.
As LCVC reminded Lori, he dismissed their pleas:
We wrote you in good faith. You chose to ignore our letter — in much the same way you and other church leaders ignored or discounted the laity, clergy, and religious who, over the years, cried out for help in ridding ourselves of Michael Bransfield and in much the same way you and other church leaders ignored or discounted the repeated press reports of Michael Bransfield's improper behavior. Now you ignore us — Catholics who faithfully support the church with our time, talent, and treasure. You apparently have so little respect for lay people, you chose not to issue even a pro forma response to our letter. You simply ignored us.
Our common focus is on the healing of our Diocese by restoring the faithfulness and trust between the laity and our shepherds, which has been harmed due to past moral and financial corruption. It is our common love for the church community that compels us to shake off any and all complicity with the sexual abuse and financial dishonesty that has corrupted our Diocese. We can no longer permit our donations to support a Diocese whose financial secrecy and dishonesty are the foundation for its underwriting acts of sexual abuse and immoral spending.
Met with silence from the chancery, LCVC informed Lori that unless Wheeling-Charleston hired "a new, independent, and trustworthy auditor to audit the Diocese's finances," the group and its hundreds of active supporters "will not donate money that would otherwise go to or through diocesan offices."
The group vowed to implement a statewide parishioner boycott of all collections and drives — local and national — including:
"We will remind people that the Diocese took our money and gave it to Michael Bransfield to give to his pals, to spend on liquor, jewelry, luxury travel, a personal chef, and opulent renovations," LCVC pledged. "We cannot presently trust a diocese that launders tax exempt money for non-tax exempt purposes to properly convey our donations to these good causes."
"Because of the financial dishonesty in which the diocese has engaged, we cannot presently trust the Diocese to send our donations on to the proper national recipients," LCVC added. "We will withhold donations that would otherwise go into the special national collections."
Just four days before the July 21 launch of the national Catholic Communications Campaign, Lori announced an independent auditor would be hired to analyze Wheeling-Charleston's finances.
In an email to the Washington Post, a diocesan representative said efforts to improve financial oversight were already underway when LCVC drew its line in the sand. According to DiSalvo, the details were decided in the past few days.
"It's a good day for transparency, accountability and honesty in the Wheeling-Charleston diocese," said DiSalvo. "At the same time, we realize this is just a very small step in a very long process. We intend to continue to advocate for reforms."
Many West Virginia Catholics are demanding deeper reforms, and questioning why Lori's report on Bransfield's corruption has not been released to the public.
"The work of exposing corruption — the report — is being kept hidden from people, still. We should be appreciative but not satisfied about the audit," Michael Iafrate, co-cordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, told the Washington Post this week.
"I think beyond the financial stuff, releasing the Bransfield report is essential for addressing the heart of the crisis, which is lack of transparency and accountability related to sexual abuse in the church," Iafrate added. "Sex abuse has to be at the center of what we're focusing on. We have to keep victims of sex abuse at the center."
Details of Bransfield's sexual harassment and abuse continue to emerge. Last month, the Washington Post revealed that for years, "a succession of younger male clerical assistants complained to church officials in West Virginia that Bransfield was sexually harassing them."
"Similar concerns were raised about Bransfield's conduct in Philadelphia, where he taught at a Catholic high school, and in the District of Columbia, where he was head of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from 1990 to 2005," the Post reported.
According to diocesan Vicar for Clergy Anthony Cincinnati, at least six of Bransfield's assistants "were broken by the experience." The men "appealed to leaders in the diocese, to no avail."
The effects of sexual and financial corruption are visible in practically every diocese in the country. On Wednesday, for example, CNA reported that in the wake of the clerical sex abuse and cover-up scandal, Pittsburgh — the former diocese of disgraced Cdl. Donald Wuerl — is facing a catastrophic financial shortfall.
Since the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report last August, Mass attendance has fallen by 9% and offertory donations have dropped by 11%.
The ongoing scandals are accentuating a trend that has exploded under Wuerl protégé Bp. David Zubik. In the past decade, the diocese has lost nearly one-third of its church-going Catholic population. Ten years ago, Pittsburgh was home to 187,000 weekly Mass attendees; today, that number has fallen to just 120,000.
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