In West Virginia, another bewildering Vatican appointment

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 23, 2019

Every day, it seems, I resolve not to write another column about corruption in the Catholic hierarchy. And then another story crosses my desk that makes my shake my head… and tackle the same tired old topic again.

Take today’s news, that the Vatican has named Bishop Mark Brennan to head the embattled Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. I know very little about Bishop Brennan. I wish him well, and hope he will be an excellent reforming bishop; that diocese surely needs one. But his appointment is further evidence—as if further evidence were needed—that the Vatican still doesn’t “get it.”

The previous Bishop of Wheeling, Michael Bransfield, was allowed to step down gracefully last September, having reached the normative retirement age, although he was charged with both sexual and financial misconduct. After a Vatican-authorized investigation, he was found guilty and disciplined.

The sexual misconduct with which Bransfield was charged—harassment of adult males—is an appalling but sadly familiar story. The really new news about his misconduct was the revelation that he had spent diocesan money at a prodigious rate on himself, and lavished cash gifts on other powerful prelates.

Archbishop Willian Lori of Baltimore led the investigation into Bransfield’s misdeeds, and might have emerged as a hero in the case, except that he tried to conceal the list of prelates who were recipients of Bransfield’s largesse, and his own name turned up on that list. Instead of resolving questions about the West Virginia diocese, the Lori investigation raised troubling new questions about the “envelope culture” in which bishops make gifts to their colleagues and superiors out of diocesan coffers.

Bishop Bransfield was a protégé of the disgraced Theodore McCarrick. Before his assignment to Wheeling, he had served in Washington, DC, under McCarrick, as rector of the National Shrine. He succeeded McCarrick as president of the Papal Foundation: an organization that is also the focus of sharp questioning about cozy relationships and financial improprieties. At the Papal Foundation—and previously at the National Shrine—he also worked with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who succeeded McCarrick as Archbishop of Washington. Cardinal Wuerl, too, has subsequently resigned under a cloud.

So to recap:

  • American Catholics were angered by revelations of financial misconduct in the Wheeling diocese.
  • The culprit (Bransfield) had a history of cronyism, and had given large cash gifts to Lori, McCarrick, and Wuerl—thereby creating the impression (accurate or not) that they were all involved in the same network of cronies.

Under the circumstances, it would have made sense to appoint a new bishop of Wheeling who had absolutely no ties to any of the figures involved in the situation of that troubled dioceses. Bring in a priest of unquestioned integrity, from some distant part of the country. Pull a monk out of his cloister somewhere. Find a new broom to sweep clean.

Instead the Vatican chose Bishop Brennan, who is closely connected with all of the players named above. He is reportedly a favorite of Cardinal Wuerl; in Baltimore he has been a deputy of Archbishop Lori. Earlier he served as a priest in Washington, under McCarrick and alongside Bransfield. He knows them all well. Maybe he can be impartial; I hope so. But at this point he can’t possibly look impartial.

And that’s the trouble with this appointment. When an institution has lost public trust because of manifest corruption, the task of restoring that trust involves two steps: First, addressing and eliminating the corruption. Second, persuading the skeptics that the corruption is being addressed and will be eliminated. Bishop Brennan may be the right man to take the first step. He cannot be—through no fault of his own—right for the second.

The Vatican still doesn’t understand why loyal Catholic Americans are so upset about the abundant evidence of corruption and cronyism in the hierarchy. For that matter few American bishops understand. The solutions are being offered by the same people who created the problems; the would-be reformers are selected by the very people who should be reformed. The “envelope culture” remains intact and apparently unquestioned.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Anselm - Jul. 31, 2019 9:18 AM ET USA

    As a Priest from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, currently serving as a military Chaplain, I have this to say: Bishop Brennan is a pastor first. Humble. Genuinely cares. And does not play into being a favorite of anyone. Humble is how I describe him. He is the right person to heal Wheeling-Charleston Diocese. I support and defend the opinions of those in this country, I take great offense of saying, “I know little and I wish him well” and then accusing him of being a favorite. Not professional.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Jul. 23, 2019 10:15 PM ET USA

    If Archbishop Lori recommended him then this just proves that they are all in it together. How can Brennan take any strong action (like releasing the report) with Lori looking over his shoulder as his Metropolitan. The Vatican doesn't get it and neither do US Bishops like Lori.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jul. 23, 2019 6:30 PM ET USA

    Come on.... the same thing continues “Clericalism” or in non-church language cronyism. At least that’s the continued appearance. We need to pray yes; and real action needs to be taken and communicated when it is taken. Not about a “gossip” mentality; about a transparent and honest community starting at the top. You want to bring people back to the church - fix this!

  • Posted by: SPM - Jul. 23, 2019 4:09 PM ET USA

    The key to understanding the appointment is one number: 72 1/2. That is Bishop Brennan's age. So he essentially has less than 3 years to serve as Bishop. I view this as a de facto extension of Baltimore's "administratorship" with an individual who can actually act under canon law; and who can be the "bad guy" if needed, e.g, perhaps closing Wheeling University before the appointment of a "long term" Bishop. Guess: needed someone fast, but wanted to know more before a long term appointment.