Archbishop William Lori

Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

It’s time for another trip into my GetReligion folder of guilt. That’s where news features go that I know are important, but I cannot — quickly — spot the issue that is nagging me.

Thus, the story gets filed away, while I keep thinking about it.

In this case, we are talking about a Washington Post story that is an important follow-up on the newspaper’s investigation into charges of corruption against Catholic Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of West Virginia — an important disciple of the fallen cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. Click here for the first GetReligion post on this topic, by Bobby Ross, Jr.

The headline on this new expose states: “Warnings about West Virginia bishop went unheeded as he doled out cash gifts to Catholic leaders.” Yes, this story is about money, money, money and then more money.

Oh, there is some signs of sexual harassment of seminarians in there, but that doesn’t seem to interest the Post team. And there are hints that some of the conflicts surrounding Bransfield may have had something to do with Catholicism. Maybe. Hold that thought because we will come back to it. Here is the overture:

Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield as far back 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.

“I beg of you to please look into this situation,” Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote in 2013 to the pope’s ambassador to the United States.

But Bransfield’s conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.

“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Then there is the big thesis statement:

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Bombshell Washington Post report details alleged lavish spending by former Catholic bishop of W.Va.

Bombshell Washington Post report details alleged lavish spending by former Catholic bishop of W.Va.

“Bishop spent millions on self.”

That’s the crisp, concise way that the front page of today’s Washington Post boils down the newspaper’s bombshell report on the former Catholic bishop of West Virginia.

As The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher put it in a blog post titled “Bishop Bransfield’s Lush Live,” the Post “has the goods” on the bishop, who resigned last fall.

Yes, indeed.

Here’s a big chunk of the top of the story by religion writer Michelle Boorstein and two investigative reporting colleagues, Shawn Boburg and Robert O’Harrow Jr.:

In the years before he was ousted for alleged sexual harassment and financial abuses, the leader of the Catholic Church in West Virginia gave cash gifts totaling $350,000 to fellow clergymen, including young priests he is accused of mistreating and more than a dozen cardinals in the United States and at the Vatican, according to church records obtained by The Washington Post.

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield wrote the checks from his personal account over more than a decade, and the West Virginia diocese reimbursed him by boosting his compensation to cover the value of the gifts, the records show. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the diocese must use its money only for charitable purposes.

The gifts — one as large as $15,000 — were detailed in a draft of a confidential report to the Vatican about the alleged misconduct that led to Bransfield’s resignation in September. The names of 11 powerful clerics who received checks were edited out of the final report at the request of the archbishop overseeing the investigation, William Lori of Baltimore.

Lori’s name was among those cut. He received a total of $10,500, records show.

The Post obtained both versions of the report, along with emails and financial records.

On Wednesday, in response to inquiries from The Post, Lori said he is returning money he received from Bransfield and is asking that it be donated to Catholic Charities “in light of what I have come to learn of Bishop Bransfield’s handling of diocesan finances.”

Lori acknowledged that the names of senior clerics were cut from the final report. “Including them could inadvertently and/or unfairly suggest that in receiving gifts for anniversaries or holidays there were expectations for reciprocity,” he wrote. “No evidence was found to suggest this.”

The full story is a whole lot to digest. I’m still attempting to do so. Let’s just say that the Post did its homework on this one. The result is strong, strong journalism.

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Question for reporters, politicos and citizens: Is it dangerous to talk about religion?

Question for reporters, politicos and citizens: Is it dangerous to talk about religion?

Several years ago, I took what I thought was a liberal course of action on a day when Facebook users were signaling, or shouting, their political and cultural views at one another. I changed the banner photo on my page to a red, white and blue semi-flag image that contained the text of the First Amendment.

Trigger warning: Here is that text again.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

At that point something interesting happened. I received several emails and messages, including several from former students, accusing me of hate speech for waving, so to speak, the First Amendment flag. It was clear, they said, that I did this to promote religious liberty.

What they were saying was perfectly captured the other day in a "Peaceful Coexistence" document released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. This document played a key role in my "On Religion" column this week, as well as the latest GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

The bottom line: The commission argued that "civil rights" now trump the First Amendment. As I noted in my column:

The commission stressed: "Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights."
In a quote that went viral online, commission chair Martin Castro added: "The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia or any form of intolerance."

Castro added:

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Baltimore Sun editors handed major Easter story: They choose to ignore it

Baltimore Sun editors handed major Easter story: They choose to ignore it

Anyone who has covered religion news knows that one of the greatest challenges on this beat is finding valid, A1-level stories season after season, year after year, for all of those major religious holidays. It is hard, in particular, to find a news hook several days before the holiday -- with A1 art, no less -- that can be produced to run on the morning of the big day.

Christmas is hard, but -- let's face it -- Americans do Christmas stuff early and often. Some churches have even surrendered on that front.

So, on the Christian side of things, Easter is the big challenge since the solemn mood and content of Holy Week, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are so radically different. The whole point is that the universe turns upside down at midnight, which is a little bit late to be shooting color art and writing a story for A1 on Easter.

This year, the editors at The Baltimore Sun (the newspaper that lands in my front yard, for two more months) were handed something extraordinary, precisely on schedule for Easter. The most high-profile religious leader in their circulation zone -- that would be Archbishop William E. Lori, leader of the historic Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore -- was a key player in a new development in one of the hottest stories in America at this moment in time.

The story: The holy war in Indiana and nationwide about religious liberty and First Amendment rights. Was this linked to Holy Week and Easter? In the eyes of the archbishop the answer was a loud and serious "yes."

So how did the Sun team handle this? Did they put this story on the front page on Easter?

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Baltimore Sun covers prayer rite for Iraq, without noticing absence of Eastern churches?

Baltimore Sun covers prayer rite for Iraq, without noticing absence of Eastern churches?

If you have been looking at the big picture in Iraq and Syria, you know that one of the key elements of the Islamic State's rise to power has been its horrific persecution -- slaughter, even -- of the religious minorities caught in its path, as well as Muslims who disagree with the ISIS view of the faith and the need for a new caliphate. 

All of that is horrible and needs continuing coverage. However, the crushing of the ancient churches located in the Nineveh Plain region is a truly historic development, a fact that has begun to bleed into the mainstream-news coverage.

Many religious leaders are concerned and are crying out (click here for New York Times op-ed by major Jewish leader) for someone to do something to help the churches of the East, who have worshipped at now-crushed altars in their homelands since the earliest days of the Christian faith.

Needless to say, I was not surprised to pick up The Baltimore Sun and see a front-page feature on a major interfaith prayer service addressing this crisis. Alas, I was also not surprised to see a huge, glaring hole in this report.

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All together now: Archbishop Lori leads WHAT committee?

It’s that time, again. The U.S. Catholic bishops are back in Baltimore and the agenda includes the election of a new president to replace the remarkably charismatic (especially in his crucial mass-media duties) Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

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Wait, Baltimore's archbishop is a national voice on WHAT?

As one would imagine, the editorial team that produces the newspaper that lands in my front yard in the liberal environs of greater Baltimore was celebrating a great victory yesterday.

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