Bishop Bransfield’s ‘Gifts’ to Vatican Officials: Were They Ethical?
The donations don’t appear to involve an effort to purchase favors from the recipients, so they likely were permissible under Holy See standards.
VATICAN CITY — As more reports emerge of donations and gifts received by several high-ranking Vatican officials from retired West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, how licit were these gifts and what are the Vatican’s regulations on receiving donations?
Last month, The Washington Post reported that several Vatican cardinals and bishops received checks from Bishop Bransfield, former bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, who distributed $350,000 in total to 11 high-ranking Church leaders. Bishop Bransfield is currently under investigation for sexual harassment of adults and financial misconduct.
None of the checks are reported to have had conditions or favors attached, and the Vatican officials have not been accused of acting illicitly. But several of those in receipt of such donations have now pledged to return the money after Bishop Bransfield was accused of serially sexually harassing or coercing seminarians and young priests and misusing diocesan funds on a lavish lifestyle that included $2.4 million spent on travel and $4.6 million on renovations of his residence.
The Post said it was not clear — from documents it had obtained — why Bishop Bransfield gave the gifts. The funds apparently derived from a wealthy New York heiress who left a large tract of land in West Texas to the diocese in the late 1800s. Decades later, oil was discovered on the land, leading to diocesan income from mineral rights that would average nearly $15 million a year.
Among the recipients of Bishop Bransfield’s checks was Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, who received two checks totaling $29,000 to fund renovations of his apartment in Rome.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said they were among “voluntary donations” Cardinal Farrell had received from Bishop Bransfield and others, adding that the West Virginia bishop had “received nothing in exchange” for his gift. The cardinal, Gisotti added in a statement, “was not aware of the accusations against Bishop Bransfield for abuses and mismanagement of the financial funds of his diocese.”
The Post reported that, in 2006, Bishop Bransfield gave $4,800 to Cardinal Bernard Law, who by then was living in Rome after having been removed from Boston due to his role in covering up clergy sex abuse. Cardinal Edmund Szoka, the late former archbishop of Detroit and past president of the Governorate of Vatican City State, received $500 that same year.
Other recipients included Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura; Archbishop Peter Wells, then a senior administrator in the Secretariat of State; and Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former apostolic nuncio to Washington, D.C., from 2011 to 2016.
Cardinal Burke told the Register July 2 he received checks from Bishop Bransfield on the occasions when the bishop would bring priests to Rome.
“He would ask me to come to a meal in the evening and visit with the priests, talk to them about service in the Roman Curia, which I did,” Cardinal Burke said. “Then he would give me honorariums; as I recall, it was $500, which was generous, but I didn’t consider it a lavish thing.”
The cardinal, who was then the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court, said the bishop “expressed to me on different occasions that it was challenging financially for a bishop to live in Rome, so it was some help he gave.”
He added that Bishop Bransfield and a “few bishops from the U.S.” would also send him “a little gift at Christmas, once again in recognition of some of the [financial] challenges a U.S. bishop might have living in Rome.”
But he added, “In no case, and certainly not in the case of Bishop Bransfield, did any of these bishops ask me for anything,” and neither was it given in connection with a case he might have been working on in the Apostolic Signatura. Bishop Bransfield, he said, “never made any request of me beyond that of speaking to his priests while they were in Rome. “
Cardinal Burke said the amount he is reported to have received ($9,700 in 15 checks from 2008 to 2017) “seems a little bit more than I can recall,” but he added that all of it went to “my own charities,” such as the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe that he founded in La Crosse, Wisconsin, or other charitable causes which ask for his help.
He said he did not “keep a detailed record” of the checks “because there wasn’t anything unusual about them.” The cardinal said Bishop Bransfield, whom he “never had the occasion to get to know well,” always gave gifts “in a very proper way.”
Archbishop Peter Wells accepted $6,500 from Bishop Bransfield in 13 checks from 2009 to 2015, according to records reported by The Post. Gisotti said then-Msgr. Wells “never knew, nor suspected, that the gifts in question” were “derived from diocesan funds” and had “absolutely no knowledge that Church patrimony was being harmed by receipt of these gifts.” Gisotti also said that, “importantly, Bishop Bransfield neither requested nor received favored treatment of any kind from Archbishop Wells.”
Archbishop Viganò, whose testimony last year on former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has shed light on significant levels of corruption in the Vatican, received $6,000 from Bishop Bransfield, as well as checks from other bishops during his tenure, but said he gave all of the money to charity.
“I had worked in many nunciatures around the world and had never seen anything like that,” he said in comments to the Register. “So I asked the staff at the nunciature, and it was explained to me that financial gifts among bishops were customary in the U.S., and not accepting them would be an affront to the donors.”
As he was told this had “been a praxis for many years in the U.S.,” he decided to “accept them and to use them for charity, and that is what I have done with all of them.” According to documentation seen by the Register, Archbishop Viganò instructed the $6,000 be sent to cover the expenses of two priests in Nigeria from March to June 2011.
In another article published July 3, the Post also reported that the former nuncio had accepted a “half-hour ride on a jet chartered by Bransfield” when he was delayed at an airport due to bad weather en route to celebrate Mass for a “Boy Scouts Jamboree” in the diocese in July 2013.
Archbishop Viganò told the newspaper that Bishop Bransfield offered the special flight, as it was the only way to reach the Mass. He also did not think it improper because he knew that Bishop Bransfield “enjoyed the trust of the USCCB as an experienced administrator”; and as he was a “president of the Papal Foundation, which is supported by prominent and generous laypeople, I presumed that a generous benefactor may had offered the bishop this opportunity.”
“I had no reason to suspect that the bishop was doing something incorrect,” Archbishop Viganò said.
On whether Archbishop Viganò was aware of Bishop Bransfield’s profligacy while nuncio, he told the Post he did not recall receiving a letter reportedly sent to him in 2013 from a parishioner disturbed by the bishop’s lavish spending. He said he would “certainly remember” the letter had he received it and “have acted upon” it, but added that the nunciature receives many letters, and it is “quite possible” that that one was deemed not serious enough to be brought to his attention. In any case, it would have been archived and so could be verified, he said.
Archbishop Vigano’s predecessor, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, also received checks from Bishop Bransfield, totaling $20,500, before his death in 2011, while the current nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, also received a donation, the Post reported.
But none of the officials in receipt of these gifts appears to have broken any rules, primarily because none of the donations appears to have been given in exchange for favors or as contractual payment for services rendered.
In the “Oath of Fidelity and Observance of Official Secrecy,” to which all Vatican employees are obliged to swear, every official must “promise not to request or accept any donations as payment, not even if presented in the form of a donation.”
“We make an oath not to receive any gift, but it’s understood these are gifts pertaining to your office, to what you’re doing,” Cardinal Burke explained. “So if someone had a case before the Signatura, and they gave me a check, I would never accept it.”
In relation to Bishop Bransfield, Cardinal Burke said the check could be a “thank-you for coming to the dinner and talking with the priests,” but it was “hardly a question of him contracting with me to do this.” It was more a way of “expressing appreciation” and “certainly wasn’t for anything that he asked of me,” he said.
Bishops working at the Vatican receive a salary set by the superiors of each congregation, and cardinals receive a monthly stipend, called the piatto cardinalizio. But complications have been known to arise when it comes to setting up living quarters and arranging help with cooking, laundry and cleaning.
For Europeans, and especially Italians, this is said to be less of a problem than for U.S. prelates because they often receive furniture and even domestic help through relatives. But for American prelates, often this requires buying furniture, other domestic goods and hiring help, unless a relative is ready to come to live in Rome.
Bishops and priests have to rent their apartments from the Vatican. This is discounted for Curial officials, but they must accept the responsibility for the utilities. They are also usually required to pay for some, but not all, of the costs of renovations themselves, even though they are renting the property.
Cardinal Burke told the Register that a priest or prelate working in the Roman Curia does not have “so many occasions to receive gifts from the faithful,” but when they do, usually they are made at Christmastime; often it is because the giver is aware of the costs of living in Rome. “That is always how I have understood those gifts,” Cardinal Burke said. “In fact, some priests or bishops express in the note accompanying their gifts gratitude for the sacrifice involved in serving in the Roman Curia.”
Cardinal Sodano’s Case
But not all officials have so faithfully adhered to the rules on accepting gifts. When the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, was trying to ingratiate himself with the Vatican by offering incentives to help grow his order, many senior officials, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, recognized the unethical nature of the gifts and refused to accept them.
But others, such as Cardinal Angelo Sodano, then Vatican secretary of state, did not and is on record as having accepted up to $15,000 as a gift from the Legion, but some sources believe he took more.
“Vatican officials aren’t supposed to receive personal financial gifts for themselves, but they can act as channels for their own charities,” a Vatican source told this correspondent in 2011. “So, if someone gives an official money and they give it to a charity, that’s okay; it doesn’t need to be reported.”
But the source added it was unclear to whom other gifts should be declared and whether Cardinal Sodano needed to report to anyone else. “I don’t think he was answerable to anyone,” he said, adding that there “should really be a clearer procedure to follow.”
Officials contacted by the Register in June were aware of the rules and that bribery was forbidden. One said there is no requirement to register gifts, however, as it was a “question of prudence.” He also believed if senior officials had to register all the gifts they received, “they might do it all under the table and not register.”
Another said it was left to “common sense” and that if someone wished to give an official a bag of cashews, “that’s, of course, fine,” but for “bigger gifts, obviously bribes and wanting some favor in return, those are certainly not allowed.”
Archbishop Viganò told the Register he could not “recall any official directives given on this matter,” as it was, “of course, a matter of conscience for the person receiving a gift to evaluate if that would be acceptable as a sign of simple devotion on a particular occasion or a temptation to corruption.”
Cardinal Burke said he had heard of the allegations against Cardinal Sodano and “some other cases,” such as when “people wanted particular positions and so forth,” but “my impression is that people stick to the rule.”
He said, “You simply have to distinguish between gifts given in appreciation for service to the Holy See and what I would call a bribe or an attempt to influence with a gift.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.