Editor’s note: Today’s post — part of an ongoing Weelunk series on Spirituality in the Ohio Valley — features a candid interview with Bishop Mark E. Brennan, newly installed leader of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. Brennan shares his hopes — and plan — for moving past nearly a year of ever-unfolding scandal connected to former Bishop Michael Bransfield
Just across the courtyard from Bishop Mark E. Brennan’s new office at the Wheeling-Charleston diocese, the Cathedral of St. Joseph rises in stark relief against the late summer sky.
Its dome is topped with both a cross and a lightning rod, an ironic juxtaposition that could easily serve as the symbol for this most challenging of clerical postings.
“The only way to overcome evil is with good,” Brennan said in a frank assessment of his new role.
Indeed, serving as chief reconciler to a diocese that has been reeling with scandals associated with former Bishop Michael Bransfield for nearly a year, is near the top of his job description.
Beginning mere minutes after his late August installation as bishop, the long-time parish priest seemed to be instantly engaging ill will that has built in the community.
He left the sanctuary and crossed the street — crossed the street — and linked the more than two square blocks of Catholic presence in the downtown with a handful of apartment residents who were simply outside enjoying a fine summer day.
Then began the rounds.
With Brennan’s Ford Taurus out of commission due to a failed water pump, he hopped into diocesan spokesman Tim Bishop’s pick-up. Snacking on Cheez-Its along the way, the duo spent the remaining days of the month visiting pretty much every Wheeling-based entity connected with the Catholic Church.
Parochial schools, nursing homes, senior apartments, Wheeling University, Wheeling Hospital.
“We’ve been everywhere,” Bishop said with a satisfied smile. “He’s getting out and about — doing what he said he was going to do.”
Which means Brennan had already gotten an earful by the time of his late Friday interview with Weelunk.
“I’ve been talking with people who have experienced this,” Brennan said of the ever-emerging scandals. “They felt let down. They felt anger. Some people are bitter, the whole range of emotions. … How do I deal with that?”
Right now, he said his plan is both simple and personal — to live with decency, to use resources properly and to treat others with respect.
“I hope that, over time, people will respond to that and put it (the scandals) in the past, where it happened … and not let it mess up the future,” Brennan said.
FILLING A ROLE
Brennan’s personality may very well help such an aim along.
At 72, the man is full of humor and the “aw, shucks” charm of Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks. He prefers “Bishop Mark” to anything fancier. He’s planning to live in church housing. He carries a senior discount pass for national park entry in his wallet.
“I’m happy to be in Wheeling … I don’t consider it a burden,” he said, acknowledging that the appointment was as much a surprise as getting the call to move from a parish priest position in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to an auxiliary-bishop role in Baltimore just three years ago.
“Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place,” Brennan joked of the two late-career appointments. “But, maybe, in the Catholic Church, it can.”
Taking a brief break between his Wheeling rounds and a two-week tour of other state parishes, Brennan seemed comfortable interacting with media. At one point in his interview with Weelunk, he realized his next appointment was with Public Radio.
He swiveled in his chair to check his schedule with Bishop.
“Is it Nina Totenberg?” he asked in a disarming mix of surprise and awe. Brennan, it turns out, is a fan of All Things Considered, a National Public Radio news show hosted by the renowned legal-affairs correspondent.
It was not Totenberg. But, such a thing is within the range of possibility — a situation with which he is fully aware.
The Bransfield scandal includes accusations and/or civil lawsuits involving alleged sexual misconduct, illegal business practices, the concealing of sexual misconduct information from “consumers” and lavish living at church expense.
Its timing — unfolding on the heels of allegations of widespread sex abuse by priests and systematic church cover-ups in Pennsylvania — has kept the West Virginia diocese in the national news for nearly a year.
Such attention duly noted, Brennan said his main focus is on working for, “the good of our people and the glory of God.”
MAKING IT RIGHT
Beyond what his own faith walk can do, he said that work will begin with a closer look into Bransfield’s financial dealings while bishop. That, he said, will be critical to the development of a plan by which the former bishop can make at least some amends to the diocese.
Bransfield is already involved in the internal judicial system of the Catholic Church, he noted. Pope Francis has banned Bransfield from living in the state and from celebrating any Catholic liturgy — such as Mass, weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Brennan said that latter action carries weight for someone in ministry even if church edicts on residency and restitution are not legally binding. “For someone who’s been doing it for some 50 years, that’s a significant thing.”
Sin is costly like that, he added, when discussing the need for further restitution.
“Anytime the leadership of a group misuses authority and resources, it hurts the group,” Brennan said.
And, that cost can play out on any scale, he added. This time, it involves an entire diocese. But, when he was parish priest, he once came upon a youth crying in a confessional. The child’s parents were having a blow-out party and had said, “Here’s $50. Get lost for the weekend.”
It was a sobering moment for Brennan, one he carries with him as he weighs what actions he can take to ease Bransfield back into good standing with the Catholic Church and, from the church’s perspective, with God.
“I hope that we get his cooperation — all the better for him if we do,” Brennan said of whatever restitution is requested through his office. “But, if he doesn’t cooperate, there will be things we can do here.”
What will those things be? Will they include how the diocese responds to state- and federal-level lawsuits involving the alleged concealment of sexual-misconduct from parents purchasing parochial school education for their children or the alleged illegal business practices at Wheeling Hospital?
Brennan said he does not yet know.
What he does know, he said, is that he doesn’t want to spiritually destroy anyone, including Bransfield.
“There are some people that, no matter what you do, will not be satisfied,” Brennan said. “For those who just want to see heads roll, I’m sorry. I don’t cut off heads.”
He noted that forgiveness is also going to be part of the restitution plan in order for the diocese to move ahead. But, he put qualifications on the word.
“Forgiveness does not mean denying that a wrong has been done,” Brennan said. “Forgiveness is you, praying for the person … for conversion when that’s needed. You don’t just write the person off and hate the person. That’s not Christianity.”
BEYOND THE CHURCH WALLS
Brennan also acknowledged he and the diocese will be dealing with ill will that exists outside the church walls. Asked what he would like to say to the larger Wheeling community, his response was, again, simple and direct.
“Pray for us, if you’re Christian,” he requested. “We are your brothers and sisters. We have a common baptism. We can’t forget that. … We’ll pray for you as well.”
He hopes that both Catholics and others in the community will also embrace a spirit of: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
“In the end,” Brennan said. “We all need to pull together.”
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.