A file image of bishops attending Mass in St. Peter's square at the Vatican on September 4, 2016. (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP)
When I was a boy, I watched a narrow clamshell bucket dipping into a sewer up the street from our home to clear muck. I was still too young and too inexperienced in the ways of the Church to be aware of the irony of it, but I found it amusing that the muck-filled bucket looked vaguely like an upside-down version of the hat I had recently seen filled by the head of a bishop who came to our parish for Confirmations.
Several years later, I learned to use a post hole digger, and noticed the similarity between it and an upside-down miter. That similarity points to something in Dante’s Inferno (hell).
In the 19th canto of that 14th-century poem, Dante on his tour of hell encounters bishops and other church leaders who have been turned upside-down and placed in post holes while their feet burn.
The ecclesiastics singled out for this punishment are those whose greed has led them to the sin of simony, named after Simon Magus, who in the Acts of the Apostles tries to buy power in the Christian community. Simoniacs let greed outweigh care for the People of God.
Berating Pope Nicolas III, and through him all money-loving prelates, the poet says: “Your avarice overshadows the world with mourning, while you tread the good under foot, and raise bad men up. ... You have made gold and silver your god. What difference is there between you and an idolater?”
Money and ministry were a bad mix in the 1300s. They still are.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore in the United States recently released the results of an investigation he led of Bishop Michael Bransfield, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia, the second-poorest state in that country.
The investigation verified reports of the bishop’s sexual harassment of young priests, seminarians and others. The report also included the fact that Bransfield had used diocesan funds to pay for a luxurious lifestyle that included drugs and $1,000 per month for liquor along with expensive leisure travel. He also spent $4.6 million for renovations to his private residences. The report, details of which were publicized by The Washington Post rather than Archbishop Lori, also speaks of daily deliveries of flowers to the diocesan offices that cost $182,000 over 13 years in a diocese of only about 78,000 Catholics.
Sadly, the state of the Catholic Church throughout the world, not just in the United States, is such that findings like those are no longer news. Those who follow news of the Church are resigned to hearing at least weekly of sexual abuse, coverup and extravagant corruption by bishops and priests.
So, at first glance there is nothing new in the report of Bransfield’s activities. It would be easy to file his story away as just one more whittling away of the integrity of the Church and the faith of its members.
But, news of Bransfield’s activities go beyond now “normal” deviance and indicate the involvement of many others of the episcopal ilk, including the archbishop responsible for investigating him.
Using funds belonging to the Catholics of one of the poorest places in the United States, Bransfield reportedly gave some $350,000 in gifts to priests, bishops and cardinals in that country and the Vatican. Recipients included Cardinals Donald Wuerl, Timothy Dolan, Raymond Burke, Bernard Law and the former papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.
Archbishop Lori received about $10,000, including $3,000 for preaching at two Masses. Since the scandal broke, he has said he would return the money to the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, designated for Catholic Charities and probably earning him a tax deduction for a charitable contribution.
Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who as camerlengo, administers the property and revenues of the Holy See, received $29,000 from Bransfield to help renovate his Vatican residence. The per capita income of West Virginians is only $23,450. What sort of renovations were they that such an amount is only help toward them?
Apparently, not one of these hierarchs felt any qualms about accepting money stolen from the poor or thought to ask where it came from or why they were being given it. Of course, since they were influential, it is likely that they recognized bribery by someone probably hoping to climb higher on the hierarchical career ladder. Shame on them.
The problem is not limited to the United States and it is not only American bishops who deserve eternity in post holes.
Clearly, bishops are seldom, if ever, capable of policing themselves or each other. Legal systems and media exposure are the chief tools that the Holy Spirit is using to deal with corruption among church leaders.
There is one language besides exposure that simoniacs understand: money. Perhaps the strongest way to chasten or convert them is to withhold the money they crave. Refusing to contribute to any parish, diocese or other entity that is not absolutely transparent in its handling of the money of the People of God may get the results we deserve.
Father William Grimm is a New York-born priest active in Tokyo. He has also served in Cambodia and Hong Kong and is the publisher of ucanews.com.