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Baltimore auxiliary bishop to bring pastoral ways to a West Virginia diocese troubled by scandal

Mark E. Brennan said it was “a real shock” to be named Tuesday by Pope Francis as bishop of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia.

Hours after Pope Francis announced his appointment as bishop of West Virginia, the Most Rev. Mark E. Brennan vowed to bring one of his trademark strengths to bear on his work in a diocese long plagued by scandal: a gift for pastoral sensitivity.

Brennan, 72, an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Baltimore for the past 2 1/2 years, learned this week he is to become the ninth bishop in the 169-year history of Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which encompasses the state of West Virginia, and its nearly 75,000 Catholic members.

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Brennan said Tuesday that it won’t be easy to undo the damage caused by his predecessor, Michael J. Bransfield, who resigned in September amid allegations of financial and sexual misconduct, or to help the state’s Catholic faithful start anew. But he plans to approach the task the way he has addressed challenges throughout his half-century career.

“I’ve been a parish priest for most of my adult life,” he said in an interview. "As a parish priest, you spend a lot of time with people. You learn their stories, you hear them, you listen ... You try to help them see where God is in their lives.

“Will we have to deal with the past? Yes, but I need to get to know people in the present and determine what we can do well and what we can do better to move into the future," Brennan said. "As far as I can, with God’s help, I want to bring healing to the souls of those who have been affected.”

Brennan is to be ordained Aug. 22 in a service at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling.

He plans to spend considerable time in his first few months traveling throughout the diocese, getting to know clergy and lay Catholics, and to focus on hearing from those who were most affected by Bransfield’s “misdeeds.”

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori investigated Bransfield’s conduct and has led the West Virginia diocese since September. Lori determined the allegations of sexual harassment of adults against Bransfield were credible and that he had spent lavishly from diocesan funds on luxury items and personal travel.

“Will we have to deal with the past? Yes, but I need to get to know people in the present and determine what we can do well and what we can do better to move into the future. As far as I can, with God’s help, I want to bring healing to the souls of those who have been affected.”


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Bransfield disputed the allegations in June in an interview with The Washington Post, saying “none of it is true.” He declined to respond in detail on the advice of his lawyers.

The Vatican last week banned Bransfield from presiding over or taking part in public celebrations of Catholic liturgy and from living in the diocese. The Holy See also ordered Bransfield to make unspecified amends to the diocese “for some of the harm he caused.”

One of Brennan’s first orders of business will be to decide what form those amends should take, with the possibilities ranging from a fine to Bransfield forfeiting his pension.

Because the Vatican chose not to defrock Bransfield, he remains under its disciplinary jurisdiction.

Pope Francis on Tuesday named Mark E. Brennan, right, bishop of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia. Brennan is shown in this file photo with Adam J. Parker, left, a fellow auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese of Baltimore.
Pope Francis on Tuesday named Mark E. Brennan, right, bishop of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia. Brennan is shown in this file photo with Adam J. Parker, left, a fellow auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese of Baltimore. (Photo by Kevin J. Parks/ Courtesy Catholic Review Media)

“It would be wonderful if Bishop Bransfield would cooperate, and he may,” Brennan said. “A good thing about the fact that he was not dismissed from the clerical state is that the church still has authority [over him]. I think that will matter with him.”

“If he doesn’t cooperate, we’ll see what we’re able to do within civil law and church law, to do about the damage he has done,” the incoming bishop said.

Bryan Minor, the delegate of administrative affairs for the West Virginia diocese, said the state’s Catholic community is “overjoyed” at Brennan’s appointment and introduced him at a news conference as “a dedicated pastor who has decades of parish experience."

Lori said in a statement that the Baltimore archdiocese has been blessed by Brennan’s service.

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“I have witnessed his pastoral love for the people of God, who have accepted and embraced him for his kindness, humility and joyful witness to the faith,” Lori said. “These gifts and so many others will bring healing and hope to the church in West Virginia, which deserves a shepherd who bears so many of the qualities possessed by Bishop Brennan.”

Before becoming auxiliary bishop for Baltimore, Brennan spent decades ministering to immigrants, including 19 years celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments in English and Spanish at parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

He continued his ministry to the Hispanic community in his role in the Baltimore archdiocese, and was a driving force behind a campaign to encourage repentance, healing and action on matters of racial injustice.

Sean Caine, spokesman for the Baltimore archdiocese, said Brennan is a “very down-to-earth person” who, for instance, drives a Ford Focus.

“I think people in West Virginia are going to appreciate Bishop Brennan’s humble demeanor and his very simple way of life," Caine said.

Longtime church observers agreed.

“I would say he is the antithesis of Bransfield, and that will be a huge plus,” said John Carr, the founder and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University in Washington. “A pastor who cares about people not things is what they need. Given his age, it seems like an appointment to try and heal and set things right over the next few years.”

The Rev. Ray Kemp, a retired priest of the Washington archdiocese, made a similar comparison.

“Mark is the polar opposite of Mike Bransfield," Kemp said. "He’s a very holy priest who loves the poor and those living at the margins. He had holes in his sweaters when I knew him. He’s sincere and honest to a fault.”

Brennan acknowledged his tenure could be short if he is required to step down at 75, the age when the church requires bishops to offer a letter of resignation.

But the pope doesn’t always accept those letters, and he hopes that will be the case for him.

“Assuming I don’t die first or become incapacitated by illness, I’ll be left to work beyond retirement age,” said Brennan, adding that at least one pope he admires, Pope John XXIII, managed to achieve quite a bit during a relatively brief reign.

“He got a few things done in his five years — like the second Vatican Council,” Brennan said with a chuckle. “I plan to hit the ground running ... I’m reasonably healthy, thank God. I’m not going to be deterred by the fact that I’m a little bit older.”

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