Former bishop Michael Bransfield, the head of the Catholic Church in West Virginia for 13 years, was “very concerned about his legacy.” Those are the words of Mark Phillips, the former chief of staff of what was Wheeling Jesuit University, provided in a written response to questions from The Washington Post. Surely by now, Bransfield, the former leader of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, has grown used to disappointment on that front.
Already accused of sexually assaulting young seminarians and spending millions of church dollars on a lavish lifestyle, it appears Bransfield diverted money from Wheeling Hospital into a slush fund to dole out checks for expensive gifts, according to the Post. He reportedly wrote checks for a total of $29,000 to help a powerful cardinal in Rome renovate living quarters Bransfield reportedly thought were too austere. How generous.
With hospital money, Bransfield — who headed up the board and considered it “my hospital,” according to the Post — established the Bishop’s Fund, intended, at least on tax documents, as a way to “provide charitable care to the people of the diocese.”
Instead, he spent millions on vanity projects within the state. When he wanted to send money elsewhere, which would have violated tax laws and possibly draw the ire of the Internal Revenue Service, he simply used the account as a holding area for money that would eventually be transferred to the diocese. Bransfield was able to then direct the money wherever he wanted, using vague descriptions on financial records, to avoid legal entanglements.
Hospital board members who talked to The Post say they don’t recall ever authorizing transferring large sums of money into the Bishop’s Fund. Records, such as meeting minutes, from board meetings where such an action would have been approved do not exist.
Accusations of abuse at this stage, although disgusting and disturbing, are a matter for civil courts. Spending millions on private jet travel and luxurious accommodations while preaching humility and leading the church in an impoverished state is an outrage, but Bransfield was allowed to do it. The penalty from the Catholic Church as a result of its own investigation into Bransfield’s conduct was to essentially defrock him, although that decision came after he was already technically retired.
But Bransfield could be in an entirely different type of very real trouble this time. Wheeling Hospital gets a lot of its money from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Diverting those federal dollars into another fund for any other purpose is, quite literally, a crime.
Whether he’s prosecuted or not, Bransfield can rest assured that his precious legacy has been shattered, and the pieces are ground to dust with each new report that surfaces.
Drop in Ky. enrollment troubling
The good news is that a record number of Kentucky college and university students are receiving undergraduate degrees. The bad news, according to state Council on Postsecondary Education President Aaron Thompson, is that a five-year trend of declining college enrollment continues.
Data indicates that 76,380 degrees and credentials were earned at the state’s public and independent colleges and universities during the 2018-19 year — a 4.7% jump from the previous year. While those numbers keep Kentucky on track to meet its goal of 60% of the population with a postsecondary credential by 2030, a decrease in the number of students enrolling at higher education institutions is worrisome.
In fact, preliminary fall semester enrollment figures indicate a 2% decline in the number of students — continuing a tumble that began in the 2014-15 academic year.
That is the case at Thompson’s former stomping grounds, Kentucky State University, where he served a one-year stint as interim president. Student enrollment dropped 7.5% — or 145 students — from 2017-18 to last year.
The enrollment problem stems largely from a school’s retention rate, as students are more likely to drop out during the first year than any other time. Implementing policies that increase retention rates, whether at the schools or through a transfer to another institution, will equally raise the likelihood that students will graduate.
Of the eight Kentucky public four-year colleges, the University of Kentucky has the highest six-year graduation rate with 65.8%. K-State has the lowest six-year graduation rate with a measly 16.3%. The next closest school to KSU is Northern Kentucky University with 43.8%.
We agree with Thompson that higher learning institutions must be dedicated to supporting students, guiding them and ensuring they complete their programs with the skills for workforce success.