Catholic lay leader says release of diocese audit is significant but not enough

SPENCER, W.Va. — The leader of one of the largest Catholic lay groups in West Virginia isn’t quite satisfied following the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s first-ever release of a financial audit.

While Michael Iafrate, the Co-Coordinator for the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA), has said his group is seeing small steps in the right direction but he wants much more study done.

The diocese has faced a tumultuous last couple of years. Bishop Mark Brennan was named bishop in July 2019, amidst investigations into sexual harassment allegations and lavish spending by former Bishop Michael Bransfield.

Iafrate said his initial reaction was surprise at the amount of full disclosure in the past fiscal year’s audit because of actions in the past.

Michael Iafrate

“I think that when the diocese says ‘This is the first time in our history we are doing this,’ It kind of shows how inadequate the past disclosures have been. Either inadequate or intentionally misleading,” he told MetroNews.

“It’s very significant that we are getting so much information this time around.”

The audit showed losses of nearly $5 million in both cash flow into the diocese and net assets.

The findings from the period June 30, 2018 to June 30, 2019 made public that net assets went from $357 million to $352.3 million. Liabilities in the fiscal year totaled $70.3 million, up from $65.2 million.

In a letter to the diocese included with the audit, Brennan was upfront with the ‘significant expenses’ arising from the investigation of Bransfield and “various legal issues” involving the diocese. The audit listed spending on investigations and lawsuits at $1.5 million.

Iafrate said the story with Bransfield is far from over, and his group based in Spencer along with the Lay Catholic Voices for Change in Morgantown want to see forensic audits of financial records from all the years under Bransfield.

“We’ve gotten some of that from the Washington Post and other sources but to have Diocesan disclosure of more information from those years would be significant as well,” he said.

Bransfield resigned in September 2018 amid the claims of sexual harassment and abuse of adults. He joined a list of more than a dozen clergy members throughout the years in the diocese creditably accused of sexual abuse.

CCA has called the diocese into releasing into the financial disclosure on cases of abuse over the years, such as settlements and lawyer fees. Iafrate said it looks unlikely to happen.

“We’ve seen some small steps in the right direction but a lot of concerns remain. Whether the changes and direction in finances are going to stick but primarily about the abuse of people,” Iafrate said.

“There is still a lot of question marks for us around whether the diocese is on the right track with that. To us, that’s an even more serious issue than the financial piece to this story.”

Another significant note to the audit according to Iafrate was the release of numbers surrounding the revenue of fossil fuels. Mineral rights assets in the diocese totaled $51.5 million, the majority from land in Texas that the body acquired more than a century ago.

Iafrate said lay members have had questions for years about mineral rights, which resulted in $25.3 million in investment income and royalties the past fiscal year.

He said that the combination of the church teaching of care of creation, Pope Francis’ calling for the end of fossil fuels, and the release of these numbers may encourage lay members to speak out on the subject.

“We’ve been wondering if the fact that we have this major source of wealth, whether that has sort of muzzled Catholics in West Virginia to speak out in favor of protecting the environment a little more strongly,” Iafrate said. “Because we have this wealth in the background from this source.”

The diocese has stated it will release full financial audits annually.