Bishop’s Apology Doesn’t Meet Basic Conditions

The former bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston West Virginia Diocese issued an apology last month for misconduct that occurred while he was bishop. After Pope Francis accepted Bishop Michael J. Bransfield’s resignation in 2018, the Vatican investigated allegations that he had spent millions on personal extravagances and gifts to fellow clerics, and that he harassed seminarians and young priests who worked for him. Investigators established that he had engaged in a pattern of sexual malfeasance and serious financial misconduct.

The plan: Bransfield stepped down in September 2018, and his successor, Bishop Mark Brennan, drew up a “restitution plan” that was approved by the Vatican. It included a requirement that Bransfield make a public apology to the people of his former diocese “for the scandal he created,” and that he apologize privately to individuals he abused or harassed.

The apology: Bransfield’s letter, issued August 15, 2020, says he is “writing to apologize for any scandal or wonderment caused by words or actions attributed to me during my tenure as Bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.” He acknowledged that, during his tenure, “I was reimbursed for certain expenditures that have been called into question as excessive,” but insisted that he “believed that such reimbursements to me were proper.” Regarding the “allegations that by certain words and actions I have caused certain priests and seminarians to feel sexually harassed, that was never my intent.” He added, “if anything I said or did caused others to feel that way, then I am profoundly sorry.”

Analysis of the apology: This is not an apology. It’s not even an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It’s really just an acknowledgment of the allegations against him. It indicates that Bransfield still hasn’t taken responsibility for his actions, and it’s puzzling why the Vatican and the new bishop accepted this statement as if it fulfilled the requirement that he apologize.

Elements of this non-apology include:

  • “any” – Any time an apology uses the word “any,” a yellow flag goes up. “for any scandal” includes the possibility that there was no scandal, or just something minor. Apologizing for “anything I did that caused others to feel harassed” is tantamount to saying, “I have no idea what I did and I really don’t think I did anything wrong.” Use of any form of “any” weakens the apology. To test it out, substitute the word “the” for “any” – or remove “any” altogether and see how it sounds. There may be appropriate uses of “any” in an apology (“if I have omitted anyone”) but, as a rule, if the speaker cannot apologize without using “any,” the speaker hasn’t apologized.
  • “wonderment” — He apologizes for “any wonderment” he caused. This is the strangest word I’ve ever seen in an apology. What’s wrong with causing wonderment? Is it something to apologize for? Does he mean “doubts,” like people “wondered” whether he’d done something wrong? The dictionary definition of “wonderment” is “a state of awed admiration.” This is clearly not the right word here. It should’ve been corrected by an editor, and he had several.
  • “attributed to me” – He can’t even admit that the words/actions were his; he acknowledges only that they were attributed to him. Taking responsibility for one’s words and actions is at the heart of an effective apology.
  • “if anything I said or did caused others to feel [bad], I’m sorry” – This is a form of “blame the victim.” The speaker doesn’t think he’s done anything that would hurt another, so it must be their fault that they feel badly—in this case, that they felt harassed.

As one of his accusers noted, the apology “does not meet the basic conditions of Catholic contrition, or apology.” This former seminarian, who was sexually abused by Bransfield, noted, “In the Catholic tradition, we do not apologize for actions ‘attributed to’ us or for hypothetical ‘ifs’.”

The danger of permitting a statement like this to pass as an apology is that, far from bringing healing, it causes more pain. Instead of demonstrating the repentance essential to a Christian apology, it further mires the speaker in denial, and further diminishes hope in the victims. It illustrates the risk of “ordering” or “requiring” that someone apologize. Apologies should be voluntary.

We hope and pray that the Holy Spirit, working directly or through one of his servants, will bring Bishop Bransfield to the repentance that would yield to a true public apology.

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