A disgraced bishop spent $4.6million renovating the mansion where he allegedly made advances at young priests before the church quietly sold the property for just $1.2million.
Bishop Michael J Bransfield resigned as head of the Catholic Church in West Virginia in September 2018 amid allegations of sexual and financial misconduct. He was barred from public ministry by Pope Francis earlier this year.
A secret report later revealed how Bransfield spent more than $2.4million in church funds on personal travel, luxury items, liquor and prescription drugs – along with $4.6million on renovations to his diocese-owned home in Wheeling, where he allegedly groomed and inappropriately touched young men during his 13-year tenure as Wheeling-Charleston Diocese bishop.
After the allegations against Bransfield were made public over the summer, the diocese sold the Wheeling residence it had provided for him to David H and Meredith McKinley for $1.2million in August, according to Ohio County real estate records. David is the son of Congressman David B McKinley.
Church officials said they conducted the sale privately – without a real estate agent or online advertising – to avoid paying commission. The officials emphasized that the proceeds from the sale would go toward supporting programs for survivors of sexual abuse.
The private sale also had another effect: It kept the public from seeing just how extravagant Bransfield’s mansion was.
A Washington Post article published Sunday offers an inside look at the 9,200-square-foot Colonial Revival-style home – once known as Elmcrest – that Bransfield spent millions of dollars retrofitting with lavish amenities including a sunken basement bar, temperature controlled wine cellar and $20,000 dining room table.
The diocese offered the mansion at 52 Elmwood Place to Bransfield when he was installed as bishop in 2005. Just before he moved in, a plumber accidentally started a fire which caused $700,000 in damage.
Six people who worked on the home described to the Post how what was intended to be a modest renovation to repair the damage ballooned into an extensive, costly undertaking at Bransfield’s insistence.
‘It was always, “this” or “that” is what the bishop wants,’ said Jim Baller, the construction manager during most of the renovation.
Baller said Bransfield insisted on landscaping a large portion of the seven-acre property, planting trees to create a buffer between the home and a nearby interstate and installing a fish pond and waterfall as the focal point of the grounds.
Inside the home, Bransfield requested heated floors and jets in the master bathroom, five bay windows, a sun room, refurbished fixtures and a climate-controlled wine cellar with room for hundreds of bottles.
The unfinished basement was transformed into a sunken basement bar, where Bransfield allegedly plied young priests with alcohol and made unwanted advances on them.
Bransfield wanted the bar to be modeled after the cocktail lounge in entertainer Bob Hope’s Hollywood home.
‘The bishop said he wanted to bring clergy into the room and make a pleasant place where they could play cards,’ Denis Gill, the lead architect on the project, told the Post.
A crew of 25 to 30 masons spend a year constructing a stone fireplace in the basement, Baller said.
The Vatican investigation detailed how Bransfield would host lavish dinner parties at his home. Guests were seated in front of a massive portrait of the Last Supper as they dined on meals prepared by a personal chef.
After dinner, Bransfield would invite guests down to the basement bar, where he downed a half-bottle of Cointreau or more out of a tea cup, along with opioids like oxycondone.
‘Dinner guests who only visited occasionally were not invited to join the Bishop in the basement for after-dinner drinks, but he expected his Priest-Secretary, the Vicar General, overnight guests, and certain of his “favorite” young priests . . . to sit in the basement and be in his company,’ investigators wrote in the report.
‘One witness described this as “watching the Bishop watch television”. It was a ritual that none of the witnesses who experienced it reported that they enjoyed.’
The report includes an account from one seminarian who said he loathed staying at Bransfield’s home and ‘described multiple instances of overly aggressive hugs in which the Bishop would grab and squeeze various parts of the witness’s body’.
Witnesses also said that Bransfield would often invite guests upstairs to show them portraits of himself with important figures in the church, some of which were hung in his bedroom.
Bransfield ‘denied engaging in any sexual harassment or sexual activity with any priest or seminarian, either verbally or suggestively by his conduct’, the report states.
When questioned about the renovations by the Post, Bransfield said he didn’t ‘know anything about’ the exorbitant spending on the home and declined to comment further.
Speaking to Vatican investigators who compiled the report on his alleged misconduct, Bransfield said he didn’t have much say in the renovations and blamed subordinates for the high costs.
Investigators wrote that Bransfield’s ‘version of events is inconsistent with a number’ of other witness accounts.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston also blamed Bransfield for the costly renovations when approached for comment by the Post.
‘The former bishop engaged in a luxurious lifestyle and misused diocesan funds, both in conducting his official responsibilities, and personally, when no official purpose was involved,’ spokesman Tim Bishop said.
Baller said that the renovations were not well-received by the community, which saw the home as a prime example of overspending by the church.
‘I’m a Catholic — I’m a parishioner down the street, and for years it has just bugged me to no end,’ Baller said.
‘I’ve seen them waste all that money on that place and then turn around and ask us every Sunday to donate more, donate more — always asking for money. It’s sickening.’
After Bransfield’s abrupt resignation in September 2018, his former home sat vacant for months until David H McKinley, who owns a wealth management firm in Wheeling, approached the diocese about purchasing it.
‘My wife and I had been looking for a home for several years,’ McKinley told the Post.
‘The truth is, there are not a lot of homes of this size and with such characteristics in the Wheeling area. We happened to be in the right place at the right time.’
McKinley also had insider information about the home because his congressman father founded the firm that oversaw Bransfield’s renovations.
The church said four other buyers expressed interest in the property before it was sold to McKinley, but declined to offer additional details.