by Phyllis Zagano NCR

I think we owe a debt of gratitude to former West Virginia bishop Michael Bransfield, pilloried by The Washington Post for his reportedly lavish and lascivious ways. The Post wrote from an unredacted report written by lay investigators.

Bransfield’s creative accounting let us see exactly who benefited from his largess. His history of unchecked behavior demonstrates who knew what and when. Most importantly, his objectively sad story sheds light on ingrained episcopal practices around the world.

Plus, it saves us the trouble of reading medieval history.

I bear no ill will and wish no harm to Michael Bransfield. I am convinced he is a product of a system that corrupted him. One wonders if that system alone drove him to drink.

That system is the clericalism Pope Francis talks about. It is the system in which only priest clerics judge clerics, only priest clerics wield authority, and only priest clerics promote clerics to higher offices.

It is the system of priestly clericalism, seeded in the early church, nurtured by the Middle Ages, and full-blown by the 11th century.

It is the system that killed the diaconate.
Ever wonder whatever happened to deacons, once the stewards of the church’s money? For the longest time, deacons and archdeacons managed church funds, providing for needs of the people of God. In the third century, St. Lawrence the Deacon presented the poor to the Roman prefect who demanded the church’s treasures. He had it right.

Over the centuries, deacons grew very powerful. The cadre of priests did not like that at all, especially since bishops were often chosen from among the deacons.

Why choose a deacon as bishop? Deacons were the clerics whose jobs today are called diocesan vicar general, judicial vicar, and finance officer, among others. It made ultimate sense to elect the person who had already been running the diocese as its next overseer. Many popes were deacons and never priests.

And then there was Pope Gregory VII. Born the son of a blacksmith in Tuscany in 1015, he rose to become archdeacon and the cardinal deacon of Santa Maria in Domnica in Rome. Elected pope by acclamation in 1073, he insisted on being ordained a priest eight days before his consecration as bishop of Rome.

Gregory VII thereby solidified the “cursus honorum,” the “course of honor” that essentially restricted diaconal ordination only to men destined for priesthood.

The Gregorian Reform, so-called in his honor, changed other things. Gregory outlawed the practice of simony, especially the buying of church offices.

He also began in earnest the centralization of church power in Rome. One wonders if centralization helped cause more, not less, simony.

Detail of “Standing Bishop,” silver with silver gilt, by the German workshop of Hans von Reutlingen, circa 1510 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Which brings us back to clericalism, the hothouse for abuses of every description that shuts its doors to any outside views, even from other clerics, like deacons

Despite 16th-century decisions of the Council of Trent, it was not until the Second Vatican Council that the diaconate was renewed as a permanent office. Today, more than 50 years later, deacons the world over are still finding their places within the clerical system.
What deacons do not do is buy their way up the ladder, for there is none to climb. Deacons are ministers. Most do not get stole fees for administering sacraments. Unless they hold a diocesan or parochial job, deacons support themselves.

That is the difference. For the most part, diocesan priests are wholly dependent on their bishops, who may in turn be indebted to their metropolitan archbishops, who may in turn be indebted to the nuncio, and so it goes. The concurrent gauzy web of lateral relationships is not so apparent, but it is there, making the vaulted notion of “transparency” impossible.

Which brings us back to Michael Bransfield. I am saddened that he has been exposed and vilified, I really am. But his story pokes a hole in the clerical veil pulled over the eyes of so many other clerics (deacons, priests and bishops) and laypeople who want to see the church as a church for people, not as a corporation that enriches CEOs while giving pennies to its stockholders.
If we can respectfully continue to part that clerical veil, we might enjoy a church that does not corrupt its mosT talented and capable clerics.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. She will speak Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, at the Bishop Keane Institute of Immaculate Conception Church in Hampton, Virginia and Tuesday, September 24, 2019 at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Her books include Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future, recently published in France and Canada as Des femmes diacres and in Portugal as Mulheres diáconos: Passado, presente, futuro. Study guides are available for free download at]


This is an excellent and educating article by Ms Zagona.

Knowing our history sheds light on current issues.

There is a ling history of senior and junior clerics putting their hands in the collection plates and donation bags.

A lot of it is still going on from simple parishes to the Vatican billins.

The only way to stop it is to keep the clerics away from all money and keep all money way from them.

Let the laity decide on bishops and priests salaries.

Let the laity choose where and how they live.





I have always lived my life and ministry by the above maxim.

An example:

One pre Christmas day some years ago I was in Dublin for the annual News of the World Christmas party which was always a posh boozy affair.

The next day at lunch time I was driving through Dublin and I noticed a young man dressed in black standing at a traffic lights with a black bag at his feet and holding a sign which read “HOMELESS PLEASE HELP”.


I reached my hand into my pocket and as I drove past put a handful of coins into his outstretched hand. He said, in a strange English dialect “GOD BLESS YE SIR”.

It startled me. It sounded like David Copperfield. I drove back around and asked to speak to him. He said he would not get into my car. I told him I had not asked him to do that. We had a conversation through the window and he told me his story.

He was from the Peak District in England and was in trouble with the police there over drug taking. He had left his family and girlfriend and had absconded to Dublin where he had become dependant on Heroin.

We talked a while. I gave him £40 and arranged to write to him at a convenience address he had. He was sleeping on the street.

A few weeks later I was back in Dublin and went looking for him on Grafton Street. I saw a load of cardboard boxes and a blanket in a doorway and had an intuition he was under it. He was.

I brought him for a Big Mac and during the meal he cried and asked me to help him beat the heroin addiction. Of course, I agreed. I left him with a time to meet him later and drove around the drug rehabilitation centres in Dublin. They all had a six months waiting list.

I decided that if I could get the Methadone I would detox him myself at my home.


I went back around the rehab centres again and asked them for three weeks Methadone.

As it was a strictly controlled drug they refused.

But Pat, as always, was determined not be beaten, So, dressed in my clericals I hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take me to where all the drug dealers hang out. The driver was surprised but did as I asked. Eventually I was introduced to a Methadone supplier and agreed to meet him the next morning for three weeks supply for something like £100.

I did not sleep well that night thinking that the dealer might give me impure Methadone that would make my new friend sick or kill him and land me in prison for supplying controlled drugs, grievous bodily harm or manslaughter.

So, in the morning at 8 am I telephoned RTE and asked to be put through to the Marian Finnucane Programme and asked her if she would allow me to appeal on her show for proper Methadone. She was shocked but agreed. Within ten minutes of my appeal I had a call from a drug counsellor in Galway who agreed to help me by putting three weeks supply of Methadone on the Galway Belfast bus. My fiend and I collected it in Belfast and with the help of a doctor friend of mine I detoxed my friend over three weeks.

He did extremely well, began to eat properly and eventually I got him a job in Larne. I contacted the English police and told them what he had achieved and they promised him a compassionate meeting on his return.

After three months in Larne he returned to England and was reunited with his family and girlfriend. The police kept their word.

Some months later I was in my upstairs sitting room and heard my mother answer the doorbell. She was present during his detox too.

A few minutes later my friend, the former addict walked into my sitting room. He looked well and glowing and was wearing a business suit. He had got a job as a stock taker for BP fuels and he was on business in Belfast.

He was carrying a bottle of my favourite tipple and with tears in his eyes said: “I am here to thank you for saving my life”.

Then it was my turn to have tears.

That whole story is at one level about me and my friend, but in my eyes it is a story of the intervention of God in a life on its way to tragedy.

Of course I understand and respect our atheist readers who will say it an act of human kindness by one human being to another and had nothing to do with God.

I believe that my friend was a child of God and God wanted to help him and He simply used me in spite of all my sins and failings and even used a red top newspaper to get me to the right place at the right time. Imaging that – God using a newspaper in spite of Page 3.

On this Sunday morning I say “Glory be to God”.



Twas battered and scarred,
And the auctioneer thought it
hardly worth his while
To waste his time on the old violin,
but he held it up with a smile.
“What am I bid, good people”, he cried,
“Who starts the bidding for me?”
“One dollar, one dollar, Do I hear two?”
“Two dollars, who makes it three?”
“Three dollars once, three dollars twice, going for three,”
But, No,
From the room far back a gray bearded man
Came forward and picked up the bow,
Then wiping the dust from the old violin
And tightening up the strings,
He played a melody, pure and sweet
As sweet as the angel sings.
The music ceased and the auctioneer
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said “What now am I bid for this old violin?”
As he held it aloft with its’ bow.
“One thousand, one thousand, Do I hear two?”
“Two thousand, Who makes it three?”
“Three thousand once, three thousand twice,
Going and gone”, said he.
The audience cheered,
But some of them cried,
“We just don’t understand.”
“What changed its’ worth?”
Swift came the reply.
“The Touch of the Masters Hand.”
“And many a man with life out of tune
All battered and bruised with hardship
Is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd
Much like that old violin
A mess of pottage, a glass of wine,
A game and he travels on.
He is going once, he is going twice,
He is going and almost gone.
But the Master comes,
And the foolish crowd never can quite understand,
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
By the Touch of the Masters’ Hand.

– Myra Brooks Welch