CHARLESTON, W.Va. --Angered over what they call a vindictive transfer of their local pastor, a group of Catholics in Huntington are accusing leadership at the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston of living too profligate a lifestyle and not following the example set by Pope Francis.
The group has written to Archbishop Carlos Maria Vigano, who serves as a liaison between the American church and the pope, asking him to investigate what they call lavish spending by the diocesan leadership as well as the recent transfer of 21 priests within West Virginia.
Those 21 transferred priests represent about 13 percent of all the priests in the state, but Bryan Minor, a diocese spokesman, said that that was "not a disproportionate number compared to previous years."
In the 2012 fiscal year, the Wheeling-Charleston diocese spent more than $4.5 million on construction projects, nearly 15 times more than it spent the year before.
It's also more than three times as much as the diocese gave to Catholic Charities of West Virginia, its charitable subsidiary, in 2012.
Minor said that the funds were necessary to repair aging churches and schools.
"There are a number of projects in the state that deal with what we would call deferred maintenance, buildings that were constructed decades ago that have not been improved over time," Minor said. "Within the last five years, every school building was visited and short-, mid- and long-term building needs were identified by a third-party firm."
The diocese spent more than $20 million on school repair and building projects from 2006, when Bishop Michael Bransfield's tenure began, through 2010.
Minor called it an "unprecedented five-year period of investment in the future of Catholic education."
But Christine Pennington, a parishioner at Huntington's Our Lady of Fatima Church for more than 40 years, points to extravagances such as cherry paneling, coffered ceilings and marble altars that she says go beyond basic maintenance.
"How can you worry about stained-glass windows and the bishop getting a new high-seated chair when you have poverty like in West Virginia?" Pennington said.
The diocese, which as a religious organization is not subject to the same financial reporting rules that other nonprofit groups are, annually spends about $20 million more than it takes in. It makes up the difference with money from its endowment and investment income. The diocese will not disclose how large its endowment is.
At $7.5 million, the diocese's single largest expenditure in 2012 was money spent on the chancery, the administrative hub in Wheeling.
The chancery comprises the bishop's executive offices, as well as the superintendent of Catholic schools, human resources, the diocese newspaper and the youth ministry.
"All those offices are under chancery administration, not only personnel but program costs affiliated with running what is one of the largest charities in West Virginia," Minor said.
But Pennington and other West Virginia Catholics criticized Bransfield for spending too much on building projects and things like chauffeurs and personal chefs, and not enough on helping the needy.
"We all are called to follow the life of Christ, and I just feel that what I see is getting away from what Christ would say," said Linda Abrahamian, a longtime parishioner at St. Leo Catholic Church in Inwood. "[Bishop Bransfield's] extravagant living style -- we could say personal spending, but it really isn't personal, the diocese is paying for it -- is getting away from that."