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Huntington Catholics questioning diocese

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."

Francis recently has been seen shunning the Vatican's fleet of luxury cars in favor of a more modest Ford Focus. He has been shuttled around in a Fiat during his recent trip to Brazil.

"A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but, please, choose a more humble one," Francis told a group of young and trainee priests and nuns earlier in July. "If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world."

Bransfield's personal car is a 2004 Buick Park Avenue. He is often driven in diocese cars, either a GMC Yukon or a Cadillac.

"Bishop Bransfield has a priest secretary, currently it's a deacon," Minor said, "[who] also drives the bishop from time to time between his many appointments, most of which are not in Wheeling."

Bransfield also has dinner prepared at his residence four days a week by a personal chef. The chef also cooks lunch for the bishop and others at the cathedral rectory four days a week. Minor said that that is a money-saver because the chef also acts as a caterer for diocese events and special functions.

In 2010 there were more than 112,000 Catholics in West Virginia, an increase of more than 10,000 since 1980. But over that same period the number of priests in the state has fallen by more than 25 percent, from 218 to 160.

The pastors at both Our Lady of Fatima, a congregation of about 600 families in Huntington, and St. Leo, a congregation of about 1,200 in Inwood, have recently departed.

The Rev. Brian Shoda, the priest at St. Leo for 22 years, left the Catholic Church entirely and is now a priest at Mount Zion Episcopal Church in Hedgesville. Shoda did not return repeated requests for comment.

"He said his theology and some of the teachings of the Catholic Church didn't mesh anymore," Abrahamian said. "He was a good priest, he gave 22 years of his life to St. Leo, there were times when he probably needed help, could have used an associate pastor."

The Rev. Jim Sobus had been at Our Lady of Fatima and St. Stephen's Catholic Church in nearby Ona for nine years, before he was transferred to Assumption Parish in Keyser in June.

Sobus, who said he has not left the church but would not otherwise comment on the record, has not reported to Assumption Parish.

Parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima say Sobus was unjustly transferred for, among other things, speaking out against the church and running the parish school strictly.

Dr. Kellee Abner-Karimpour, who serves on the Catholic Schools Advisory Committee at Our Lady of Fatima, said that the diocese had a "witch hunt" against Sobus.

Abner-Karimpour and others said that the Advisory Committee (equivalent to a school board) stopped meeting last fall after someone filed an anonymous and opaque letter of complaint against Sobus that was investigated and found baseless. The committee has not met since.

Minor denied those allegations. He said that Sobus had been at Our Lady of Fatima for nine years and that priests are frequently transferred after six to eight years.

"Priests have a duty of obedience, which is part of a priest's vow at his ordination," Minor said in an email. "By not reporting to his new assignment without any notice, the Diocese says that Father Sobus is leaving the faithful parishioners of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Keyser without a pastor." Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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