Tuesday, January 15, 2008

More Charges, More Questions... More Ink

Building on Sunday's emergence of Round Three in the Belleville-Braxton Wars, a previously-scheduled meeting of the presbyteral council took place yesterday...

...and it's gotten worse: with more developments, the story's spread across the Mississippi into the pages of the St Louis Post-Dispatch:
Bishop Edward Braxton's purchase of ceremonial garments with about $8,000 in donations to a Vatican fund strictly dedicated to world outreach led Belleville Diocese priests to seek an explanation Monday.

"We attempted to discuss it," said one member of the diocese's Presbyteral Council. "But no progress was made. The bishop did not want to talk about it."

As long ago as a diocesan finance council meeting Nov. 17, Braxton was asked how he had paid for the vestments, according to sources who were there. Braxton told the council the cost of about $8,000 was paid from a fund for international mission work, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because council members take an oath of secrecy.

Braxton, two deacons and two priests who were being ordained in a ceremony in May wore the new garments.

Statutes issued by the Vatican and authorized by the pope strictly govern the flow of Propagation of the Faith money from dioceses to the fund's New York headquarters, and on to Rome.

"Offerings given by the faithful for a specified purpose may be used only for that purpose," the statutes say....

Braxton has told the diocese's chief financial officer, William Knapp, that Knapp's five-year contract will not be renewed for a third time when it expires in June. Knapp is popular with many priests, and in deanery meetings last week they spoke out forcefully for the bishop to reconsider.

"We strongly recommend that Mr. Knapp's employment … be continued as he desires," according to the minutes of the East St. Louis deanery meeting. "This will enable him to complete the work he has begun recently on issues of financial transparency. We believe that his departure at this time will only cause more suspicion among the laity and presbyterate concerning the finances of the diocese."

Priests of the West Deanery also called recently for Knapp to be rehired and called on the finance council "to report openly and honestly the alleged misappropriation of funds reported at the November 17, 2007 meeting."

The provider of the new vestments was House of Hansen, in Braxton's hometown of Chicago, which makes "custom tailored clerical garments," according to its website. An employee there said Braxton ordered five sets of vestments, a mitre and a tunic last year.

The Rev. Benjamin Stern, parochial vicar at St. Dominic Church in Breese, was one of the two men ordained in May. He said that he didn't know whether the vestments he wore were new but that "the bishop was talking at one time about getting a new set."

Monsignor James Buerster, pastor of St. Boniface Church in Germantown, is the former pastor of the cathedral in Belleville. He said he was still working at the cathedral when the new vestments arrived last spring. The old ones were bought more than a dozen years ago, he said.

The confrontation between Braxton and some of his priests reflects tension that began with the start of the bishop's tenure. But some of those priests see Braxton's tampering with Propogation of the Faith money as crossing an inviolable line with the Vatican.
SVILUPPO: Headline from today's Belleville paper -- "Bishop ducks query on fund's handling"....
Bishop Edward Braxton did not respond to requests during a Presbyteral Council meeting Monday to answer questions about alleged misuse of money earmarked for an international fund for the poor, stating it wasn't the proper forum, the Rev. Jerry Wirth, chairman, said.

"He told us we're not the group to be asking for and receiving that kind of information," said Wirth, the pastor of St. Joseph Church in Olney.

The requests were motions for a full accounting from other priests' group that met last week -- the West Deanery and the East Deanery representing about 20 priests.

Braxton, who serves as the Presbyteral Council's president, instead read a portion of the council's bylaws aloud and interpreted them as prohibiting questions about donations to funds made locally, including the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, Wirth said. This international fund, overseen by the office of Pope Benedict XVI, is not supposed to be used for purchases in the country in which the money was raised and must be sent to Rome.

Braxton did not respond to a News-Democrat request for comment.

Wirth said Braxton told the group that only the Diocesan Finance Council, whose members are sworn to secrecy, could deal with allegations of misuse of funds.

"I disagree with that interpretation," Wirth said, adding that Braxton said he would pray about the matter and might answer questions in the future.

"We are hoping he will actually do that," said Wirth, adding, "I give him the benefit of the doubt."

The Rev. David Wilke, pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Fairmont City, supported Braxton's interpretation of the Presbyteral Council's bylaws.

"He handled it superbly. The media wants to find out all sorts of smoking guns. All sorts of accusations against the bishop and they are absolutely not true," he said.

Asked how he knew the accusations were false, Wilke said, "I know the bishop. He's a wonderful bishop."

SVILUPPO 2: Running to the bishop's defense, one Belleville Catholic opines that, "to some extent," the conflict owes itself to "at least some racism on the part of angry priests and laity who wanted to install their own man (or woman?) in the See"....

Lest anyone forget, Belleville's prior ordinary was also African-American. His 11-year tenure -- which began with one of the nation's first major sex abuse cleanup operations -- saw no incidents of this sort.

PHOTO: Diocese of Belleville