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Adventures In Christian Grift

What's going on with both Jerry Falwell Jr. and Bishop Michael Bransfield?

Did you see Brandon Ambrosino’s deeply reported Politico piece on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s empire at Liberty University? 

If not, you should. It’s about how Falwell Jr. runs the Christian college as a family fief, a de facto dictatorship, and a vehicle to enrich the family’s coffers, even at the expense of the university’s mission and reputation. The piece once again forces the question: where on earth is the university’s board of trustees? They remind me of a colorful phrase of my late father, who was once a farmer:  “useless as teats on a boar.”

Well, apparently some of them are speaking to Ambrosino. From the piece:

But these new revelations speak to rising discontent with Falwell’s stewardship. The people interviewed for this article include members of Liberty’s board of trustees, senior university officials, and rank-and-file staff members who work closely with Falwell. They are reluctant to speak out—there’s no organized, open dissent to Falwell on campus—but they said they see it as necessary to save Liberty University and the values it once stood for. They said they believe in the Christian tradition and in the conservative politics at the heart of Liberty’s mission.

Most of the long story is about business shenanigans that appear to violate, or come close to violating, the university’s tax-exempt status, and certainly are at odds with the school’s Christian mission. But the juiciest stuff has to do with Jerry Jr.’s life as a player. Ambrosino got his hands on 2014 shots of Jerry Jr., his wife Becki, their son Trey and Trey’s wife partying at a Miami nightclub. Ambrosino writes:

According to several people with direct knowledge of the situation, Falwell—the president of a conservative Christian college that frowns upon co-ed dancing (Liberty students can receive demerits if seen doing it) and prohibits alcohol use (for which students can be expelled)—was angry that photos of him clubbing made it up online. To remedy the situation, multiple Liberty staffers said Falwell went to John Gauger, whom they characterized as his “IT guy,” and asked him to downgrade the photos’ prominence on Google searches. Gauger did not respond to requests for comment.

Jerry Jr. denied to Ambrosino that the photos were real, and claimed that his image had been photoshopped. The photographer who snapped them was so incensed by the claim that he released more of them the next day. 

And there’s this:

In May 2019, Reuters reported that Cohen helped Falwell contain the fallout from some racy “personal” photos.Later that month, Falwell took to Todd Starnes’ radio talk show to rebut the claims.

“This report is not accurate,” Falwell said. “There are no compromising or embarrassing photos of me.”

Members of Falwell’s inner circle took note of the phrasing.

“If you read how Jerry is framing his response, you can see he is being very selective,” one of Falwell’s confidants said. Racy photos do exist, but at least some of the photos are of his wife, Becki, as the Miami Herald confirmed in June.

Longtime Liberty officials close to Falwell told me the university president has shown or texted his male confidants—including at least one employee who worked for him at Liberty—photos of his wife in provocative and sexual poses.

At Liberty, Falwell is “very, very vocal” about his “sex life,” in the words of one Liberty official—a characterization multiple current and former university officials and employees interviewed for this story support. In a car ride about a decade ago with a senior university official who has since left Liberty, “all he wanted to talk about was how he would nail his wife, how she couldn’t handle [his penis size], and stuff of that sort,” this former official recalled. Falwell did not respond to questions about this incident.

More than simply talking with employees about his wife in a sexual manner, on at least one occasion, Falwell shared a photo of his wife wearing what appeared to be a French maid costume, according to a longtime Liberty employee with firsthand knowledge of the image and the fallout that followed.

Ewgh. If you think Politico is just making this stuff up, let me assure you that charges like this don’t make it into print unless they’ve been lawyered to death. That doesn’t mean that they’re true, but it does mean that Ambrosino and his editors almost certainly had to prove to the publication’s lawyers that these allegations could withstand a court challenge. If you’ve ever had to deal as a writer with your newspaper or magazine’s lawyers — I have — you know that they are a very conservative (not necessarily in the political sense) bunch who try to rein their clients in to reduce their potential legal exposure. Again, the fact that Politico published these allegations do not make them true, but it does show that the magazine is so confident in their factual accuracy that they are prepared to face down a very wealthy plaintiff in a libel suit, if it comes to that. That’s not nothing.

Read the whole thing. The final paragraphs are harsh. You should know, if you don’t already, that unlike his father, Jerry Jr. is not a preacher. But he is the head of an Evangelical Christian university. So, here:

One source pointed to a tweet Jerry Falwell Jr. sent out in June 2019 criticizing David Platt, an evangelical Virginia pastor who apologized for welcoming Trump to his church. “I only want to lead us with God’s Word in a way that transcends political party and position, heals the hurts of racial division and injustice, and honors every man and woman made in the image of God,” Platt said. “Sorry to be crude,” wrote Falwell in a since-deleted tweet, “but pastors like [David Platt] need to grow a pair.”

After Falwell came under criticism for his tweet about Platt, he responded to critics with a two-part Twitter thread, which, in the words of one current high-ranking Liberty official, “a lot of people found troubling.”

“I have never been a minister,” Falwell tweeted. “UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs. Univ president for last 12 years-student body tripled to 100000+/endowment from 0 to $2 billion and $1.6B new construction in those 12 years. The faculty, students and campus pastor @davidnasser of @LibertyU are the ones who keep LU strong spiritually as the best Christian univ in the world. While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics.”

To those who worked for Liberty under the late Rev. Falwell, the sentiment appeared to signal a serious departure from his father’s legacy. “Bragging about business success and washing his hands of any responsibility for spiritual life at the university—that was frankly a pretty Trumpian line of commentary,” said one former university official with longstanding ties to both Liberty and the Falwell family.

Jerry Jr. says he has asked the FBI to investigate whether employees who leaked his e-mails to journalists broke the law. He’s not denying their content, so I guess that’s all he has left — that, and claiming that he’s being targeted from within because he’s a defender of Donald Trump.

Today, Reuters reported on a new leak of Jerry Jr. e-mails to Liberty U. employees. Excerpts:

As he complains of being targeted by critics, Reuters has found that Falwell himself was disparaging Liberty students, staff and parents for years in emails to Liberty administrators.

The several dozen emails reviewed by Reuters span nearly a decade-long period starting in 2008. In the emails, Falwell insults some Liberty students, calling them “social misfits.” In others, he blasts faculty members and senior Liberty staff:

-Ronald Sones, then the dean of the engineering school, was “a bag of hot air” who “couldn’t spell the word ‘profit,’” Falwell wrote in 2011. Sones is no longer the dean and could not be reached for comment.

-Richard Hinkley, the campus police chief, was “a half-wit and easy to manipulate” and shouldn’t be allowed to speak publicly. Hinkley could not be reached for comment.

-Of Kevin Keys, then Liberty’s associate athletics director, Falwell wrote in 2012: “Only get Kevin involved in something if you want it not to work.” Contacted by Reuters, Keys said: “I don’t know anything about that and I would prefer not to comment.”


The selection of emails provides a glimpse of the management style Falwell employs to run the nonprofit Christian university, which reports $2.8 billion in assets. Several of the emails take a derogatory tone toward Liberty parents, students, and other university officials.

In one 2012 email, Falwell dismisses Liberty parents who begged the school not to move their kids from on-campus dorms to off-campus housing in the middle of their freshman year when Liberty sought to raze some dorms to build new ones.

In response to one mother’s letter expressing concern for how the move could affect her daughter, emails show, a top Liberty administrator sent a reassuring letter. Falwell struck a less sympathetic tone. “Tell them, if they keep complaining, we’ll tear them down over Thanksgiving break!” Falwell wrote to Liberty officials.

Who wants their kid to attend a Christian (!) college under the stewardship of a creep like that? How can you be president of a Christian university, but then claim that you have nothing to do with its spiritual quality? Falwell Jr. may not be a pastor, but he is unquestionably a Christian leader. Seems to me that the board of directors ought to be doing more to defend the university than speaking without attribution to reporters, and leaking e-mails.

Meanwhile, in other Religious Leaders Behaving Badly, the Washington Post has a new piece up about the lush life of former Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling, W. Va. It begins like this:

It was billed as a holy journey, a pilgrimage with West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield to “pray, sing and worship” at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Catholics from remote areas of one of the nation’s poorest states paid up to $190 for seats on overnight buses and hotel rooms.

Unknown to the worshipers, Bransfield traveled another way. He hired a private jet and, after a 33-minute flight, took a limousine from the airport. The church picked up his $6,769 travel bill.

That trip in September 2017 was emblematic of the secret history of Bransfield’s lavish travel. He spent millions of dollars from his diocese on trips in the United States and abroad, records show, while many of his parishioners struggled to find work, feed their families and educate their children.

 Pope Francis has said bishops should live modestly. During his 13 years as the leader of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield took nearly 150 trips on private jets and some 200 limousine rides, a Washington Post investigation found. He stayed at exclusive hotels in Washington, Rome, Paris, London and the Caribbean.

Last year, Bransfield stayed a week in the penthouse of a legendary Palm Beach, Fla., hotel, at a cost of $9,336. He hired a chauffeur to drive him around Washington for a day at a cost of $1,383. And he spent $12,386 for a jet to fly him from the Jersey Shore to a meeting with the pope’s ambassador in the nation’s capital.

You have to read the whole thing. This Bransfield is extravagantly corrupt — and the diocese’s own investigation (the source of the Post‘s report) documents it with receipts. His reputation from his lengthy tenure at the Basilica in DC was that of a player, and not just in matters of luxury. Matthew B. O’Brien’s powerful, detailed First Things piece back in April, detailing the corruption at the Papal Foundation involving then-cardinal Ted McCarrick, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and Bishop Bransfield, explains how sexual corruption is tied up with financial corruption in the Catholic hierarchy. Along these very same lines, one prominent Catholic layperson who worked at a very high level within the Church (though not with Bransfield) told me earlier this year that they had never imagined that there was such a close connection between sexual and financial corruption until they took a job working closely with the hierarchy.

It’s about the sex and the money. It was like that with Bishop Bransfield, it seems, and in a different way, it might be about that with Jerry Falwell Jr. Though no one has alleged that he has committed adultery, the weird photo thing with his wife (supposedly photos of her in a position unbefitting the wife of a conservative Christian university president), and this allegation that Jerry Jr. brags in the workplace about his sexual prowess, indicates profound moral and spiritual disorder.

How can the churches, and church institutions, minister to the world when they cannot clean up their own messes, and hold their own leaders accountable? It’s a more than fair question. It’s also a necessary one.

UPDATE: A Catholic reader sends me updates I missed about the unfolding gay sex scandal engulfing the Diocese of Buffalo and its bishop, Richard Malone. Here the successor of the apostles in Buffalo meets the press to discuss the disclosure of a love letter between Father Ryszard, his assistant, and a seminarian with whom Father Ryszard was intimate:

In the midst of an ongoing crisis surrounding Bishop Richard Malone’s governance of the Diocese of Buffalo, newly revealed correspondence suggests a romantic relationship between the bishop’s priest secretary and a former diocesan seminarian who resigned last month.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Malone called the content of the letter “a bit concerning” and the entire situation “a very complex, convoluted matter.”

Yeah — it involves a gay love triangle with two priests and a seminarian. You can read the entire 2016 love letter here. 

Meanwhile, Father Ryszard leaked a recording he made secretly in a meeting with the bishop. From that report:

It’s the morning of Friday, Aug. 2, and Bishop Richard J. Malone hasn’t slept for two nights.

“We are in a true crisis situation,” Malone said. “True crisis. And everyone in the office is convinced this could be the end for me as bishop. It could force me to resign if in fact they make a story…”

Malone is at his sprawling residence on Buffalo’s East Side for a one-on-one meeting with his trusted secretary, Rev. Ryszard Biernat, and the embattled bishop is concerned about a brewing story regarding Christ the King Seminary, allegations of love letters and claims of sexual harassment by a diocesan priest.

“I think we’re gonna blow this story up into something like an atom bomb if we start talking about that. You know?” Malone said to Biernat. “Cause then it sounds like, it sounds like a soap opera. It sounds like a love triangle. And you know what the media can do with that.”

Biernat goes on to say that he made the secret recording and released it because the bishop sees these messes, but never acts on them, or acts too late. It turns out that the third member of the alleged love triangle was a Father Nowak, at the seminary, who tried to blackmail Biernat’s apparent lover, seminarian Bojanowski, into having a sexual relationship with him. The blackmail allegedly included going through Bojanowski’s private things, finding the love letter, and photographing it.

Get this: even though Malone knew back in January what Nowak was up to, and is on tape worrying that a guy he believed used information gathered in the confessional for sexual blackmail might be dangerous to leave in parish ministry … he left him in parish ministry.

The big thing that Bishop Malone is worried about, according to the August 2 recording, is whether or not he will be allowed to keep his own job.

So: three clerical queens are engaged in a knife fight, and the do-nothing bishop is worried that the people will find out what’s really going on, and push him out.

Why would anybody want to be priest of that diocese? Why would anybody want their sons to be a priest of that diocese? Why do people still believe that the Catholic Church scandals are only incidentally about gay men having sex behind the veil of holy orders?




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