The Bransfield report: Post publishes secret Vatican document as parishioners demand answers
By Shawn Boburg, Robert O'harrow Jr. And Michelle Boorstein
December 23, 2019
|Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, shown here presiding over a Mass in 2010, retired in 2018 as church officials announced an investigation into unspecified allegations of financial and sexual misconduct.|
Photo by Katherine Frey
For months, civil authorities and Catholic parishioners have sought access to a secret church report about Michael J. Bransfield, the West Virginia bishop ousted for alleged sexual and financial misconduct. Law enforcement authorities in two jurisdictions contend that it could aid investigations they have launched, and parishioners have said it could help them understand how Bransfield’s behavior went unchecked for so long.
But so far, the report has remained out of their reach.
The Washington Post obtained a copy of the document in June and has drawn on it and other records for a series of stories about the role of cash gifts among senior clerics in the church’s ongoing sex abuse crisis.
The 60-page report is brimming with investigative findings about how Bransfield allegedly groomed and inappropriately touched young men and spent millions of dollars in church money on himself and on fellow clerics.
After church officials repeatedly declined to say whether they were going to release the report, The Post has decided to publish it on its website for the first time with some details redacted to protect the identities of alleged victims of sexual improprieties. The Post is doing so in response to significant interest from the public.
“The people of West Virginia cannot trust that an adequate investigation has been done, or that ‘amends’ have really been made if we do not know the full picture of the behavior of Bransfield and of diocesan personnel,” Michael Iafrate, a co-coordinator for the lay organization Catholic Committee of Appalachia, said last month.
Church officials in West Virginia have said they don’t have a copy of the report, even though two people with knowledge of the matter say the diocese paid more than $500,000 for the investigation. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the investigation.
“The Holy See commissioned the preliminary investigation, thus the report belongs to the Holy See,” Tim Bishop, a spokesman for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, said in a statement. “The Diocese paid the costs associated with the investigation because it was warranted by the conduct of its former bishop.”
The spokesman did not respond to a question about the $500,000 claim.
Bransfield retired in September 2018, as church officials announced Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori would oversee an investigation into unspecified allegations of financial and sexual misconduct.
Lori hired the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder to lead a five-person investigative team that included two lawyers from the firm, the chancellor of the Baltimore diocese, a financial consultant and a retired human resources official from the West Virginia diocese.
Since February, when the confidential investigative report was completed, West Virginia’s attorney general and police in Washington, D.C., have issued subpoenas to church officials in Wheeling and Baltimore, seeking the report and other records about Bransfield that they believe could help investigations into sex abuse claims.
In public statements, church officials repeatedly pledged to cooperate.
“The Diocese stands ready to cooperate fully with any civil investigation and law enforcement request,” Bishop told The Post in October.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the church is not fulfilling its promise.
“The Diocese has denied our request for the Bransfield report, saying the report is with the Pope and out of its hands,” said Morrisey, who asked for the confidential report as part of a lawsuit against the diocese alleging that it knowingly hired sexual predators. “How is that cooperating?”
Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, also said that the report was the property of the Vatican. Caine did not respond to a question about whether the archdiocese has a copy.
“The report on the preliminary investigation was sent to Rome,” Caine said in a statement.
A Vatican spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Bransfield has denied wrongdoing.
In recent months, FBI agents have interviewed multiple church officials in West Virginia about Bransfield. It is not clear if they have asked for the report. An FBI spokesman declined to comment.
D.C. police are probing an allegation that Bransfield inappropriately touched a 9-year-old girl on a church trip to the nation’s capital. They have sent subpoenas for a broad array of Bransfield-related documents to church leaders in West Virginia and the archdioceses of Baltimore and Philadelphia, where Bransfield started his career.
The subpoenas, signed by a D.C. Superior Court judge on Sept. 20, demand “all records that in any way relate to any allegations of sexual or physical abuse” involving Bransfield, “regardless of whether the allegations were ultimately deemed credible,” according to a copy obtained by The Post.
West Virginia and Philadelphia have provided some records, according to a person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it. Baltimore officials are considering the matter, the person said.
“The Archdiocese is reviewing the document to understand what is requested,” Caine said on Thursday. “We will be fully cooperative in our response, as is our long-standing practice.”