W.Va. scandal muddies legacy of Vatican’s longtime fixer from Baltimore

Washington Post

September 2, 2019

By Michelle Boorstein

Late last summer, Vatican officials realized they had an uncontainable mess — four whistleblowing priests alleging financial and sexual misconduct by the bishop of West Virginia. So they did what Catholic officials have done for decades: They turned to William Lori.

From Rome and Washington to Connecticut and then Baltimore, where he is now archbishop, Lori is often on the front lines when the nation’s largest religious group is facing major scandals or perceived threats to its values and traditions. He is the Vatican’s fixer in the United States.

When the clergy sexual abuse scandal exploded in the news in the early 2000s, Lori helped craft policies to hold abusive priests — but not bishops — accountable. When the Obama administration pressed for greater acceptance of same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion, Lori led a national campaign arguing that America’s religious freedom was at stake. And when the Vatican decided last fall to investigate the accused cleric in West Virginia, that job, too, fell to Lori.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori leaves after celebrating Sunday Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in July in the suburb of Randallstown. (Mary F. Calvert for The Washington Post)
The probe of the allegations against Michael Bransfield, conducted by five lay investigators and overseen by Lori, was intended to signal a new era of church accountability. But Lori’s handling of it, along with revelations of his own links to Bransfield, have made the Baltimore archbishop a focus of anger by some parishioners and threaten to complicate his legacy.

First, The Washington Post reported in June that Lori was among dozens of clerics who had received cash gifts from Bransfield over the years, and that Lori ordered that the recipients’ names — including his own — be omitted from a confidential report on the investigation’s findings. Some church insiders were further rankled by another aspect of Lori’s years-long relationship with the man he investigated: In March of last year, Lori asked Bransfield’s diocese for $300,000 for a school in the Baltimore archdiocese that also served students from West Virginia, according to church financial records.

An online petition organized by parishioners and signed over the summer by more than 900 people demands that Lori release the report detailing the investigators’ findings. It decries misconduct by church leaders, saying “we are forced to acknowledge that the coverups have been facilitated by our acquiescence to a culture of clericalism that has pervaded our Church.”

Last month, Vincent DeGeorge, a former seminarian who says he was mistreated by Bransfield, complained to the Vatican’s U.S. ambassador that Lori’s report may have misled church leaders. In an Aug. 14 letter, DeGeorge faulted Lori for omitting from the report the names of clerics who received cash gifts from Bransfield. He also noted Lori’s “personal role in exempting abusive bishops” from the policy document crafted in Dallas in 2002 in response to the abuse crisis.

“Certain parties may have been woefully misled by the report that the entrusted investigator delivered to your office,” DeGeorge wrote to Christophe Pierre, whose title as ambassador is nuncio.

DeGeorge, who served as Bransfield’s traveling assistant on multiple occasions until last year, told The Post that Bransfield drank excessively and then inappropriately hugged, kissed and touched him and showed him lewd films.

After The Post’s June report, Lori told parishioners that he regretted omitting the recipients’ names, and he pledged to reimburse the diocese $7,500. He also said including recipients’ names might have suggested — wrongly, in his view — that “there were expectations for reciprocity.”

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