Pope Orders Investigation of West Virginia Bishop Over Sex Allegations

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
September 13, 2018

The pope has accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield and ordered an investigation into sexual harassment allegations.
Photo by Scott McCloskey

The blows seem to land nearly every day: Bishops are accused, investigations are ordered, resignations are demanded, damning documents are leaked. The sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church keeps spiraling through the church hierarchy, threatening the standing of Pope Francis.

On Thursday, an American bishop in West Virginia was brought down by allegations of sexual misconduct, even as a delegation of American church leaders met urgently with the pope behind closed doors over whether the Vatican had ignored past warnings of abuse by a prominent cardinal.

“This is the long expected reckoning of leadership,” said Christopher Bellitto, a professor of history at Kean University in New Jersey who closely follows developments in the church. “It’s been postponed so long, it was finally going to blow up. It blows up in 2018, when it happens to be Francis sitting there.”

The pope accepted the immediate resignation on Thursday of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, whose diocese covers all of West Virginia, amid unspecified allegations that he had sexually harassed adults. The archbishop of Baltimore, William E. Lori, has been dispatched to take over running the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston temporarily and to investigate Bishop Bransfield’s conduct. The diocese opened a phone hotline for tips.

Two days earlier, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington since 2006, had written to the priests of his diocese to say that he might soon be stepping down as well. Cardinal Wuerl, once seen as a model in handling abuse cases, drew criticism after revelations that he had allowed priests accused of sexually abusing children to remain in ministry when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh.

Those cases were included in a grand jury report last month in Pennsylvania that detailed accounts of abuse of more than 1,000 children by more than 300 priests that were covered up for decades. Cardinal Wuerl said in his letter that he would discuss his resignation with the pope in Rome.

Bishop Bransfield is a close associate of the former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, who resigned from the College of Cardinals in July after allegations that he had molested an altar boy decades ago and had coerced adult seminary students to sleep in his bed. He denies the allegations.

Leaders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops were in Rome on Thursday to discuss the crisis with the pope. The meeting was prompted by revelations that Cardinal McCarrick had been made the archbishop of Washington and elevated to cardinal despite repeated warnings over many years that he had abused seminary students.

One of the four Americans in the meeting was Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Houston-Galveston and the president of the conference. He went into the meeting dogged by news reports that he had kept a priest in ministry in his own archdiocese despite pleas from a woman who said the priest had abused her as a young girl. A man told the archdiocese last month that he had been abused by the same priest, and on Tuesday, the priest was arrested on child abuse charges.

Another American who met with the pope happened to be Bishop Bransfield’s cousin, Msgr. Brian Bransfield, the secretary general of the bishops’ conference. The other two were Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the vice president of the conference, and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, who heads the pope’s commission on child protection.

Nothing concrete emerged from the meeting. Cardinal DiNardo, the president of the bishops’ conference, said afterward only that “it was a lengthy, fruitful and good exchange,” and that the bishops look forward to “identifying the most effective next steps.”

The conference asked the Vatican last month to investigate why Archbishop McCarrick was allowed to rise, but it was not clear whether the Americans had pressed that request directly with Francis when they met face to face on Thursday. A Vatican spokesman declined to say. After the meeting, the Vatican released only photographs of the pope at a large wooden table facing his visitors, some of them smiling.

The relentlessly spreading abuse scandal poses the greatest challenge that Pope Francis has faced to his papacy and legacy. As the church was trying to address the McCarrick revelations last month, the pope’s former ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, published an extraordinary letter calling for the pope’s resignation.

Archbishop Viganò accused Francis of removing disciplinary sanctions that the previous pope, Benedict XVI, had imposed on Cardinal McCarrick, despite evidence that the archbishop himself had treated Cardinal McCarrick as if no sanctions existed. The publication of the letter during the pope’s closely watched trip to Ireland, where the church had been ravaged by abuse revelations, brought into the open a long simmering civil war in the Vatican between supporters and critics of Francis.

The letter struck at Francis’ chief vulnerability, his record on sex abuse, where his actions have not kept pace with his promises.

On Wednesday, the pope took the unprecedented step of summoning the presidents of bishop’s conferences around the world to a conference on the issue in February 2019 — a move in keeping with the pope’s vision of a collegial, bottom-up church that empowered local bishops.

But survivors of sexual abuse were skeptical that some of the same bishops who had failed to take action to protect children and vulnerable adults for decades would suddenly take on a mission of accountability.

Though the sexual abuse scandal first erupted into view in America, it has since become a global problem for the church, with revelations of abuse and cover-ups in Australia, Ireland, Belgium, France, Chile and other countries.

The vast scale of the problem in Germany is detailed in a wide-ranging report commissioned by the country’ bishops that was leaked on Wednesday, two weeks before the German bishops had intended to release it. Researchers found that at least 1,670 church workers — more than 4 percent of the clergy — had been involved in the abuse of at least 3,677 children over seven decades. The researchers, who were not given access to confidential records, said there were probably many more cases that their study did not uncover.

And accusations continue to surface in American dioceses. The bishop of Buffalo, Richard J. Malone, has rebuffed a growing clamor for his resignation after a series of investigative reports by a local television station, WKBW, revealing that he kept priests in ministry despite strong evidence they were a threat to children. The most recent report, based on leaked church documents, found that when Bishop Malone, in an effort to demonstrate transparency, released a list of priests who had been accused of abuse, he omitted dozens of names.

The precipitous departure of Bishop Bransfield in West Virginia came with little warning, and no details about what he was accused of doing. But the bishop had faced serious allegations of misconduct before. During a high-profile 2012 trial of church leaders in Philadelphia, he was accused by two witnesses of associating with a priest who sexually abused minors and of being aware of the abuse. One witness said that the priest had sexually abused him at a beach house owned by Bishop Bransfield on the Jersey Shore. The bishop denied those claims and was not charged with any crime.

Bishop Bransfield is closely linked with former Cardinal McCarrick, who presided with two other cardinals at his 2005 consecration in Wheeling. The bishop worked closely with Cardinal McCarrick at the Papal Foundation, which raises millions of dollars for Vatican projects.

Bishop Bransfield is five days past his 75th birthday, the age at which it is customary for bishops to offer to resign and retire, though many are permitted to stay on.

Archbishop Lori said in his statement on Thursday: “I pledge to conduct a thorough investigation in search of the truth into the troubling allegations against Bishop Bransfield and to work closely with the clergy, religious and lay leaders of the diocese until the appointment of a new bishop.”



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