‘They’re all out to destroy me,’ Philly native Bishop Michael Bransfield says of abuse lawsuit

By Jeremy Roebuck
Philadelphia Inquirer
March 27, 2019

Michael J. Bransfield, a former Philadelphia priest and ex-bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia, pictured in 2005. In a new lawsuit, his former personal secretary claimed Bransfield sexually assaulted him in 2014.

In a new lawsuit, the former personal secretary for Roxborough native and ex-West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield described his former boss as a “sexual predator” prone to binge-drinking orange liqueur and venting his lust on priests and seminarians.

The plaintiff, a onetime seminarian in his early 20s identified in court filings by the initials J.E., says that Bransfield exposed his penis and groped him while they were traveling together on church business in 2014.

His suit marks the first time any of the bishop’s accusers have publicly offered an account of the type of alleged misconduct that led the Vatican to oust Bransfield, 75, from his position last year.

But in an interview Wednesday, the retired prelate dismissed the man’s claims — and those of his other accusers — as nothing more than a money grab.

“They’re all out to destroy me,” said Bransfield, who has been living in Roxborough since he left Wheeling. “I wasn’t even that friendly with this person.”

Since his resignation in September, Bransfield has been beset by a growing list of legal problems, including a lawsuit filed last week by West Virginia’s attorney general, alleging he and his predecessors within the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese had knowingly harbored pedophiles.

He was previously accused of abusing a minor during his time as a priest in Philadelphia — a claim Bransfield denied. Both prosecutors and the archdiocese reviewed the allegation; neither ultimately took action against him.

But even amid the current scandal, J.E.’s claims paint a particularly unflattering portrait of the man reared by a devout family of Philadelphia priests and named in 2004 as the Catholic Church’s top official in West Virginia.

The former bishop, the suit alleges, drank up to a bottle of 80-proof, orange-flavored Cointreau per night and then drunkenly hugged, kissed, and groped any seminarian within his reach.

“Bishop Bransfield was a sexual predator with a lustful disposition,” says the lawsuit, filed in a West Virginia court. “After being placed in a position of trust by [the church, he] sexually abused, molested, fondled and assaulted J.E. and other adolescent and ‘adult’ males.”

J.E.’s lawyer, Bobby Warner, said his client first came forward six weeks ago, as a Vatican-sanctioned investigation led by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori was concluding its work.

He met with church administrators for hours, but Warner said he did not know whether his client’s claims were among those Lori sent to Rome for review this month.

According to the lawsuit, J.E. first caught Bransfield’s eye in 2008, when the bishop had the teen assigned to be his personal altar server at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Wheeling.

Later, Bransfield selected the seminarian to serve as his personal secretary and sought to have him moved full-time into his residence — a step the lawsuit claims was blocked by a diocesan official in Wheeling who was concerned about the bishop’s alleged proclivities for young men.

For J.E., the situation came to a head during the 2014 church trip to Charleston, W. Va.

Bransfield stumbled home drunk after celebrating Mass one night and locked himself out of the parish where they were staying, the lawsuit claims. When J.E. went to let him in, the bishop allegedly grabbed him, exposed his own penis and then began rubbing his hands on the young man’s chest and genitals.

“J.E. struggled free of Bishop Bransfield’s grasp, ran into another part of the parish and locked himself in his room until daylight,” the suit states. He “was mortified and emotionally traumatized by the attack. The following morning Bishop Bransfield acted as if nothing had happened.”

Warner said his client left the church soon after that incident and had been too afraid to speak out until after the former bishop’s ouster last year.

In the interview Wednesday, Bransfield told The Inquirer that the plaintiff did work for him but declined to identify the man. He insisted the lawsuit grossly misrepresents the events of the Charleston trip.

“It is just totally untrue,” he said. “I was not drunk. … I went to bed on one side of the house, and he went to bed on the other side of the house. Nothing happened.”

He alleged his accusers have been conspiring together for years in an attempt to ruin him.

In addition to Bransfield, J.E.’s lawsuit names the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and several other unnamed church officials as defendants and seeks damages for psychological injuries, loss of employment, and humiliation.

A diocesan spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit.




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