Too Many Questions Remain Unanswered in the Case of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield

By Michael J. Iafrate
Washington Post
August 2, 2019

A 2015 file photo shows West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, then-bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. (Scott McCloskey/The Intelligencer via AP, File)

Two months after the U.S. Catholic Church was hit by a major scandal surrounding a West Virginia bishop, church officials are telling us it’s time to move on. But for many of us Catholics in West Virginia, that message feels like a punch in the gut. Serious reasons remain for Catholics everywhere to pause and demand much more transparency surrounding the case of former bishop Michael Bransfield.

Those reasons have to do with who oversaw the production of the investigative report on Bransfield, what the report said about allegations of child sexual abuse, and the fact that the document has never been made public.

Bransfield retired in September just as U.S. church officials announced an investigation into alleged sexual and financial misconduct during his tenure. In June, we learned details of those allegations when The Washington Post reported on the contents of the secret church report: massive financial mismanagement and lavish spending of church money, officials’ ignoring of Bransfield’s sexual misconduct, and the fact that top leaders in the United States and Rome had received cash gifts from Bransfield, including William Lori, the archbishop who oversaw the probe.

Two weeks ago, the Vatican handed down penalties suspending Bransfield from public ministry and immediately named a new bishop, Mark Brennan. But for many Catholics in West Virginia, it’s not time to move on. There are a few reasons for that.

Church officials in West Virginia and Baltimore have mischaracterized a key part of their own report. Throughout the investigation, when Lori and diocesan officials would discuss the Bransfield allegations, they generally used the term “sexual harassment” of priests and seminarians. However, The Post’s coverage cites the report as describing something that appears to go beyond harassment. It quotes a seminarian who says Bransfield pulled the young man against him and ran his hands over the seminarian’s genitals. In addition, at least one West Virginia seminarian has since filed a lawsuit against Bransfield alleging assault.

Likewise, church officials apparently have not been totally transparent when it comes to allegations that Bransfield abused minors in Philadelphia in the 1970s. Bransfield has denied all allegations of misconduct with adults or youth.

The first allegation of child sexual abuse against Bransfield became public in 2012 when his name was mentioned during secondhand testimony in an unrelated clergy sexual abuse trial in Philadelphia.

Last year, when the Wheeling-Charleston diocese released its list of clerics accused of child sexual abuse, Bransfield was not included. Asked about this omission, diocesan spokesman Tim Bishop in December 2018 said allegations involving Bransfield and minors had been deemed “non-credible” by the archdiocese of Philadelphia.

And in June, when The Post’s story appeared, Lori issued a letter to the diocese summarizing the investigation’s findings, stating: “The investigation found no conclusive evidence of sexual misconduct with minors by the former bishop during its investigation.”

However, that’s not a complete depiction of his own report’s conclusions.

A few days after The Post’s coverage began, one of its religion reporters, Michelle Boorstein, released a series of tweets stating that lay investigators in the Bransfield case looked into two allegations of child sexual misconduct in more detail.

The first case involves the secondhand report against Bransfield made during a 2012 Philadelphia trial. A victim of a different priest testified that the priest told him Bransfield was sexually involved with a youth. In an affidavit, the alleged victim denied it.

Boorstein says the report then discusses a second allegation brought to the attention of the Philadelphia archdiocese in 2007 from a man who says Bransfield abused him when he was a high school student. Bransfield was a teacher at the time. Cardinal Justin Rigali, then Philadelphia archbishop, said in 2009 that there were inconsistencies and that the accusation was unsubstantiated

The victim reported the allegation again in 2012, and it was sent to the Vatican. “The report,” Boorstein wrote, “says the church file 'does not reflect any further action.’” Montgomery County, Pa., authorities said that “further investigation was unwarranted,” the report says.

Church officials seem to have dropped the issue at this point. And the report itself may suggest why. Boorstein, quoting the report, went on to say that the “investigators ‘were advised’ that Philadelphia’s Review Board didn’t look into the complaint because the archdiocese didn’t think they had jurisdiction because Bransfield was a bishop.” The report suggests that Bransfield’s position as bishop may have afforded him certain privileges that protected him from scrutiny.

The report concludes: “We did not find conclusive evidence that Bishop Bransfield committed sexual misconduct with minors; however, there is significant reason for concern that this occurred.” The topic, the investigators state, “may warrant further inquiry.”

Lori’s letter to West Virginia Catholics stating that investigators found “no conclusive evidence” that Bransfield had abused minors seems dishonest, as it leaves out the report’s suggestion that Bransfield may have been protected by jurisdictional issues and episcopal privilege, as well as its recommendation that the case be revisited. It is fair to ask whether Lori’s incomplete summary of the report contributed in any way toward Pope Francis’s weak reprimand.

The Bransfield probe was held up at a June meeting of U.S. bishops as a successful model of how bishops could investigate other bishops — something quite new in the Church. Some bishops pointed to Lori’s investigation as they voted to approve a new system in which archbishops — known as “metropolitans” — are authorized to investigate allegations against bishops of smaller nearby dioceses.

But Lori’s incomplete representation of the contents of his own report raises concerns about the actions that metropolitan bishops and Vatican officials could take once they have gleaned information from an investigation. This trial run of the metropolitan approach seemed to do the following: First, get as much information as possible through the investigation. Next, control that information as much as possible, keeping the focus on Bransfield. Finally, shield the public from any evidence of the complicity of others, and indeed of the entire clerical system.

It seems clear that Lori wanted information about himself and his relationship to Bransfield to remain hidden. Are Lori and the Vatican also hiding the full truth about the Philadelphia allegations?

From the start, some West Virginia Catholics including myself were suspicious of the investigation because Lori wouldn’t reveal the investigators’ identities and other basic details of the probe. We felt justified when The Post report came out in early June showing that Lori was among the recipients of Bransfield’s gifts — using funds for which Bransfield was later reimbursed by the diocese. Lori received $10,500 in checks from Bransfield, The Post reported, and then redacted the names of gift recipients, including his own, from the report before it went to Rome.

The archbishop later apologized for the decision, but he told a West Virginia newspaper, “As you can see, it didn’t prevent me from authorizing a no-holds-barred report.” “As you can see” is funny language to use in reference to a report that remains hidden from the public.

Now that Rome has issued its sanctions on Bransfield, church officials want us to trust that the punishment fits the crime and that healing can now begin. But Lori’s tight control of the report and his misrepresentation of its contents still prevent us from knowing the truth about the crimes in the first place.

All of this suggests that the new system of bishops investigating bishops is simply a new face of the church’s textbook protectionism. At some point, the bishops could very well convince us that they are capable of investigating one another, and that justice has been done in West Virginia.

The only way to do that, though, is by atoning for Lori’s sins of omission through real transparency, including the release of the full Bransfield report and a full accounting for what happened in Philadelphia. Short of that, welcome to the same old story.

Michael J. Iafrate is a doctoral candidate in theology from West Virginia and co-coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.