W.Va. scandal muddies legacy of Vatican’s longtime fixer from Baltimore
By Michelle Boorstein
September 2, 2019
|Baltimore Archbishop William Lori leaves after celebrating Sunday Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in July in the suburb of Randallstown.|
Photo by Mary F. Calvert
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.
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.”
He also said the decision on whether to make the report public was the Vatican’s, not his.
His spokesman said Lori’s request for $300,000 was appropriate because the Maryland school served some West Virginia students. The spokesman said the omission of bishops from the policies crafted in Dallas was not Lori’s “decision to make.”
In an interview, Bransfield called DeGeorge’s account “a lie” but declined to elaborate. Bransfield was removed from ministry in March after Lori’s investigators concluded that the cash gifts were part of a broader pattern of abuse of power by the bishop, including harassing young priests and spending church money on personal indulgences. Bransfield has denied wrongdoing.
In his role overseeing the probe, Lori’s motives and actions have come in for vigorous scrutiny. At 68, Lori is the ambitious, dedicated, loyal servant he’s always been, a hard-charger in French cuffs and spectacles. But the world around him has changed. Catholics are demanding more transparency.
In an hour-long interview in his office in July, the archbishop sounded chastened about what his spokesman called the hardest period of Lori’s career.
“I’m a work in progress. And the older I get, the more I recognize that,” Lori said. “I go to confession every couple weeks, not because I want to, but because I need to. I expect people to respect the office, but I know I need to earn their trust.”
A fast rise handling scandals
Born in Louisville, Lori studied at the Seminary of St. Pius X in his hometown and then headed north. He attended Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and Catholic University, from which he earned a doctorate in sacred theology in 1982. He spent a good part of his early career in the Washington archdiocese, where he made his name alongside a young priest from Philadelphia named Michael Bransfield.
Lori rose quickly, starting as a young priest in the early 1980s and becoming a top aide to James Hickey, then the D.C. archbishop. By the standards of the time, Hickey was a leader on addressing clergy abuse — for instance, meeting with and apologizing to victims.
As his aide, Lori was dispatched to remove abusive priests from ministry before doing so was common. In 1995, he represented the archdiocese on television when four priests were forced out after admitting they molested an altar boy years earlier. Lori announced that the priests had been sent to undisclosed locations for counseling.
Lori’s spokesman, Sean Caine, said the then-monsignor announced in parishes why the priests were being ousted and connected The Post with one of the victims. Lori believes victim-survivors “should always be the first priority,” said Caine, who responded to questions before and after the interview with Lori.
Lori’s star was ascendant. A few months after the altar boy case, he was made an auxiliary — or assistant — bishop in the District, becoming one of the country’s youngest bishops at age 43.
In 1997, Lori led an inquiry into Hickey’s concerns that a Georgetown parish had been allowing criticism of the church’s refusal to ordain women and using gender-neutral words during readings for Mass. Over three days, Lori and two subordinate priests individually summoned dozens of parishioners into a room, told them the session would be recorded and asked them to swear an oath to be truthful.
Lori said in news accounts at the time that the process was a reasonable way to gather information about the parish, but some liberals saw it as insulting.
“He acted as inquisitor — it was really ugly,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit who was then a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. “Lay people there felt very hurt.”
In 2001, Lori was made bishop of the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese, and soon he took on a major role in the most urgent crisis then facing the church. Lori was a key figure in the creation of what is known as the Dallas Charter, the set of rules drafted in 2002 in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal that had shaken the church. He was one of four U.S. bishops who traveled to Rome to finalize the document, which established procedures for handling sexual abuse complaints, including that they be reported to police or prosecutors.
The rules applied to accused priests but not bishops, who under church law can be disciplined only by the pope, the bishops concluded. They agreed to be more outspoken in criticizing one another, a solution the document calls “fraternal correction.”
To oversee compliance with the charter, the bishops set up a board composed of prominent lay Catholics.
But Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, who chaired the board in the mid-2000s, said in an interview that Lori and the other bishops paid only lip service to the concept. She recalled once contacting him for information.
“When he got back to me, it wasn’t pleasant,” she said. “It was like: ‘Who do you think you are, asking me questions?’ ”
She said he “dismissed me” and “gave a sour note in the way he talked with me.”
Caine said Lori did not recall the conversation with Burke and remembered that he later had a friendly conversation with her and her husband at a New York function and that afterward, they sent him a book. Caine said Lori is “a kind, considerate and polite man who demonstrates respect for everyone.”
Seizing on religious freedom
Even before the Dallas agreement, Lori established new practices and policies in Bridgeport, including removing suspected sex offenders from ministry, offering abuse awareness training, doing criminal background checks on diocesan employees, and — for the first time — reporting allegations of clergy sexual abuse to state investigators, according to reports at the time.
Lori stood out as being accessible — both to reporters and survivors — on a topic most bishops avoided. He talked with outside sexual-abuse experts on his radio show in Bridgeport. He built a reputation for being pragmatic and an activist, someone who wanted to be a visible leader on the biggest issues.“He comes across as being a pastoral, caring person, and that goes a long way when you’ve dealt with just: ‘Attack, attack, attack,’ ” said attorney Cindy Robinson, who represented church abuse victims in Connecticut, referring to the ways Lori’s predecessors treated people who alleged abuse.
Even so, he squared off against members of the national Catholic group Voice of the Faithful, which began as a response to the 2002 abuse crisis and had started advocating for more liberal church policies.
The group at one point contacted the Bridgeport diocese to talk about the crisis. In response, Lori dispatched priests who criticized the group for not being orthodox enough, said Joe O’Callaghan, a Fordham University history professor who was a member of the organization. Voice of the Faithful and another advocacy group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, were soon told they could not meet in the diocese’s parishes, O’Callaghan said.
Caine said the victims’ groups did not accurately reflect the church’s efforts to help those who had been abused by priests. Also, he said, bishops generally allow only groups whose theology is aligned with that of the church to hold events in parishes.
Also during that period, Lori fought a seven-year legal battle to keep secret thousands of pages of court documents from lawsuits that accused Bridgeport priests of abuse. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately refused to intervene in the case brought by four news organizations, leading to the release of documents that showed Lori’s predecessors hid the reasons they were moving accused priests from parish to parish.
Lori told the Associated Press at the time that the public was not interested in “a repeat of reports about what happened in the past, tragic and reprehensible as that was.” Caine said Lori was focused on protecting names of innocent priests and medical records in the files.
While he was in Bridgeport, Lori became the U.S. church’s unofficial spokesman for a cause gaining national steam: religious freedom, specifically that of religious conservatives concerned by the lightning-fast advance of gay equality. Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage in fall 2008, and Barack Obama was soon swept into office promising to expand health-care coverage for contraception and abortion.
In 2009, Lori drew national attention by fighting a proposed state measure that would have given lay people significant control over Catholic parishes. The idea had been raised by a Catholic churchgoer fed up with embezzlement scandals involving two local priests. It was advanced by two Catholic lawmakers.
Lori rallied thousands of Catholics to the state capitol, branding the proposal an attack on religious freedom.
The proposal, which had gathered little support, was quickly withdrawn.
Supporters say Lori was prescient in tapping into passions that would grow in subsequent years as same-sex marriage became law — tensions between the gains of liberals in the United States and the religious rights of conservatives.
Critics say he exaggerated the threat. “What he said in public wasn’t in tune with reality,” said Mike Lawlor, a Democrat and former state representative who helped advance the measure and who was then chair of the Judiciary Committee. “But he took advantage of an opportunity. You can’t fault him for that; he relished that role, the victim role.”
The buses of protesters who came to the capitol in Hartford, Lawlor said, “looked like a Trump rally.” Conservative Connecticut blogs at the time celebrated Lori’s campaign, framing his opponents as those who hated Christianity generally.
Lawlor said that in the decade he and Lori overlapped in Connecticut, the bishop came to talk with him only once, to argue against legislation that gave sexual abuse victims more time to sue offenders.
“He went on and on about financial burden of all,” Lawlor recalled. “I was like: You’ve got to be kidding me. . . . To put it mildly, asking for that was totally tone deaf at that time.”
Caine did not dispute Lawlor’s account of Lori’s position on the issue, which is aligned with arguments the church has long advanced. He said diocesan lobbyists, not the bishop, would be the ones primarily at the capitol to advocate.
In 2012, Lori was chosen to lead the new Committee for Religious Liberty for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In that role, he became the public face of the church’s effort to strip out federal funding for abortions and mandatory contraception coverage from the Affordable Care Act.
An elite leader in the church
Pope Benedict XVI elevated Lori that year to be archbishop of Baltimore.
The Baltimore archdiocese has a special status in the U.S. church. It was the country’s first Catholic diocese, established in 1789. A disproportionate number of its leaders have become cardinals.
The position carries enormous prestige. Lori lives in a sprawling historic residence that was built by the architect of the U.S. Capitol and in which hang portraits by famed artist Gilbert Stuart. There is also a portrait of Lori himself painted by John Howard Sanden, who did the official portraits of George W. Bush and Laura Bush. The $75,000 portrait was donated by the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization. Lori has been the organization’s top chaplain since 2005, a role for which he is paid $135,000 a year.
The Knights of Columbus also supports various programs in the archdiocese — as it does across the country — and paid for a private chapel in the archbishop’s residence, a Knights spokesman said.
Supporters of Lori praise him for stabilizing Catholic school enrollment — he announced plans last year to open the first new Catholic school in Baltimore in decades — and for putting the schools on firmer financial footing. Voice of the Faithful last year ranked Baltimore fourth among 177 dioceses for financial transparency. He is a good listener and includes lay people and women in high positions, some supporters say.
Mary Pat Seurkamp, vice chair of the archdiocesan school board and a former president of Notre Dame of Maryland University, said Lori’s entire career should be taken into account when evaluating how he handled the Bransfield allegations. “You have evidence of other things showing he’s willing to take a stand when others would not,” she said. “None of us is perfect.”
As leader of the region’s biggest diocese, Lori regularly received financial reports from nearby smaller ones, including Bransfield’s in Wheeling-Charleston. Lori knew Bransfield’s diocese had a massive endowment built on revenue from oil-rich land in Texas donated to the diocese more than a century ago.
In March 2018, Lori asked Bransfield for $300,000 to support Bishop Walsh, a struggling Catholic school in Maryland near the West Virginia border, attended by a few dozen West Virginia children.
Notes from the special diocesan financial council meeting to discuss the request say a gift of $150,000 was given only after Bransfield noted that West Virginia, like Baltimore, “was struggling.”
Earlier this summer, Lori returned to West Virginia — a diocese he was at that point overseeing with Bransfield’s removal last fall. He asked for another $150,000.
Caine told The Post that when the $150,000 was granted in 2018, the diocese “planned to revisit the remainder this school year.” Diocesan Finance Council notes say the 2018 money was a “one-time gift.”
David Turner, a member of the Finance Council, said that the 2019 request was “extensively debated” and that he could recall no similar request in his 12 years on the council. However, he found no fault with the request and praised Lori’s leadership in West Virginia, saying the archbishop was attentive and well-liked.
“There was nothing nefarious,” Turner said.
In the interview with The Post, Lori called Bransfield “an acquaintance” with whom he had a friendly relationship during the nearly 20 years the men were around Catholic University and both rose to high positions in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Lori’s investigation of Bransfield was launched at a time when Pope Francis was demanding that dioceses worldwide begin finding ways to hold bishops accountable. In overseeing it, Lori had the opportunity to set a precedent for how such matters would be handled and how much information the church would share with parishioners.
The Vatican announced Bransfield’s retirement in September without offering details. The U.S. bishops said in a separate news release that day that Bransfield had been accused of financial and sexual misconduct and that Lori would lead an investigation into those claims.
Lori said he wrote the news release and was attempting to be as transparent as possible. He said there was “some back and forth” with the Vatican about what would be in the release and that he “put in as much as I thought I could get away with.”
“I knew it would be trimmed, and it was trimmed,” he said.
The day The Post planned to publish its June report about the investigation’s findings, Lori’s office asked for additional time to prepare responses. Fifteen minutes before the agreed-upon deadline, Lori published a letter to his parishioners, saying that “in the interest of transparency,” he was going public with information about the checks he had received.
He also told parishioners he would return $7,500 of the money he had received “in light of what I have come to learn” about the diocese’s finances. He did not mention the impending Post article. The investigation had concluded in February. (He kept $3,000 from Bransfield, money Lori said was compensation related to two special Masses he celebrated in West Virginia.)
“I wanted them to hear from me, not you, and that’s understandable,” Lori told The Post, describing his decision to publish the letter to parishioners. “When your family gets bad news, you want them to hear it from you.”
Days after the story published, the U.S. bishops met in Baltimore for their annual spring meeting. The core issue on the agenda was to vote for a first-ever system for bishops to investigate one another. Lori’s investigation of Bransfield was discussed as a model.
Some lay Catholics complained that the approach Lori had taken — having a bishop oversee an investigation of another bishop — was insufficient. To them, the handling of the Bransfield matter made that clear.
“The bishops as a body do not recognize the weariness and exasperation of the laity as they are shut out and discounted — again,” read a statement from 5 Theses, a D.C.-based group formed recently to advocate for greater church transparency. “There is deep discouragement.”
The bishops took a different view. Lori’s investigation had worked, they told reporters.
It “successfully exposed a problem,” Portland, Maine, Bishop Robert Deeley said. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Tex., said: “You can always say we could do this or that a little better, but it resulted in accountability.”