Michael Bransfield, who led the Catholic Church in West Virginia for nearly 14 years, is under investigation for sexual harassment, Pope Francis announced Thursday.
The pope announced that he had authorized the investigation into whether Bransfield sexually harassed adults, and that he had accepted Bransfield’s resignation as bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which covers all of West Virginia. Bransfield offered his resignation last week when he reached his 75th birthday, as required by the church, according to Vatican officials.
Pope Francis’ announcement added awkward drama to an audience with U.S. church leaders over the abuse and cover-up scandal roiling the Catholic Church. It came just as a four-member U.S. delegation was sitting down with Francis in his private study in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican to discuss recent revelations about the church and sexual abuse.
Among the four U.S. delegates was Bransfield’s cousin, Monsignor Brian Bransfield, secretary-general of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Michael Bransfield had been investigated for an alleged groping incident in 2007 and was implicated in court testimony in 2012 in an infamous Philadelphia priest sex abuse case. He denied ever abusing anyone and the West Virginia diocese said it had disproved the claims.
Francis appointed Baltimore Archbishop William Lori to take over Bransfield’s West Virginia diocese temporarily. Lori said in a statement that Francis had also instructed him to “conduct an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment of adults against Bishop Bransfield.”
No details of the allegations were revealed and his diocese said it had “no idea” where Bransfield was after the Vatican ordered him to live outside the diocese.
Lori set up a hotline for potential victims to call. That number is 833-272-4225.
Lori said the Vatican had instructed him to make the investigation public and vowed to conduct a thorough study into what he said were “troubling” claims against Bransfield, who was a major fundraiser for the Vatican via the Pennsylvania-based Papal Foundation.
Tim Bishop, spokesman for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, said no one there could talk about the investigation. He said the Vatican had instructed Bransfield to live outside of West Virginia.
“I have no idea of his whereabouts,” Bishop said.
The diocese sent an email to West Virginia churches telling them not to comment on Bransfield, and to direct news media inquiries to the diocese.
When Bransfield first came to West Virginia as bishop, he said the issue of sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church would be overcome.
“The church is divinely inspired,” Bransfield said in a December 2004 interview with the Charleston Daily Mail. “The Lord will help us through this. A lot of innocent people have suffered because of it. The church is obligated to handle it as well as possible.”
In 2012, Bransfield was named in testimony in the Philadelphia trial of the Rev. James Brennan, who was accused of sexually assaulting a boy in 1996. Brennan eventually agreed to plead guilty to simple assault, a misdemeanor.
A witness in that trial testified that another priest raped him at a New Jersey beach house owned by Bransfield, and told him that Bransfield also sexually abused a boy.
The witness told jurors that the priest abused him throughout high school on trips to Disney World, Niagara Falls and at Bransfield’s beach house in Brigantine, New Jersey.
In a statement at the time, Bransfield said, “Over the years, I have felt devastation for both the victims and the church as I learned about the terrible actions they took with innocent victims. To now be unfairly included in that group and to hear the horrific allegations that are being made of me is unbelievable and shocking.”
Judy Jones, Midwest regional leader for the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it’s imperative for any allegations of abuse to be brought to law enforcement. She encouraged victims to report any incidents.
Any allegations of abuse brought to the diocese are immediately reported to law enforcement, Bishop said. Before entering the diocese, he said, priests go through an “extensive psychiatric evaluation.”
In a statement, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said he expects the diocese to cooperate with any investigation.
“The allegations against Bishop Bransfield are disturbing and warrant a close review by the State of West Virginia to ensure that West Virginians are protected,” Morrisey said.
The revelation was the latest development in an incredible turn of events in the United States that began with the June 20 announcement that one of the most prestigious U.S. cardinals, Theodore McCarrick, had been accused of groping a teenage altar boy in the 1970s.
Francis removed McCarrick as a cardinal in July after a U.S. church investigation found the allegation credible. After news broke of the investigation, several former seminarians and priests came forward to report that they had been abused or harassed by McCarrick as adults.
The McCarrick affair — coupled with revelations in the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of abuse and cover-up in six dioceses — has fueled outrage among the rank-and-file faithful who had trusted church leaders to reform themselves after the abuse scandal first erupted in Boston in 2002.
After the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Bransfield released a statement assuring West Virginians that extra measures to protect children from sexual abuse by priests had been in place since 2002.
The head of the U.S. bishops conference, Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, had requested the papal audience last month following revelations that McCarrick had risen through church ranks even though the allegations of sexual misconduct were known in U.S. and Vatican circles.
DiNardo requested a full-fledged Vatican investigation into the McCarrick affair, and said he also wanted answers to allegations that a string of Vatican officials knew of McCarrick’s misdeeds since 2000 but turned a blind eye.
A statement issued by DiNardo after the papal audience made no mention of his request for a Vatican investigation. It said the Americans briefed the pope on the “laceration” that abuse has caused and that “we look forward to actively continuing our discernment together identifying the most effective next steps.”
The statement also made no mention of the Bransfield investigation. McCarrick was a co-consecrator when Bransfield was ordained as a bishop in 2005 and the two were active in the Papal Foundation, the big U.S. fundraising organization that McCarrick co-founded and which has funneled millions of dollars to the Vatican over the years.
Bransfield was president when the foundation was thrown into disarray last year over a revolt by its lay donors. They were incensed that the cardinals who run the foundation had agreed to a $25 million request from the Vatican to bail out a troubled Rome hospital. Under pressure, the cardinals pulled the plug on the funding mid-way through.
The Vatican hasn’t responded to allegations by its former ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, that Francis effectively rehabilitated McCarrick from sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI over allegations that McCarrick would routinely invite seminarians to his beach house and into his bed.
Francis has, however, responded to the overall scandal with a series of initiatives aimed at trying to convince the faithful that he “gets it” and is prepared to take measures to put an end to what he has called the “culture of cover-up” in the church.
On the eve of the U.S. audience, Francis announced that he was summoning the presidents of bishops conferences around the world to a February summit to discuss prevention measures and protection of minors and vulnerable adults.
The surprise announcement was largely dismissed as a belated damage control effort by victims’ advocates. Church historians questioned why such an urgent problem was being scheduled for discussion six months from now with the very bishops who are blamed for much of the scandal.
“Where are the laity and others who might provide both new and uncomplicit voices and insights into the process?” asked Margaret Susan Thompson, associate professor of history at Syracuse University.
Even DiNardo’s own record on protecting children has now come into question. On the eve of his audience with Francis, The Associated Press reported that two people in Houston had accused him of not doing enough to stop a priest who was arrested this week on sexual abuse charges.
The archdiocese issued a statement Wednesday confirming that both alleged victims had come forward to report abuse by the priest, the Rev. Manuel LaRosa-Lopez, one of them in 2001.
The delegation of U.S. bishops announced no plans to speak to reporters after their audience.