Michael Iafrate, Jeannie Kirkhope: Diocese must address dishonesty

As if to tidy up before the holidays, in late November, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston Bishop Mark Brennan announced his “amends plan” for his predecessor. But the plan does not include any way to hold former bishop Michael Bransfield accountable for alleged actions during his time as head of the Catholic Church in West Virginia.

And Bransfield continues to deny all allegations of sexual abuse or financial wrongdoing, which now include abuse of minors.

True to the Advent season, Brennan is encouraging the faithful to wait and see how this pans out.

In a new twist, shortly after Brennan’s announcement, The Washington Post reported about an allegation that Bransfield had abused a minor while teaching in Philadelphia in the 1970s.

This allegation is not new. The alleged victim first reported it to the Philadelphia Archdiocese in 2007, and Archbishop Justin Rigali, deviating from protocol, personally deemed it “non-credible.” The allegation made headlines in 2012 in connection to a completely separate clergy abuse trial, and Bransfield and his staff successfully brushed it aside and obfuscated facts.

What is new is that the alleged victim has come forward to tell his story publicly and is willing to cooperate, if a real investigation is opened.

A “real” investigation is what has been needed all along. This past spring, when Archbishop William Lori’s secret internal church investigation into Bransfield concluded, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston spokesman Tim Bishop told the news media that it included no issues of child abuse. Lori’s summarization deemed it “sexual harassment,” and only “of adults.”

But when The Post leaked major portions of that report in June, it proved investigators did look into the decades-old Philadelphia allegation, stating that it seemed to have been pushed under the carpet. Investigators considered the matter serious enough to “warrant further inquiry” by church and civil officials, a recommendation Lori ignored.

Despite church officials being determined from the start to exclude any reference to Philadelphia, and still refusing, along with the Vatican, to release the report, this allegation will not be going away any more than our long-standing insistence that it be resolved.

In November 2017, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia released a statement on clergy sexual abuse in the region in which we called for scrutiny of the allegation against Bransfield.

In September 2018, before his resignation, we demonstrated in solidarity with victims of sexual abuse and hand delivered an open letter to Bransfield at his lavish residence, calling him to come clean about the allegation lest his legacy be tarnished.

Throughout the winter of 2018, we published op-eds calling for transparency in Lori’s investigation and for the public release of the report.

In February 2019, our op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer demanded investigators review the Philadelphia allegation and, again, called for the release of the report.

In an August Washington Post op-ed, we showed how Lori and DWC officials continually mischaracterized the contents of their own internal report and refused investigators’ recommendations. And we called, yet again, for the report.

At an October meeting of reformist Catholics, we raised these concerns with Bishop Brennan, urging greater honesty about the allegation of child abuse. He disappointingly replied that there is “no proof” Bransfield did these things.

We, especially those of us with children, are outraged by the persistent lies regarding knowledge of Bransfield’s possible behavior with children, and by the appalling sins of omission concerning the investigation’s results. Our leaders make a mockery of this diocese when they continue to boast of their strong policies against child abuse.

Until he disassociates from the inexcusable dishonesty of Rigali, Lori, Bransfield and his own staff, Bishop Brennan loses credibility.

Specifically, we insist that Brennan do the following:

1) Release the Bransfield report;

2) Cooperate with the Philadelphia Archdiocese in reopening the case;

3) Acknowledge that the DWC has been ignoring the allegation of child abuse;

4) Add Bransfield to the list of clergy credibly accused of child abuse;

5) Push the pope for further penalization, including the removal of Bransfield’s “bishop emeritus” title.

We are grateful this victim-survivor came forward — again, after years of trying to make his voice heard — and to the secular media for keeping us informed with facts, since our own church has not.

West Virginia Catholics continue to trust that the truth about Michael Bransfield will be revealed, but not likely by those who claim to act “in persona Christi.”

Michael J. Iafrate and Jeannie Kirkhope are co-coordinators of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, based near Spencer, West Virginia (www.ccappal.org).

Funerals for Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Blume, James - 2 p.m., Wallace & Wallace, Rainelle.

Gunnoe, Freda - Noon, Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Hunt, Lloyd - 1 p.m., Fidler & Frame Funeral Home, Belle.

Rogers, Christopher - 1 p.m., Raynes Funeral Home, Buffalo.

Shepherd, Camella - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Smith, James - 2 p.m., Fox Hill Cemetery, South Charleston.

Turley, Imogene - 1 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Webb, Barbara - 11 a.m., Ellyson Mortuary, Glenville.