All eyes are on several high-profile cases of abuse and its cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church. Many of them include bishops and priests from the Washington area—former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, disgraced Opus Dei priest John McCloskey, the now-retired Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and so on. And yet, what is happening in the seemingly isolated and “unimportant” Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia is also important to watch.
The investigation of former Bishop Michael Bransfield, who resigned in September and is now accused of sexually harassing adults, is wrapping up. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who is currently in charge of the West Virginia diocese and the investigation, appointed five laypeople to investigate Bransfield and tapped a layperson to oversee daily operations of the diocese as a move toward greater “transparency” and “lay involvement.” Yet, instead of full transparency and thorough truth-telling, Lori’s investigation remains tainted by the hierarchy’s habitual secrecy.
For example, the Baltimore Sun confirmed that one of the five investigators is a Baltimore lawyer who defended abuser priests for Lori’s archdiocese. His presence raises questions about the investigation’s credibility, as do reports that Bransfield has been in regular contact with West Virginia clergy and diocesan officials despite his banishment from the state during the investigation. Bransfield has also been calling and texting diocesan seminarians, the very group he is alleged to have harassed. And although Lori has promised to meet with local Catholic reform groups to hear concerns, these meetings have not materialized. Rather, Lori has prioritized closed meetings with the diocesan finance council and seminarians over open consultations with laity, suggesting a desire to keep the future inheritors of the clerical caste system happy, loyal, and quiet.
Most troubling is that while Lori has urged investigators to “follow the truth wherever it leads,” it is unclear to what extent they will probe older allegations from Bransfield’s history in Philadelphia and Washington. At last count, reports state that “more than 75 calls have come in, alleging misconduct in West Virginia, Washington, and Philadelphia that stretches back decades.” Additionally, the current investigation takes place just six years after allegations surfaced that Bransfield abused minors decades ago in Philadelphia, allegations that Cardinal Justin Rigali reportedly chose not to disclose to his archdiocesan abuse review board.
Bransfield and other diocesan officials have denied those allegations. However, since the opening of the present investigation, the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese released a list of credibly accused clergy, and Bransfield’s glaring absence from that list prompted questions about whether the Philadelphia allegations were fully resolved. In their defense, diocese officials stated that any questions about the allegations should be forwarded to Philadelphia, implying on jurisdictional grounds that the West Virginia diocese had no further responsibility to investigate. But many questions remain about how those allegations were handled, both internally by the archdiocese and by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, which reportedly reopened its own investigation in 2012. In a recent conversation, a West Virginia official could not recall how they were deemed “non-credible” or who precisely had deemed them such.
The allegations against Bransfield of harassment of adults are indeed serious in themselves. For a bishop to make sexual advances toward seminarians and priests is an abuse of power that can never be considered consensual. But knowing the whole truth about the Philadelphia allegations is also crucial, and West Virginians will be expecting this to be addressed when the investigation results are publicized.
To make that happen, the Bransfield investigation team should be the ones “forwarding questions” to the Philadelphia Archdiocese, to Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, and to Philadelphia’s civil authorities, rather than hiding behind jurisdictional boundaries. The alleged actions of Rigali, whose known failures in dealing with sexual abuse raise a serious red flag about Bransfield’s time in Philadelphia, must be scrutinized. Philadelphia authorities should cooperate with these inquiries. A clear statement of the truth would go a long way in legitimizing Lori’s own efforts in Baltimore to hold bishops accountable.
Jurisdictional boundaries haven’t stopped Bransfield from contacting his former seminarians and underlings in West Virginia. Those boundaries should not stop the investigation from learning the truth about Bransfield’s time in Philadelphia. If church authorities in the dioceses implicated in the Bransfield case are serious about transparency, accountability, and justice, wouldn’t they be eager to use whatever resources they have to truly “follow the truth wherever it leads”? And if not, why not? West Virginia Catholics call on Archbishop Chaput and his archdiocese to help us connect the dots.