AP NEWS

Officials aren’t doing enough in abuse probe

April 14, 2019

While Baltimore’s Archbishop Lori and the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (DWC) invoke “transparency” and “accountability” regularly regarding clerical sex abuse, they struggle to put them into action. Disconnects between Lori and DWC higher-ups versus our secular authorities and West Virginia Catholics seem almost insurmountable, as Catholic leaders continue evading actual transparency, accountability, and too many significant questions.

In October Lori and the DWC invoked transparency when releasing a list of West Virginia Catholic clergy accused of abuse that omits Michael J. Bransfield even as we hear his name and detailed abuse allegations in lawsuits from our attorney general (AG) and former seminarians.

What’s more, they continue to keep hidden the now completed report of Archbishop Lori’s investigation into former bishop Bransfield. Both the AG and even the DWC’s current highest-ranking official, its day-to-day administrator, layman Bryan Minor, have called for its release. Transparency requires this report be released.

And as the Catholic Church repeatedly shows it cannot police itself, bodies like the AG continue to prove necessary. In response to AG Patrick Morrissey’s lawsuit, the DWC referred to the 2002 Dallas Charter policy protecting children that Lori helped draft. They did not mention, however, that neither Bishop Bransfield nor Archbishop Lori nor any other bishop is bound to that policy document. Lori explained the exemption of bishops saying the committee “would limit it to priests and deacons, as the disciplining of bishops is beyond the purview of this document.” This is the problem.

Nonetheless, Archbishop Lori is trying to champion a so-called “metropolitan model” of archbishops holding surrounding bishops accountable. Lori’s method has thus far consisted of keeping not just the final report but also the names and qualifications of his investigative team hidden. His investigation into allegations of sexual abuse of young priests and seminarians didn’t even interview all of the DWC seminarians under Bransfield.

As for results, upon completion the DWC said it turned up “nothing criminal,” a statement that Lori said was “a mistake” only a few days later. Except that saying there is “nothing criminal” with Bransfield when you know that the AG has subpoenaed you for documents isn’t a mistake. This makes one think about whether there are lies and a cover-up.

By bypassing the legal system, Lori has made defrocking Bransfield, or removing him from priesthood, the worst punishment his investigation can hand down. Never mind that being a non-cleric is only considered punishment by the most severe purveyors of clericalism. The rest of us want to account for what Lori, U.S. bishops and DWC officers continue to let pass.

I previously asked if Archbishop Lori and the Catholic Church can account for the Church’s sins, hoping that we could and would. I still hope that we can. But increasingly, our most powerful clerics cannot curb clerical abuse of power alone; this requires our whole Church.

Lay people like the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) are ready to contribute. Their leaders respectively called out Bransfield’s improprieties and for an AG investigation almost a year before both came to pass. West Virginia’s Catholics and non-Catholics alike are profoundly better suited to address the protection of their own bodies, children and church from abusive clerics than clerics themselves. However, to date Archbishop Lori has not even fielded questions in a non-invitation only West Virginia venue open to the media and the public.

Archbishop Lori and decision makers of the DWC continue to chart a “protectionist” course preventing both transparency and accountability. Please let go of an insular false sense of innocence, admit to and say “sorry” for our own actions, be penitent, and let the whole Church help heal the Catholic Church. Please demonstrate, more than simply invoke, transparency and accountability and address the questions on which our Church’s healing hinge.

• Why is the final Bransfield investigation report being withheld from the people of West Virginia?

• Will bishops, like Bransfield and Lori, subject themselves to the “zero tolerance” 2002 Dallas Charter?

• Did Lori’s internal investigation look outside of the DWC and into the Philadelphia allegations of child abuse against Bransfield that were brought up in court hearings in 2012?

• Why is Michael Bransfield’s name not on the DWC’s list of clergy credibly accused of abuse?

• Why did Lori choose Baltimore lawyer, Bernstein, who defended a priest who abused 6 children to the anonymous team investigating clerical sex abuse?

Vincent DeGeorge is a researcher, writer, and teacher at Wheeling Jesuit University. He was a seminarian of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston during which he occasionally served as Bransfield’s traveling secretary.