An Open Letter to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston
West Virginia Catholics want “specific, achievable actions” and full investigation
As the Roman Catholic Church reels from new revelations of the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse, thousands of Catholics from various corners of the church have loudly demanded the mass resignation and/or dismissal of U.S. bishops in order to “clean house.” In the midst of this turmoil, Bishop Michael Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston offered his resignation to Pope Francis, not as penance, but in the manner customary for bishops who have reached the age of 75. (Bransfield turned 75 on September 8th.)
Pope Francis accepted Bransfield’s resignation in a matter of days and appointed Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore as temporary administrator of the Diocese. Further, the Vatican charged Lori with the task of conducting an investigation of Bransfield’s alleged sexual harassment of adults.
The swift acceptance of Bransfield’s resignation and subsequent investigation is not surprising. Abuse allegations have haunted Bransfield, resurfacing most recently during the criminal trial of Catholic priests in Philadelphia in 2012. But more, Bransfield’s lavish lifestyle and flaunted political allegiances marked his episcopacy with signs of clerical privilege and entitlement that are the root cause of abuse by members of the priesthood, including sexual misconduct.
As lay leaders who represent many Catholics in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia, we certainly welcome a full investigation into any alleged sexual harassment of adults by Bransfield, both during and before his time as Bishop. We also urge an investigation into the unresolved allegations of past behavior while working in a Philadelphia high school and into his time serving as a senior cleric in Washington D.C. under the leadership of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, including any knowledge Bransfield had of McCarrick’s abusive behavior.
Nevertheless, we have serious reservations as to whether Archbishop Lori would be an impartial party to head up such an investigation, having been Bransfield’s guest at a “Red Mass” celebrated for lawyers and government officials in January 2017. Ordinary lay Catholics and women religious from the state should be an integral part of any internal church investigation. Most importantly, beyond a church investigation, all files related to allegations against Bransfield must be turned over to the proper civil authorities.
Those familiar with sex abuse in the Catholic Church know that Bransfield’s alleged actions are likely the tip of the iceberg. Last week, Catholics gathered at St. Michael’s Parish in Wheeling to discuss the abuse crisis. Comments given there by diocesan spokespeople (including diocesan attorney James Gardill) signaled deeply entrenched defensiveness, denial, and an accusatory posture toward “the media” as supposed “persecutors” of the Catholic Church. The claim was repeatedly made that this diocese has not been affected by sexual abuse as “other dioceses” have. Claims that minimize abuse have almost always been proven false, most recently in the Diocese of Buffalo where the opening of diocesan secret archives revealed over double the previously self-reported number.
Church and civil investigations must go beyond Bransfield and open the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston itself to deeper scrutiny. In the strongest terms possible, we urge the Diocese to implement the following specific, achievable actions:
- publish the names of credibly accused abuser priests, religious, and lay pastoral workers on the diocesan website (www.dwc.org)
- willingly open diocesan records related to sex abuse to State and/or Federal authorities before any inevitable forced investigation takes place
- apologize for the past statements of diocesan spokespeople which accuse secular media of inventing and/or exaggerating the severity of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church
- denounce the continued scapegoating of gay priests relative to sexual abuse, and
- establish a permanent system for diocesan staff and clergy to speak up without retaliation.
The legacy Bransfield leaves to West Virginia is uncertain, and ambiguous at best. The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s handling of the allegations against Michael Bransfield will shape the church’s legacy as well, speaking volumes about what kind of church we want to be and whether we really want to break with the destructive and abusive clericalism of the past. Together with other concerned Catholics, we raise our voices in faith and in hope for truth, transparency and accountability in the church we love, and for the justice and healing of her abuse survivors.
Jeannie Kirkhope and Michael J. Iafrate
Co-Coordinators, Catholic Committee of Appalachia