“Lay Involvement” in Church Investigation Does Not Guarantee Truth or Transparency

But the laypeople of “unimportant” diocese have the ability to influence the entire U.S. Catholic Church on accountability

By Michael J. Iafrate

What is happening in the Catholic Church in West Virginia is truly remarkable, notable and important to watch.

Occurring in the immediate wake of the Cardinal Theodore McCarrick scandal and the release of the damning PA grand jury report, the resignation and subsequent investigation of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield for alleged sexual harassment of adults are of national significance. His past history in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. connect him directly to wider circles of influence at play in the U.S. church at this time. Additionally, the present investigation of Bransfield takes place just six years after he was alleged to have abused minors decades ago in his home diocese of Philadelphia, allegations that Bransfield and other officials of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston have consistently denied.

Still, more than just another clerical spectacle, the laypeople of our mainly “rural” and presumably “unimportant” diocese are in the position to influence the entire U.S. Catholic Church on a path toward greater transparency and justice, away from all forms of abusive behavior.

There are signs that West Virginia Catholics are doing just that.

Read the rest at Medium.com.

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CCA’s Efforts in the Abuse Crisis

A year ago this coming November, Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) published a statement on sex abuse in the Catholic Church following the death of our friend, Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). Part of that statement focused on sex abuse in the church in Appalachia.

In light of the impending retirement of the bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (DWC), Michael Bransfield, CCA wrote a letter to the Apostolic Nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops with a long list of criteria for what many West Virginia Catholics are looking for in a new bishop for the diocese.

Since then, the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which included mostly Appalachian dioceses and implicated a number of our bishops, both past and present, rocked the church not only on a regional scale, but on national and global ones as well.

Finally, the resignation of West Virginia’s Bishop Michael Bransfield, and his subsequent investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct, compelled CCA to further our efforts to protect the vulnerable in our region and to work for church reforms necessary to address the roots of the problem.

Thus far, we have dedicated a page of our website (ccappal.org) as a resource for current news about the abuse crisis as it impacts Appalachia. The articles, opinion pieces and analysis listed focus, in part, on the Bransfield investigation but look beyond it to surrounding states as well.

Included in that list is an open letter to the diocese written by our Co-Coordinators and published in five of the largest West Virginia newspapers, asking questions and calling for various measures to be taken during the investigation of former Bishop Bransfield.

The piece drew the interest of some groups and individuals who have since come to us with their own unfortunate experiences with the Bransfield and/or DWC. This has brought us back into the role of conducting listening sessions, as we did for the past three Appalachian Pastoral Letters (1975, 1995, 2015).

As West Virginia Catholics await a new bishop to be named by Pope Francis, Archbishop Lori of Baltimore acts as Apostolic Administrator and has appointed Bryan Minor, a layman, as Delegate of Diocesan Administrative Affairs. Bryan’s job is to manage the day to day operations of the chancery and its many departments in Archbishop Lori’s absence. Our listening led us to collect and compile the many questions West Virginia Catholics had for Minor and Archbishop Lori.

CCA’s Co-Coordinators recently met with Minor to ask those questions and to discuss concerns about transparency and the credibility of the five-person investigation team. We were encouraged by Minor’s sincerity, candor, remorse, compassion and commitment to work towards healing in the Diocese. The meeting resulted in further commitment from him to keep CCA abreast of the investigation process and to collaborate with CCA regularly to increase the flow of information to the people of the Diocese.  We trust that the DWC has begun a process similar to that of Steubenville and other dioceses that will eventually result in the publication of a list of priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse over the last several decades in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Although we advocate for a external investigation of diocesan records, the publication of such a list is an important step toward transparency and would, at this, time, be preferable to a WV Attorney General subpoena of that list.

In that vein, CCA will publish on our website any DWC documents that are helpful for understanding any investigations taking place, as well as any forthcoming list of priest abusers and allegations.

In addition, CCA staff will be meeting with Archbishop Lori to probe for more accountability. That date is to be announced and the results of the meeting will be posted publicly.

CCA Co-Coordinator Michael Iafrate has been interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer and WTRF Channel 7 News in Wheeling regarding the abuse crisis.

CCA Co-Coordinator Jeannie Kirkhope is in the process of setting up listening sessions for concerned Catholics of the Diocese. If you or your group would like a meeting either with CCA or Bryan Minor, please contact Jeannie at cca@ccappal.org or 304-927-5798.

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People’s Pastoral Presented to Pope Francis

Last year, our friends at Salt + Light Media visited CCA’s home office in West Virginia to film a segment for their upcoming documentary The Francis Impact. During their visit they suggested we give them an inscribed copy of CCA’s “People’s Pastoral,” The Telling Takes Us Home, to hopefully pass along to Pope Francis, as they are frequently in Rome covering events there (see photo above).

Salt + Light has been in Rome this month covering the 2018 Synod of Bishops on youth, now underway, as well as the recent canonizations of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Pope Paul VI, and five additional new saints. While in Rome, Salt + Light CEO Fr. Tom Rosica was able to hand this copy of Pastoral directly to Pope Francis.

The inscription on the title page reads:

Estimado Su Santidad, Papa Francisco,

Esta carta pastoral del pueblo es una expresión de cómo la gente de fe está intentando escuchar atentamente el “magisterio de los pobres” en la región de los Apalaches en los Estados Unidos y escuchar también el llanto de la Tierra tan devastada por la minería y otras industrias extractivas. Aquí en las montañas de los Apalaches vemos claramente que lo que hacemos a la Tierra, lo hacemos también a los pobres. Le agradecemos a usted que escuche las voces de las bases, que camine con nuestro pueblo, y que nos desafíe a transformarnos en una Iglesia para los pobres, una Iglesia que protegerá y celebrará la santidad de nuestro hogar común.

Con nuestro amor,
Comité Católico de los Apalaches

Your Holiness, Pope Francis,

This “people’s pastoral” letter is an expression of how people of faith are trying to listen closely to the “magisterium of the poor” in the Appalachian region of the United States, including the cry of Earth, which is so devastated here from mining and other extractive industries. In the Appalachian mountains, we see very clearly that what we do to Earth we do to the poor. Thank you for listening to voices at the grassroots, for walking with our people and our movements, and for challenging us to become a church of the poor that protects and celebrates the sacredness of our common home.

With our love,
Catholic Committee of Appalachia

Fr. Rosica writes, “I presented the Pastoral Letter to the Pope last evening. He brought it home with him and made reference to it this morning when we spoke. Keep up the good work.”

Here is CCA’s reply to Fr. Rosica:

Fr. Tom, thank you so much for bringing our letter from Appalachia to the Pope! I’m more or less speechless hearing about this, but what a beautiful “ending” to the story of this pastoral letter from “the people”! And on such an special occasion, following the canonization of San Romero. We are all very excited to hear this.

Jeannie and I, as well as our folks in Kentucky and Virginia, were also very thankful to have spent time with Sebastian [Gomes] and his crew for the filming of The Francis Impact, and we’re looking forward to the release of this special film.

Again, thank you so much from the Catholic Committee of Appalachia for your support of our work!

– Michael Iafrate, Co-Coordinator, CCA

Congratulations to all of us at CCA, and to everyone who has participated in the making and “promulgation” of this pastoral letter from Appalachia, which after nearly three years is still touching the hearts of new people around the world! And special thanks to Angie Iafrate for translating our message to Pope Francis into Spanish!

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New Resource Page on Abuse Crisis in Appalachia

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) published a statement on sex abuse in the Catholic Church following the death of SNAP founder Barbara Blaine. Part of that statement focused on sex abuse in the church in Appalachia.

Since then, the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report has rocked the church not only on national and global scales, but on a regional one as well. The report is in many ways an expression of the Appalachian church that implicates a number of our bishops, both past and present. Finally, the resignation of West Virginia’s Bishop Michael Bransfield, and his subsequent investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct, compels CCA to further our efforts to protect the vulnerable in our region and to work for church reforms necessary to address the roots of the problem.

To that end, we have created this page as a resource for current news and analysis of the abuse crisis as it impacts Appalachia, focusing in part on the Bransfield/DWC investigation but looking beyond it to surrounding states. In the interest of transparency, we will also publish diocesan documents that are helpful for understanding any investigations taking place. If you know of a news item, opinion piece, or document that should be shared here, please email ccappalachia [at] gmail [dot] com. Any documents shared here will not be traceable to the individuals who share them with CCA.

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An Open Letter to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston

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. Continue reading

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The End of the World as We Know It: Divesting from Injustice and Reinvesting in Another Possible World

by Edward Sloane

Once upon a time, the conservative political commentator Francis Fukuyama said that with the collapse of the Soviet Union we had reached the end of history. Others joined the chorus; globalization had made the world flat and capitalism was here to stay.1 Today the confident and triumphalist mood of the 80s and 90s has been severely shaken as the reality of climate change sinks in and promises to usher in a very different historical epoch. Indeed, we are conscious of reaching an end, but as we look around the fear is that it might be the end not of history but of humanity. At the same time, activists are showing us that another world is possible, encouraging institutions to divest from fossil fuels, severing their financial ties to the fossil fuel industry by “getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.”2 At the same time, this movement has been controversial particularly among Catholic institutions, the majority of which have been reluctant to make this move despite strong pressure from students and other activists. These institutions often cite the ability to advance institutional mission.3

In a 2017 article published in America Magazine, Jim McDermott, takes this latter position, suggesting that shareholder advocacy is the more ‘Catholic’ option. McDermott, tellingly cites Francis G. Coleman, the executive vice president of Christian Brothers Investment Services, “which manages nearly $7 billion in assets for Catholic groups around the world.” McDermott notes CBIS’s skepticism toward divestment as a strategy, “at the same time, at C.B.I.S., the question of writing a group off speaks to a challenge of our faith. ‘When do you stop talking to the sinner?’ asks Mr. Coleman. ‘It’s a fundamental faith question. And our faith teaches us you don’t stop talking to the sinner. Our belief is that if you keep talking there’s always the possibility for faith and evangelization.’”4 In the article, McDermott fails to engage the voices and reasons of activists or the voice of Earth itself. He also fails to take divestment seriously as a Catholic option. His perspective remains firmly within a top-down, status quo model that privileges the voices of elite managers as authorities.

Continue reading

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CCA Response to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on Clergy Sexual Abuse

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) released a Statement on Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church in November 2017 following the death of Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP. The continued relevance of our 2017 statement could not be more clear as the People of God respond to new reports of clergy abuse over the past weeks. CCA reaffirms our November 2017 statement and the calls to action contained within it.

The recently released Pennsylvania grand jury report is in many ways a window into the innerworkings of the hierarchy with global relevance for the Catholic community. As most of the dioceses contained in report fall within the Appalachian region, the report is also, in many ways, an expression of the Appalachian church that implicates a number of our bishops, both past and present.

The Pennsylvania report provokes Catholics in our region to reflect on both the global and regional causes and implications of sexual abuse in the Church. CCA’s 2017 statement began some of that reflection, and we remain committed to efforts to protect the vulnerable in our region and to work for church reforms necessary to address the roots of the problem.

Specifically, CCA calls for the following immediate actions. Although some Appalachian bishops have been publicly resistant to doing so, CCA insists that all bishops of the region release a statement of priests and bishops accused of sexual abuse within their dioceses. We also insist that each diocese disclose the amount which has been paid in settlements and legal costs related to abuse and make all documents pertaining to sexual abuse by clergy and bishops available to the proper authorities.

Read CCA’s Statement on Child Sexual Abuse in the Church here.
Read the Pennsylvania grand jury report here.

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Catholics Conduct Prayerful Witness at Good Friday Liturgy

(Wheeling, WV) — Two Catholic activists associated with the West Virginia chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA), the Catholic Worker movement, and the Women’s Ordination Conference took part in a prayerful witness action at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Wheeling, West Virginia before, during, and after Good Friday services, March 30th.

Before the service, they prayed a “Litany of Resistance” aloud in their pew as people took their seats. Using traditional Catholic prayer forms, the litany expresses sorrow and contrition for the social and ecological sins of the world and of the church, including racism, violence, misogyny, and ecological destruction. The litany encourages Catholics to resist “spiritualities that mask injustice” and the institutional silence and complicity of our churches.

Wearing shirts that read “SILENCE CRUCIFIES” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” the activists paused to pray at a side altar bearing the statue of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the diocese, during a traditional communal procession of the “Veneration of the Cross.”

After the service, the activists held a large banner outside the cathedral that read “SILENCE CRUCIFIES,” surrounded by the words racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, coal, and war. They again prayed the Litany of Resistance and made themselves available to speak with parishioners as they exited the church.

The activists released a statement of mourning, expressing concern about the silence of local church leaders in the face of social injustice. The statement names racism, xenophobia, gun violence, and the ecological effects of extractive industry as sins which “crucify” the region, and challenges church leaders to renounce their silent complicity with these crucifixions and speak prophetically for justice. The full statement follows:

Continue reading

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Statement on Strike of West Virginia State Employees

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia has released a statement on the strike of West Virginia state employees. The entire statement can be read here.

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CCA February Update

CCA’s February update has been sent out via email, and is also available here. Check it out for announcements regarding upcoming events like our Cherokee Retreat and day of reflection for priests, as well as updates on CCA’s relations with bishops, job announcements, an At Home in the Web of Life anniversary edition, and more.

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