Bishop Bransfield retires; headed Wheeling-Charleston Diocese since 2005

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WASHINGTON (CNS) — Pope
Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston,
West Virginia, and has instructed Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore to
conduct an investigation into allegations that Bishop Bransfield sexually
harassed adults.

Archbishop Christophe
Pierre, Vatican nuncio to the United States, announced Bishop Bransfield’s
retirement Sept. 13 and the appointment of Archbishop Lori as apostolic
administrator of Wheeling-Charleston.

The Archdiocese of
Baltimore released the news that Archbishop Lori had received a specific charge
from the pope to investigate allegations against the bishop.

“My primary concern
is for the care and support of the priests and people of the Diocese of
Wheeling-Charleston at this difficult time,” Archbishop Lori said in the
statement Sept. 13. “I further pledge to conduct a thorough investigation
in search of the truth into the troubling allegations against Bishop Bransfield
and to work closely with the clergy, religious and lay leaders of the diocese
until the appointment of a new bishop.”

Archbishop Lori was to meet with clergy and lay leaders of the diocese Sept. 13 and 14.
He also planned to celebrate Mass in Wheeling the evening of Sept. 15 at the
Cathedral of St. Joseph.

In response, the diocese established
a hotline — (833) 272-4225 — for people wanting to share information related to the investigation.

Bishop Bransfield had headed
the statewide diocese since his episcopal ordination and installation in
February 2005.

A Philadelphia native who
is former rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate
Conception in Washington, Bishop Bransfield is 75, the age at which canon law
requires bishops to turn in their resignation.

In 2012, Bishop Bransfield criticized what he called “false
hearsay statements” that were made during a Philadelphia trial of two
priests on sex abuse-related charges.

The
bishop wrote in a letter to priests and people of his diocese that a
“hearsay allegation” that he had engaged in improper conduct with a
high school student in the 1970s “has been put to rest” by the
student in question and others.

“I
can only repeat what I have stated before publicly: I have never abused
anyone,” the bishop said then.

The allegation surfaced during the trial of Msgr. William Lynn,
former secretary of clergy in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, on charges of child
endangerment; he was later found guilty of one count and sentenced to a prison
term.

At the trial, a witness testified that a now-defrocked priest had
told him that a young man in a car with then-Father Bransfield was being abused
by Father Bransfield. Ronald Rock, a Philadelphia business executive, later publicly
identified himself as that young man.

The
diocese said in a news release accompanying the bishop’s letter that Rock confirmed he
was the boy in the car and that nothing inappropriate occurred. A second
student who was present during the weekend in question also confirmed no
inappropriate conduct occurred, the release said.

Bishop
Bransfield also said at the time that another allegation raised in 2007 by a
former student and dating back to the 1970s had been investigated by the
Philadelphia Archdiocese and that Cardinal Justin Rigali, head of the archdiocese
at the time, “issued a formal determination that the allegation had not
been substantiated.”

After
looking into the allegation, local prosecutors decided not to bring charges.

Bishop
Bransfield was ordained in 1971 by Cardinal John J. Krol. His assignments
included teacher, chaplain and chairman of the religion department at Lansdale
Catholic High School. In 1980 he joined the staff of the Basilica of the
National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, first as assistant director of
liturgy and finally as rector before being appointed to West Virginia.

He
also served a term as treasurer of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and
as a member of the committees on communications and national collections.

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