Archbishop Lori issues letter on Bishop Bransfield investigation

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BALTIMORE (CNS) -- Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore released additional details June 5 about the investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct and financial improprieties against Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, former bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.

In a letter to the faithful, Archbishop Lori, who was appointed apostolic administrator of the diocese last September, said that he wanted to more fully share information about the investigation the Vatican asked him to conduct into Bishop Bransfield's activities, the report of which was sent to the Holy See in March.

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"Regarding allegations of sexual harassment of adults by Bishop Bransfield, the investigative team determined that the accounts of those who accused Bishop Bransfield of sexual harassment are credible," Archbishop Lori said in the letter. "The team uncovered a consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestive comments and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority."

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He noted that the investigation did not uncover sexual abuse of minors by the bishop.

"Without a doubt, the alleged victims of former Bishop Bransfield's sexual harassment must be our first and constant concern. Thus, the diocese has committed to providing counseling to them and to all priests and lay personnel at the chancery. ... For known victims, the diocese will commit to reimbursing the costs for mental health assistance for a provider of their choosing," Archbishop Lori said.

He also said he has "mandated that a third-party reporting system for any allegation against a bishop of the diocese be implemented."

The letter to the faithful also noted that the investigation revealed "a pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending," including extensive and expensive renovations that Bishop Bransfield initiated and completed at his private residences in both Wheeling and Charleston, as well as his intended retirement residence, the construction of which was halted at Archbishop Lori's request at the time of his appointment as apostolic administrator of the diocese.

The probe further found that the bishop misused diocesan funds for personal benefit on such things as travel, dining, liquor, gifts and luxury items.

Archbishop Lori noted that he was among those who received gifts from the bishop, totaling $7,500, which he said he was returning to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston with the request that it be used for Catholic Charities.

He also said he would immediately list for sale the bishop’s residence, which had been used by four bishops of the diocese since 1963.

Archbishop Lori said he was working with diocesan leadership and the Finance Council to put in place better safeguards. "Clearly, despite proper checks and balances, diocesan policies and oversight procedures were subverted and we are determined to prevent this type of lapse from occurring in the future," the archbishop said.

Regarding the third-party reporting system he described, Archbishop Lori said it is in process and will soon be launched; it will allow for anonymous complaints to be made.

The process is modeled after a program the archbishop instituted in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and uses a third-party vendor to receive and direct such reports to members of the lay-led Independent Review Board for reporting of any financial impropriety, sexual abuse or harassment to the appropriate civil and church authorities.

"I am deeply pained by and sorry for the harm that the former bishop caused to those he was charged with shepherding in a spirit of Christ-like humility, service and pastoral care and charity," Archbishop Lori said. "There is no excuse, nor adequate explanation, that will satisfy the troubling question of how his behavior was allowed to continue for as long as it did without the accountability that we must require of those who have been entrusted with so much -- both spiritual and material -- as bishops and pastors."

Accountability is a critical issue the Catholic Church "is presently committed to addressing once and for all," he said, with the guidance of Pope Francis and his "motu proprio" issued May 9 in the form of a new universal law to help the church safeguard its members from abuse and hold its leaders accountable. It took effect June 1.

"We are committed to bringing about the healing that the good people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston require," Archbishop Lori said, "and can only pray for and work relentlessly to regain their renewed trust and confidence."

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Editor's Note: The full text of Archbishop Lori's letter can be found at https://bit.ly/2HWYmfR.

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Gunty is associate publisher/editor of Catholic Review Media, the media arm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Contributing to this story was Colleen Rowan, executive editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

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