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Former Baltimore bishop barred from ministering in Catholic archdiocese after allegations of sexual misconduct

The leader of Baltimore’s half-million Catholics has disciplined a former bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore over allegations of sexual misconduct with a young adult more than a decade ago.

Archbishop William Lori announced Monday that Bishop Gordon Bennett, who served as an auxiliary bishop in Baltimore from 1998 to 2004, is barred from acting in any ministerial capacity within the Roman Catholic archdiocese.

The decision stems from allegations that Bennett, a Jesuit priest, sexually harassed a young adult in 2005 after becoming the bishop of Mandeville, Jamaica.

The harassment occurred in Jamaica, but involved a person Bennett met in Baltimore during his time here, said Sean Caine, a vice chancellor and spokesman for the archdiocese.

The person contacted the Baltimore archdiocese in 2006 to report the harassment, Caine said. But because Bennett — one of only 19 auxiliary bishops in the 229-year history of the Baltimore See — already was working in Jamaica, the case fell outside its jurisdiction.

That’s why Cardinal William Keeler, then the archbishop of Baltimore, reported the allegation to the apostolic nunciature — the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to the United States — in Washington.

Bennett left the Mandeville diocese in 2006 for health reasons.

He then served both the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Jesuits through August, leading retreats and conducting formation programs for lay men and women, said Tracey Primrose, a spokeswoman for Jesuits West, the jurisdiction of the Society of Jesus that covers the Western states. Among his activities in California, Bennett was a fellow in Jesuit spirituality and pastoral ministry at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Jesuits West said in a statement that the Vatican cleared Bennett of the allegations in 2009. However, it placed restrictions on his ministry, limiting him to carrying out a narrowed range of episcopal duties (those carried out by bishops) under supervision.

More recently, Lori decided to take a second look at the Bennett case within the framework of stricter protocols on reporting sexual misconduct that the Archdiocese of Baltimore adopted in January. Within those guidelines, archdiocesan leaders judged the allegations against Bennett to be credible. Lori then imposed the penalty, which was approved by the Vatican.

The restrictions touch on what are known as “general faculties.” Those are the right of bishops to travel to other dioceses and carry out priestly or episcopal duties without seeking permission of the local bishop.

Caine said the archdiocese made no police report because the case involved no criminal wrongdoing.

Bennett, 72, lives in a Jesuit retirement community in California and has engaged in no public ministry since August, Primrose said.

Unlikely as it may be that Bennett would seek to visit Baltimore and celebrate Mass or preach here, Caine said Lori’s recommendation is an “express prohibition” on Bennett doing such things, along with other tasks performed by priests and bishops.

Caine said the reexamination and action reflect the archdiocese’s renewed commitment to transparency on accusations of sexual misconduct, whether they involve adults or minors.

“The restrictions demonstrate the significance [Lori] places on the matter,” Caine said.

Lori also announced Monday that he had imposed similar restrictions on Bishop Michael Bransfield, the head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston from 2005 to 2018.

In September, Pope Francis directed Lori to oversee a formal church investigation into allegations that Bransfield, then 75, had sexually abused adults within the diocese, a jurisdiction that encompasses all of West Virginia. The area is a suffragan, or subsidiary, diocese of the larger Metropolitan See of Baltimore.

A lay panel Lori appointed interviewed more than 40 individuals over five months, including Bransfield, and concluded its work last week.

“Pending the assessment of the findings of the Holy See, as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, I have directed that Bishop Bransfield is not authorized to exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry either within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston or within the Archdiocese of Baltimore,” Lori said in a statement.

The decisions come as the Baltimore archdiocese continues to implement what it has called stricter standards when it comes to dealing with sex abuse allegations. They include the creation of a third-party system by which lay Catholics and others can report allegations of misconduct against not just priests and deacons, but also bishops serving in the archdiocese, including allegations of child sexual abuse or sexual harassment of adults.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tried to implement plans for a similar reporting mechanism in November at its annual general convention in Baltimore. But the idea failed when the pope issued a surprise order that the delegates implement no changes at that time.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, consulted with the Baltimore archdiocese after the meeting and implemented a similar reporting practice Monday.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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