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Catholic church reform advocates criticize Lori for deleting mention of bishop's gifts in report to Vatican

The president of a national group that monitors the conduct of Roman Catholic priests criticized Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori on Thursday for his role in a report to the Vatican that omitted information about large gifts Lori and other bishops received.

Terry McKiernan of Bishop-Accountability.org said Lori’s decision to delete mention that he and other high-ranking clerics had been given cash gifts over the years by West Virginia bishop Michael J. Bransfield — whom Lori was investigating — was “head-shaking.”

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Lori had been charged by the Vatican with investigating Bransfield over allegations that included lavish spending of church funds.

McKiernan said Lori’s editing of a draft report was “especially embarrassing” because it created the appearance of Lori “participating in the very malfeasance he had been brought in to put a stop to.”

“There’s nothing good you can say about it,” McKiernan said.

In September, Pope Francis asked for the resignation of Bransfield, the longtime bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia, in the wake of allegations he had engaged in a pattern of sexual and financial misconduct throughout his 13 years in the position.

The pope appointed Lori to oversee the diocese on an interim basis and gave him the authority to direct an investigation into the allegations against Bransfield.

The five-person lay panel Lori assembled to run the inquiry completed a detailed report in February.

The report found that Bransfield had indeed behaved inappropriately toward multiple priests and seminarians, including “a consistent pattern of sexual innuendo and overt suggestive comments and actions toward those … over whom [he] had authority,” and spent millions in diocesan funds on travel, liquor, luxury items and more.

It also reported that Bransfield gave more than $350,000 in gifts to fellow clergymen. Recipients included Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who recently retired as the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, and Lori, who was listed as a recipient of at least $7,500.

But Lori asked that the names of all gift recipients, including himself and other top clerics, be left out.

The Washington Post discovered the discrepancy between the drafts as part of an investigation into the Bransfield case and published a story describing the edits Wednesday.

Lori acknowledged the deletions in a letter to members of the West Virginia diocese and an interview with The Baltimore Sun.

He asked for the deletions, he said, because, if the report named only the 11 cardinals and bishops, and not the dozens of other recipients of Bransfield gifts, it could create a “misperception” there was something improper in the clerics’ acceptance of the gifts when there was no evidence to support that assertion.

“It seemed arbitrary to mention one group who got gifts [and not] a lot of others who got gifts,” Lori told The Sun.

Lori said $5,000 of the money he received from Bransfield went toward costs associated with his installation as archbishop in 2012, and the rest came from $500 gifts given on holidays.

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Lori received no gifts during the investigation, he said, and “certainly didn’t see any demand or expectation for anything in return.”

The investigators on the team raised no objection to his request for the deletions, he added, but “looking back on this in hindsight, I would say that judgment call was a mistake.”

Lori returned the $7,500 to the Wheeling-Charleston diocese Wednesday and asked that it be donated to Catholic Charities.

Still, the deletions struck many as inappropriate at a time when a worldwide sex abuse crisis in the church has placed a premium on transparency.

Frank Dingle, a former leader of the Baltimore chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said Lori’s decision recalled recent revelations that powerful church leaders have long “covered for each other” on their way up the career ladder.

“I think Lori knows that if he rats on another brother he’s not going to make cardinal,” Dingle said. “This is the format they’ve all used for so long. It’s friend protecting friend.”

McKiernan said Lori’s admission was “especially embarrassing” at a moment in church history when “everyone is focused on transparency and everyone acknowledges that the full truth needs to be told” — particularly now, only days before Lori is set to host a four-day assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore.

“People may forget about this in time, but they’re not going to forget about it by next week,” he said.

Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said Thursday that Lori was so focused on conducting the investigation that what had struck him as modest gifts seemed, at the time, to have little to do with the kind of violations of which Bransfield was accused.

Still, Caine said, the result of the investigation demonstrates clearly that Lori’s goal was to bring about full disclosure and to give the Holy See every opportunity to adjudicate Bransfield’s case appropriately.

“I think the archbishop regrets that the names of those who received financial gifts were not included in the report because it has become a distraction from the most important findings, including the climate that existed that allowed Bishop Bransfield to commit the acts that he committed,” he said.

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