Pope sends Baltimore archbishop Lori to investigate sexual harassment allegations against West Virginia bishop

Pope Francis directed Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori on Thursday to investigate allegations of the sexual harassment of adults by a West Virginia bishop, amid an international reckoning for the Roman Catholic church.

The West Virginia attorney general called the allegations against Bishop Michael J. Bransfield “disturbing,” pledged a review by his office and said he expected the Wheeling-Charleston diocese would cooperate. No additional information is available about the allegations levied against Bransfield, whose resignation Francis accepted Thursday.

“My primary concern is for the care and support of the priests and people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston at this difficult time,” Lori said in a statement. “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.”

Lori will celebrate Mass at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling.

A spokesman in Baltimore said Lori was unavailable Thursday for an interview.

Francis asked Lori to continue to lead the 500,000 Catholics in Baltimore’s archdiocese while guiding nearly 80,000 more some 300 miles away in the Wheeling-Charleston diocese, which encompasses the state of West Virginia. He was expected to begin meeting Thursday with clergy and lay leaders.

Church observers said Lori will likely be met with shock and anger by West Virginia Catholics. They also said his investigation will be test of his leadership, as he navigates the church’s latest crisis in the aftermath of an explosive 900-page Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August that detailed the abuse of more than 1,000 children by more than 300 priests going back two decades. Many are also still reeling from Baltimore-centered abuse allegations documented in the "The Keepers," a 2017 Netflix series that explored alleged abuse by the late A. Joseph Maskell, a priest who worked as a chaplain and counselor at Archbishop Keough High School during the 1960s and 1970s.

Baltimore will be in the spotlight again this fall when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops holds its annual meeting here, the first gathering of the American church’s top leaders since the Pennsylvania report, the resignation of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick over sexual abuse allegations and the West Virginia bishop’s departure. The bishops last met in June in Florida.

The pope met Thursday with key U.S. bishops at the Vatican to discuss the sexual abuse crisis, but church leaders did not say whether the bishops agreed on future actions to address problems.

“We shared with Pope Francis our situation in the United States — how the Body of Christ is lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said in a statement. He is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “He listened very deeply from the heart. It was a lengthy, fruitful, and good exchange.”

McCarrick resigned this summer, becoming the first U.S. cardinal to step down due to allegations of sexual abuse. He served as Washington’s archbishop from 2001 until his retirement at age 75 in 2006. Accusers said McCarrick harassed two minors, as well as young adult seminarians.

Bransfield, 75, previously denied allegations that surfaced in 2012 that he sexually abused teenagers decades earlier, according to published reports. A Philadelphia native, Bransfield had headed the West Virginia diocese since 2005. He was ordained in 1971 with assignments that included working as a teacher and chaplain at Lansdale Catholic High School in eastern Pennsylvania and as rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

Maryland activists said internal church investigations have repeatedly proven to be inept. David Lorenz of Bowie is state director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“Being a bishop does not make you a good criminal investigator,” said Lorenz, who says he was abused at age 16 in Kentucky and is no longer a practicing Catholic. “It should be an outside investigator. Call the police.”

Lorenz questioned Lori’s track record, calling his appointment to the new role “utterly ridiculous.”

“Lori is not the poster child for how to handle this whole abuse issue,” Lorenz said.

Lori came to Baltimore in 2012 after a dozen years leading the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese. There, he had to confront the alleged sexual abuse of children by priests and church workers. Apologizing to victims in 2003, Lori announced a $21 million settlement with 40 people. Victim advocates criticized Lori for asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block a Connecticut state order and stop documents from sex-abuse cases from becoming public; Lori was arguing against government intrusion into religious affairs. The court declined to seal the records.

The archbishop, a Louisville, Ky., native who entered the priesthood in 1977, has pointed to his work helping the church become more proactive and vigilant about sexual abuse. In 2002, he was one of the bishops who wrote a self-proclaimed “zero-tolerance” policy to deal with priests who sexually abused children. The Dallas Charter, as it is called, was approved by the Vatican.

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and longtime religion writer, said he sees the investigation of clergy misconduct involving adults — such as the allegation’s Bransfield is now facing — as the next frontier for the Catholic church.

“We live in a different world today than in the past, thanks to the #MeToo movement,” Reese said. “People are more willing to come forward when they feel they are sexually harassed or mistreated. That is good news.”

Also new is the church’s decision by Pope Francis to release the reason for Bransfield’s resignation. Canon law requires clergy to offer resignation letters when they turn 75, as Bransfield did Sept. 8, but the pope can take as long as he likes to accept it. In this case, Reese said Francis acted quickly and took the unusual step of disclosing the allegations.

“The church is realizing you just can’t cover these things up,” Reese said. “The more you try to keep these things secret, the more problems it causes.”

The length of Lori’s investigation will depend on many factors, Reese said, including whether the accusers are willing to talk to Lori and if Bransfield acknowledges or denies the claims.

Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based analyst who edits Whispers in the Loggia, a blog that covers the church, called the church’s actions involving Bransfield “deeply significant” because the allegations involve adults, not children. He said Bransfield’s long been a prominent figure in the American church for his work at the Washington basilica and former role as treasurer of the U.S. bishops conference.

“It’s a shocking one,” Palmo said. Bransfield “has a long reach in the U.S. and in Rome.”

Palmo expects Baltimore to be the site of church-related protests when the bishops convene in the city in the coming weeks.

“The American meeting in Baltimore is arguably the most important meeting in the last half century,” Palmo said.

A hotline has been established for those wishing to share any information related to the West Virginia investigation. The hotline number is 833-272-4225.

Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.

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