Baltimore Archbishop Lori aims to bring 'truth and justice' to West Virginia Catholics rocked by scandal

Having spent two days meeting with West Virginia Catholics following the resignation of their longtime bishop over sexual abuse allegations, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said Saturday he plans to lead an investigation that will “be fair and thorough and efficient, that leads to the truth, and leads to healing and reconciliation.”

Lori spent much of Saturday morning composing the homily he delivered at the 6 p.m. Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling, the first such service he is to lead in his new role as interim bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

On Thursday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, an influential cleric who had served as bishop of the diocese since 2005, amid allegations that Bransfield had sexually harassed adults.

Later that day, Francis named Lori the apostolic administrator, or interim spiritual leader, of the diocese, which encompasses the state of West Virginia, and charged him with both announcing and leading the church’s investigation into the allegations against Bransfield.

Lori’s first move was to spend part of Thursday and much of Friday meeting with lay Catholics and clergy in Wheeling learning about the diocese and hearing reactions to the scandal.

The news has hit West Virginia Catholics hard, he said in an interview, leaving many “angry, shocked and bewildered.”

He described his immediate priority as putting in place “the foundation for the investigation that is to follow.” He has already appointed a team of laypersons to conduct the inquiry.

All but one are Catholics, and some are members of the West Virginia diocese, but none are clergy members. Lori said each investigator was chosen for his or her demonstrated expertise in conducting “fair, prompt and thorough” investigations similar to this one.

“The thinking was simply to get the best skills possible,” he said.

He balanced frankness and cautious optimism in his homily during the six o’clock Mass, a service that was, as usual, televised and live-streamed across the state.

“We have all been jarred by the news regarding Bishop Bransfield, in particular, the allegations of sexual harassment of adults leveled against him, allegations which must now be carefully and fully investigated,” he said. “The goal ... is to arrive at truth and justice for the good of individuals and for the common good of the church we love.”

Pope Francis’ treatment of Bransfield’s situation was unusual.

Canon law requires clergy to offer letters of resignation when they turn 75, as Bransfield did Sept. 8, but the pontiff can take as long as he likes to accept them. In this case, Francis acted quickly and took the unusual step of disclosing the allegations.

Lori said he sees the move as part of the Vatican’s resolve to intensify measures against sexual abuse by priests, a problem that has beset the church for decades and become a full-blown global 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 seven decades.

A month earlier, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick resigned after American church officials announced their finding that decades-old sexual abuse allegations against him were credible and substantiated.

Francis met with key U.S. bishops at the Vatican on Thursday to discuss what Lori described in his homily as “the wider sexual abuse scandal currently rocking the church.”

Though some church observers said Francis’ choice of Lori demonstrates his faith in the Baltimore cleric, not everyone expressed the same degree of enthusiasm.

Before coming to Baltimore in 2012, Lori served as leader of the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese, where he had to confront allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests and others. In 2003, he apologized to victims and announced a $21 million settlement with 40 people. Victim advocates criticized him for asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block a Connecticut state order mandating that documents from sex-abuse cases be made public.

He made the argument on the grounds that government should not intrude into religious matters. It was ultimately unsuccessful.

Earlier, Lori was among the bishops who wrote the Dallas Charter, a document that spelled out a “zero-tolerance” policy for dealing with priests who sexually abused children and was approved by the Vatican.

More recently, he has faced criticism over the Baltimore Archdiocese’s decision not to make public documents related to the case of the late Rev. A. Joseph Maskell, who was featured in the Netflix series “The Keepers.”

Maskell was accused of sexually abusing dozens of children, including at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, and the series explored possible connections between abuse at the school and the unsolved killing of a nun who taught there.

Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition urging the release of Maskell’s personnel files, but the archdiocese has declined, in part on the grounds that it would encourage similar requests regarding other priests and employees of the diocese.

Lori pointed to reforms in the archdiocese’s policies in the area, including its decision to post on a website the names of all priests accused of misconduct — a measure few dioceses have taken — and its policy of apologizing to victims and providing counseling for those victims as long as it’s needed.

“The archdiocese that I came to serve a number of years ago has worked very hard to be very forthcoming with all of the names of those who have offended, and worked extremely hard to put into place policies and procedures to keep children and young people safe, to reach out to victims,” Lori said. “I certainly strive to support and lead those efforts.”

Lori stressed that his primary responsibility will continue to be serving as archbishop of Baltimore and said he’s hoping and praying for “that little extra bit of stamina in the months ahead” as he takes on leadership of West Virginia’s nearly 80,000 Catholics in addition to the investigation.

“Please pray that I shall have the stamina necessary for doing ‘double duty,’ ” he said in his homily, as he undertakes what he expects will be a long “journey toward healing and reconciliation.”

He said it would be “premature” to predict how long the inquiry will take.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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