Can Baltimore's archbishop bring accountability to West Virginia's Catholic Church?

Pope Francis in late August appointed Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori to lead an investigation into the alleged “sexual harassment of adults” by former Catholic bishop Michael J. Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which comprises all of West Virginia. However, Archbishop Lori’s own record and actions seem to demonstrate a church “protectionism” that comes at the expense of transparency and accountability.

In 2002, when he was Bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., Archbishop Lori participated in writing the Dallas Charter, the U.S. Catholic Church’s most substantial accountability policy document on clerical sexual abuse which purports “zero tolerance.” However, here Archbishop Lori contributed to removing bishops from accountability under this document saying that the drafting committee “would limit it to priests and deacons, as the disciplining of bishops is beyond the purview of this document.”

Archbishop Lori also fought a multi-year legal battle to keep hidden Bridgeport clerical sex abuse records, some dating back as far as the 1960s, instead of readily complying with a state order to make them public. Archbishop Lori’s containment efforts finally ended in 2009 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the release of documents.

Last month, Archbishop Lori hosted all of the U.S. Catholic Bishops in Baltimore for their annual fall meeting, the most significant news from which was the conference’s inaction regarding abuse which resulted from newly materializing tension with the Vatican over how to respond to clerical sex abuse.

What’s more, Archbishop Lori, as interim administrator of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, last week released a list of the names of West Virginia Catholic clergy who have been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of minors. Michael Bransfield was not on that list, despite having been accused of abusing a minor in 2012.

“The omission of Bishop Bransfield has us wondering what other claims were deemed by the diocese to not be ‘credible,’” Judy Jones, the Midwest regional leader for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), told the Charleston Gazette-Mail newspaper. She called for an independent investigation by law enforcement professionals — “given that we have seen church officials deem accusations not credible only to be proven horribly wrong later.”

Finally, Archbishop Lori has appointed former Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein to the team currently investigating allegations of sexual misconduct by former Bishop Bransfield. As a defense attorney in 2002, Mr. Bernstein represented former Catholic priest Rev. Michael J. Spillane, who was facing new claims of wrongdoing after having admitted a decade earlier to sexually abusing six Baltimore-area children. After that admission, Rev. Spillane continued to work with the church for 16 years in Washington, D.C., as executive director of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, a job he took, Mr. Bernstein told The Baltimore Sun, in part because it was administrative and away from children.

The other members of Archbishop Lori’s investigative team have not been made public. The team has been described by Archbishop Lori in a letter to clergy of the West Virginia diocese only as being “comprised of three men and two women, including one non-Catholic, who bring a breadth of investigative expertise and experience to the their work.” If we are to trust their evaluation and judgment, should we not know their names and backgrounds?

Archbishop Lori’s record of protectionism raises questions about his suitability to oversee an internal investigation at such a major moment for the U.S. Catholic Church, which has been rocked by high-ranking clerical sexual abuse, cover-up and backlash — including several high-profile resignations this year and the release of a Pennsylvania Attorney General’s report that uncovered 70 years of systematic clerical sexual abuse and cover-up of more than 1,000 minors by more than 300 priests in Pennsylvania’s Catholic Church.

Since then, the Maryland attorney general has launched an investigation and review of the child sexual abuse records of Archbishop Lori’s own Baltimore diocese, and similar action has been taken by nearly a dozen states’ attorneys general and the federal Department of Justice.

The Catholic Church is undergoing a transformative, watershed moment. Conduct that was institutionally accepted before is simply no longer acceptable.

Let the question posed by this investigation be to Archbishop Lori, and to the Catholic Church more broadly: “given our own history, can we account for our church’s sins?”

Vincent DeGeorge (vdegeorge9@gmail.com) was a seminarian for the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston for the past two years. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, VOX and the National Catholic Register.

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