Pope accepts resignation of Bishop Bransfield

Baltimore archbishop ordered to begin investigation of allegations of sexual harassment

RESIGNATION — Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston leads a prayer in July, during ceremonies at which the new continuous care center at Wheeling Hospital was named for him. -- File photo

WHEELING — Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop William E. Lori, of Baltimore, as apostolic administrator of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and has ordered him to investigate allegations that the Most Rev. Michael J. Bransfield, former diocesan bishop, sexually harassed adults.

Pope Francis accepted Bransfield’s resignation as bishop of Wheeling-Charleston and ordered Lori to investigate the allegations, church officials said Thursday.

Lori, who will remain archbishop of Baltimore, will serve as apostolic administrator until the appointment and installation of a new bishop.

Bransfield, who had served as bishop for 13 years, could not be reached for comment on the matter.

“Bishop Bransfield has been instructed to live outside the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston pending the investigation,” diocesan spokesman Tim Bishop said Thursday. “I am not aware of his whereabouts or any contact information.”

Lori was scheduled to arrive Thursday in Wheeling and stay through Saturday. Lori will celebrate mass at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling, the spokesman said.

The papal action was announced Thursday in press releases from the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

The archdiocese’s statement said Lori — “who was instructed by the Holy See to announce the forthcoming investigation” — was to meet Thursday and today with clergy and lay leaders of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

Asked for further comment, Bishop said “the diocese echoes” the archdiocese’s statement.

“We are under the apostolic administration of Archbishop Lori,” he said. “The (news) release from the archdiocese is the diocesan release.”

In July, Wheeling Hospital named its new continuous case center in Bransfield’s honor. In April, Wheeling Central Catholic High School named its gymnasium for Bransfield. It was not known if action would be taken to remove Bransfield’s name from either of the two facilities.

Asked if a name removal were being contemplated, the diocesan spokesman said, “I think that is is a decision that the apostolic administrator will make. We will follow as guided by Archbishop Lori.”

The resignation of Bransfield and appointment of Lori were publicized Thursday in Washington by Archbishop Christope Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

“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 the news release. “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.”

A hotline has been established for those wishing to share any information related to this investigation. The hotline number is 1-833-272-4225.

Bransfield turned 75 on Saturday. Diocesan bishops are required by canon law to submit their resignation upon reaching the age of 75. The Pope then decides when to accept a bishop’s resignation.

Details of the alleged sexual harassment have not been revealed, but it is not the first time that Bransfield has been accused of sexual misconduct. However, he has never been prosecuted on any charges.

The Catholic News Agency noted accusations of abuse against Bransfield arose in 2012 during the criminal trial in Philadelphia of the Rev. James Brennan on sex abuse charges and of Msgr. William Lynn for conspiracy and endangerment.

In that case, two witnesses and a prosecutor alleged Bransfield “may have known about sexual misconduct by (another priest) or abused minors himself,” according to published reports.

The Catholic News Agency said the witnesses claimed they were sexually abused as teens by the Rev. Stanley Gana, according to Philadelphia grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011. The 2005 report alleged that “Gana demanded and received” a sexual act at Bransfield’s beach house in Brigantine, New Jersey.

Bransfield denied the allegations made against him in 2012.

“To now be unfairly included in that group and to hear the horrific allegations that are being made of me is unbelievable and shocking… the nature of these statements and the manner in which they were released…go way beyond any sense of fairness and propriety,” he said on April 19, 2012.

Bransfield also contended the witnesses’ statement regarding abuse by Gana at the beach house was “misleading” because it failed to mention that he allowed many people to use his home and he was neither present nor aware of the incident.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston covers the entire state of West Virginia. According to church officials, 77,874 of the state’s population, or 4 percent, are Catholic. The diocese is a suffragan diocese in the Metropolitan See of Baltimore.

Bransfield was ordained and installed Feb. 22, 2005 as the eighth bishop of Wheeling-Charleston at the Cathedral of St. Joseph.