A West Virginia bishop – who was first accused of sexual misconduct during his tenure as a Philadelphia priest – stepped down Thursday while church officials launched a new investigation into claims that he had sexually harassed adults.
Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael Joseph Bransfield – who hails from a family of prominent Philadelphia clerics – as head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va.
Though Bransfield was first accused in Philadelphia in 2007 of molesting a minor and enabling the abuse of others, the probe announced Thursday appeared to be based on a different set of accusations.
Neither the Vatican nor Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori – whom the pope appointed to handle the investigation – specified the details of those claims in separate statements issued Thursday.
"My primary concern is for the care and support of the priests and the people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston at this difficult time," Lori said. "I further pledge to conduct a thorough investigation in search of the truth into 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."
News of Bransfield's ouster came at a dramatic moment just minutes before a delegation of top American cardinals and bishops was scheduled to meet with Francis in Rome to address the widening sex-abuse scandal within their ranks, kicked off earlier this year by the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington.
Among the U.S. contingent at that meeting was Bransfield's cousin, Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, of Philadelphia, and a ranking officer at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (The former bishop's nephew, the Rev. Sean Bransfield, is vice chancellor for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.)
Tim Bishop, a spokesperson for the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, said Thursday that Michael Bransfield was unavailable for comment and that he did not know the former bishop's location. Francis has instructed Bransfield to live outside of West Virginia pending the conclusion of the sexual-harassment investigation, Bishop said.
McCarrick's resignation in July and the subsequent release of a damning grand jury report detailing decades of abuse and cover-up in six Pennsylvania dioceses has further fueled outrage among Catholics who have pointed to both developments as signs that the leaders of the church in America did not go far enough to reform themselves after the clergy sex-abuse scandal first erupted in Boston in 2002.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo – the current head of the U.S. bishops conference and the archbishop of Houston – had requested the Thursday meeting with Francis to push for a full Vatican investigation into McCarrick's activities.
But even as he prepared for that papal audience, an Associated Press story raised questions about DiNardo's own handling of an abuse case involving a Texas priest.
Like McCarrick – around whom rumors of sexual improprieties with seminarians had swirled for years before his resignation in July – Bransfield had long been dogged by accusations but had strenuously denied that he had ever done anything wrong.
Since he was installed in 2005 to lead his West Virginia diocese of 117,000 Catholics in the Appalachian foothills, he has emerged as one of the church's leading money men. Bransfield had previously served as president of the Bala Cynwyd-based Papal Foundation, one of the largest Catholic fundraising organizations in the nation.
And yet the first accusations against him as early as 2007, when a former student at Lansdale Catholic accused Bransfield of molesting him in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Bransfield began his career teaching at the school in the 1970s before moving to Washington in the 1980s for a series of prominent assignments at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia forwarded the complaint to Montgomery County prosecutors. But in a break from practice, church officials conducted their own internal investigation instead of referring the matter to its civilian review board, which was formed to conduct independent examinations of abuse claims.
Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, then the head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, made the determination himself that the former student's complaint was unfounded after reviewing the reports of an investigator who interviewed Bransfield, his accuser, and others.
News of the allegation did not become public until additional accusations emerged against Bransfield during the 2012 child-endangerment trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn.
In that case, two witnesses alleged that Bransfield was aware of the abusive behavior of one of his fellow Philadelphia clergy members, an old seminary classmate – the now-defrocked Rev. Stanley Gana.
The two men testified that they believed Bransfield knew Gana had sexually assaulted them dozens of times during their adolescence in Northeast Philadelphia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, though they admitted they had no proof.
One of the men accused Bransfield of letting Gana use a beach house he owned in Brigantine, N.J., for encounters with young boys.
The other testified that Gana would put him on the phone with Bransfield while he was being molested in Gana's rectory bedroom. The witness said he recalled during one phone call that Bransfield told him: "I'm going to have Stanley put you on a train and come down and see me sometime."
That same man also alleged he saw Bransfield driving a carload of adolescent boys near a farm Gana owned in Northeast Pennsylvania.
"They're his fair-haired boys," the man recalled Gana telling him as Bransfield drove away. "The one in the front seat, he is having sex with."
Bransfield strongly disputed that testimony in 2012.
"To be now unfairly included in that group (of pedophile priests) and to hear the horrific allegations that are being made of me is unbelievable and shocking," the bishop said at the time. "I have never sexually abused anyone."
How much those past allegations played into Francis' decision Thursday to accept Bransfield's resignation remains uncertain. The bishop initially put in papers to retire when he turned 75 earlier this year, as is standard practice among the church hierarchy.
It was also unclear to what extent Bransfield was discussed during Thursday's meeting in Rome between Francis and top leaders of the American church.
DiNardo, the head of the U.S. delegation, remained tight-lipped Thursday on the details of his discussion with Francis. In a statement, he thanked the pope for receiving the American delegation.
"We shared with Pope Francis our situation in the United States – how the Body of Christ is lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse," DiNardo said. "He listened very deeply from the heart. It was a lengthy, fruitful and good exchange. ... We look forward to actively continuing our discernment together identifying the most effective next steps."
(Staff reporter William Bender contributed to this report.)