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Archbishop Lori submits report on Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Bransfield

A statement from the Archdiocese of Baltimore released Monday morning says Archbishop Lori conducted the five-month preliminary investigation with the assistance of five lay experts.

Left: Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori answers questions from the local media about the church's abuse crisis during a Jan. 15 news conference at the Catholic Center in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review). Right: Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, then head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., is seen at Wheeling Hospital. (CNS photo/Colleen Rowan, The Catholic Spirit)

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore has completed his preliminary report on the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and the conduct of the long-serving bishop there, Michael Bransfield. Archbishop Lori has submitted the report to the Congregation for Bishops.

Bishop Bransfield submitted his resignation in accordance with Canon Law in September 2018, upon reaching his 75th birthday. Pope Francis accepted the resignation within a week of its submission, and authorized the investigation under the leadership of Archbishop Lori. Bishop Bransfield faces multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with adult men, as well as allegations of financial improprieties.

A statement from the Archdiocese of Baltimore released Monday morning says Archbishop Lori conducted the five-month preliminary investigation with the assistance of five lay experts. “[The investigation] involved interviews with more than 40 individuals,” the statement said, “including Bishop Bransfield.”

The submission of the report is the first step in a process that could lead to serious sanctions for Bishop Bransfield, whom Archbishop Lori has restricted from any and all ministry in both Wheeling-Charleston and Baltimore, while the Holy See considers the report.

“Pending the assessment of the findings of the Holy See,” Archbishop Lori said, “as Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, I have directed that Bishop Bransfield is not authorized to exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry either within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston or within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.”

The investigation also resulted in restrictions for another bishop, Gordon Bennett SJ, a former auxiliary of Baltimore and Bishop emeritus of Mandeville, Jamaica. Bishop Bennett served as auxiliary under Cardinal William Keeler in Baltimore for six years, starting in 1998, before Pope St. John Paul II appointed Bennett to the Diocese of Mandeville in 2004.

“As a result of these restrictions,” the statement from the Archdiocese of Baltimore explains, “Bishop Bennett is prohibited from exercising any priestly or episcopal ministry in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.” The Baltimore statement also specifies that the Holy See gave Archbishop Lori “permission” to make the restrictions public.

When Bishop Bennett resigned his position in Mandeville in 2006, the Press Office of the Holy See cited Canon 401§2 of the Code of Canon Law, which states: “A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.” The Press Office of the Holy See gave no more specific indication of the reason for Bennett’s resignation.

The Catholic News Service reported at the time that the then-Provincial of the Jesuits’ California province, Fr. John McGarry SJ, sent an email to his assistancy saying Bennett would be “returning to California for medical assessment and treatment for fatigue and depression.”

The statement from Archdiocese of Baltimore reports that Baltimore had received an allegation of sexual misconduct against Bishop Bennett — involving a young adult — in May 2006. “Upon receiving the allegation,” the statement from Archbishop Lori says, “the Archdiocese immediately reported it to the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C.” Bennett resigned from the Diocese of Mandeville in August of that same year.

In 2008, Bishop Bennett became the Peter Faber SJ Fellow in Pastoral Theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A spokesman for LMU told the Catholic World Report by phone that Bishop Bennett left the university in 2018, but could not immediately offer further details. Later in the day, the university issued a statement saying the “LMU has no record of allegations of misconduct against Bishop Bennett during his time at the university.”

Neither the LMU spokesman nor the statement addressed the question whether LMU knew of the allegation against Bishop Bennett.

The Jesuits West province — encompassing the US states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington — issued a statement saying Bishop Bennett had been cleared of the allegation. “In 2009, after being cleared of this allegation, the Congregation [for Bishops] reinstated Bishop Bennett to limited episcopal ministry subject to oversight.”

The statement goes on to say, “For nearly a decade following, he served both the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Jesuits, leading retreats and conducting formation programs for lay men and women.”

“In August of 2018,” the statement goes on to say, “as the Catholic Church grappled with ongoing painful questions about how allegations of misconduct had been handled in the past, Bishop Bennett’s case was reexamined to ensure it met the standards adopted in recent years to deal with allegations of misconduct.”

“Recently, after concluding its review,” the statement continues, “the Congregation determined that Bishop Bennett should not continue to exercise episcopal ministry.” With regard to priestly ministry, the statement says Congregation for Bishops has left the decision in the hands of Bennett’s Jesuit superiors.

“Bishop Bennett is not presently engaged in public ministry,” the statement adds, “nor has he been since late August of 2018.” Bennett is undergoing treatment for cancer. “His current priority is caring for his health,” the Jesuits’ statement says.

In his own Archdiocese of Baltimore, Archbishop Lori has enacted a series of accountability protocols, including:

• The establishment of a third-party reporting system for allegations against bishops serving in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, including allegations of child sexual abuse or allegations of sexual harassment of adults;

• Expansion of purview of the Independent Review Board to include direct reception and reporting of allegations against bishops;

• Updated child protection policies that include the signing of a Code of Conduct by bishops;

• Issuance of an annual report by the Independent Review Board;

• Re-establishment of a lay Archdiocesan Pastoral Council.

Since enacting the protocols in Baltimore, Archbishop Lori has called for their extension to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, of which he is currently the Apostolic Administrator.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 195 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

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