Too Many Questions Remain Unanswered in the Case of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield

Two months after the U.S. Catholic Church was hit by a major scandal surrounding a West Virginia bishop, church officials are telling us it’s time to move on. But for many of us Catholics in West Virginia, that message feels like a punch in the gut. Serious reasons remain for Catholics everywhere to pause and demand much more transparency surrounding the case of former bishop Michael Bransfield.

Those reasons have to do with who oversaw the production of the investigative report on Bransfield, what the report said about allegations of child sexual abuse, and the fact that the document has never been made public.

Bransfield retired in September just as U.S. church officials announced an investigation into alleged sexual and financial misconduct during his tenure. In June, we learned details of those allegations when The Washington Post reported on the contents of the secret church report: massive financial mismanagement and lavish spending of church money, officials’ ignoring of Bransfield’s sexual misconduct, and the fact that top leaders in the United States and Rome had received cash gifts from Bransfield, including William Lori, the archbishop who oversaw the probe.

Two weeks ago, the Vatican handed down penalties suspending Bransfield from public ministry and immediately named a new bishop, Mark Brennan. But for many Catholics in West Virginia, it’s not time to move on. There are a few reasons for that.

Church officials in West Virginia and Baltimore have mischaracterized a key part of their own report. Throughout the investigation, when Lori and diocesan officials would discuss the Bransfield allegations, they generally used the term “sexual harassment” of priests and seminarians. However, The Post’s coverage cites the report as describing something that appears to go beyond harassment. It quotes a seminarian who says Bransfield pulled the young man against him and ran his hands over the seminarian’s genitals. In addition, at least one West Virginia seminarian has since filed a lawsuit against Bransfield alleging assault.

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