‘No excuse, no adequate explanation’: Lori releases findings of Bishop Bransfield investigation

CNA 511a94fc52538 18031 Archbishop William Lori speaks at a Legatus conference on Feb 8, 2013. | Patrick Novecosky/Legatus.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore has released a letter to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston addressing the findings of a preliminary investigation into the former head of the diocese, Bishop Michael Bransfield.

In the June 5 letter, the archbishop states that accusations of sexual and financial misconduct by Bransfield had been determined to be "credible" by an independent investigation. Investigators discovered that Bransfield had managed to erode and evade oversight and policy controls by fostering "a culture of fear of retaliation and retribution" in the diocese.

"There is no excuse, nor adequate explanation, that will satisfy the troubling question of how his behavior was allowed to continue for as long as it did," Lori wrote in the letter, addressed to the clergy and faithful of the diocese.

Lori was named apostolic administrator of the diocese in September 2018 by Pope Francis, following a series of allegations made against Bransfield including sexual and financial misconduct.

Bransfield's resignation was accepted by Pope Francis last September, eight days after he turned 75, the age at which diocesan bishops are required by canon law to submit a letter of resignation to the pope. Lori subsequently barred him from public ministry in both Wheeling-Charleston and Baltimore.

Lori said he was writing the letter to share the conclusions of a five-month preliminary investigation into the former diocesan bishop which concluded in March and had been transmitted to Rome.

"In the spirit of transparency and based on my many conversations during various visits to the diocese these past months, it is clear to me that more must be said about the report's findings and about the steps being taken to address them," Lori wrote.

Lori said that while there was no "conclusive evidence" of sexual misconduct with minors, the investigation – led by five lay experts – had found indications of consistent sexual misconduct and harassment by Bransfield against adults.

"The team uncovered a consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestive comments and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority," Lori said.

Abuse of authority for sexual purposes was classed as a separate category of sexual abuse in the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, which came into force June 1.

Lori also confirmed that investigators had established a pattern of serious financial misconduct by Bransfield throughout his tenure as bishop.

"The investigative report determined that during his tenure as Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, Bishop Bransfield engaged in a pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending," Lori said, citing renovations to multiple residences and the misuse of Church funds "for personal benefit on such things as personal travel, dining, liquor, gifts and luxury items."

The archbishop also set out a range of measures put in place since Bransfield's departure to assist possible victims and to ensure there could be no repetition of his alleged misconduct.

"Without a doubt, the alleged victims of former Bishop Bransfield's sexual harassment must be our first and constant concern," Lori said.

"Thus, the diocese has committed to providing counseling to them and to all priests and lay personnel at the chancery. I have asked that a permanent program be developed and advertised to seminarians and priests that such services are available."

Additionally, Lori confirmed that financial, pastoral, and practical resources were being made available to all victims, and that he had ordered the creation of an independent, third-party reporting mechanism in the diocese for accusations of sexual or financial misconduct, with complaints being forwarded to an independent, lay-led review board.

As Archbishop of Baltimore, Lori instituted a similar program in the archdiocese – the first of its kind in the United States.

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"As we seek to understand how such behavior was able to occur over the course of Bishop Bransfield's 13-year-long tenure, it is evident from those who spoke with investigators that the Bishop's management style and personality undermined the effectiveness of diocesan policies, controls and oversight procedures," Lori said.

"In some cases, it is apparent that the judgment of diocesan personnel was impacted by the culture of fear of retaliation and retribution that the former bishop fostered."

Lori said he was working with the chancery staff and the diocesan finance council to institute new oversight policies. In response to Bransfield's "excessive and inappropriate spending," Lori said he had ordered the immediate listing and sale of the bishop's residence in Wheeling.

Applying the policy of rigorous transparency to himself, Lori noted that he too had received financial gifts from Bransfield over the years.

"In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel it necessary to acknowledge that I was periodically a recipient of financial gifts in varying amounts by Bishop Bransfield for various occasions over the years, including my installation as Archbishop of Baltimore in 2012 and annually at Christmas."

Lori said that following the extent of Bransfield's financial misconduct becoming clear, he had returned a total of $7,500 to the diocese with instructions that the funds be used for Catholic Charities.

"I am deeply pained by and sorry for the harm that the former bishop caused to those he was charged with shepherding in a spirit of Christ-like humility, service and pastoral care and charity," Lori concluded, underlining that episcopal accountability was a "critical issue" facing the Church.

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"We are committed to bringing about the healing that the good people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston require and can only pray for and work relentlessly to regain their renewed trust and confidence."

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