WHEELING, W.Va. — Those asked to serve on an investigative team looking into sexual harassment allegations made against former Bishop Michael Bransfield may include lay leaders from the Catholic Church outside of West Virginia.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s new apostolic administrator, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, is forming the team. He continued meetings in Wheeling Friday, according to Diocese spokesman Tim Bishop.
“There are lay leaders from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston to be involved. He (Lori) is discussing lay leadership from his arch diocese to be involved as well,” Bishop said. “So I think that will create a good mixture of people who are familiar with the (Wheeling-Charleston) diocese as well as those outside the diocese.”
Bishop predicted the investigative group would be made up of professionals in the fields of psychiatry, the medical field and law enforcement.
“Who they are we don’t know yet but that, I think, would be the base of creation of a good team,” he said.
Lori arrived in Wheeling Thursday after being appointed by Pope Francis, who accepted Bransfield’s resignation.
The specifics of the allegations have not been released. Bishop said Archbishop Lori wants to move as quickly as possible with a fair investigation aimed at getting to the truth effectively.
Lay-led investigations have been called for in the Catholic Church in connection with alleged sexual misconduct but Bishop said they haven’t happened often.
“There is no one that will deny that there’s been an erosion of trust within the Catholic Church,” he said. “I think anything we can do to help rebuild the trust is something that we have to do and we’re called to do that.”
Judy Jones, of the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said Friday she’s not surprised by the Bransfield investigation because of the testimony in a 2012 trial that he abused a young boy. It’s a claim Bransfield vehemently denied. The alleged victim, now an adult, also denied the claim. The current allegations are focused on alleged sexual harassment involving adults.
Jones said church members are becoming more bold to report Bransfield and others following the work of a Pennsylvania grand jury that was released earlier this summer. It alleged more than 300 Catholic priests abused more than 1,000 children over seven decades.
“Victims are getting the courage to come forward more,” Jones said. “We’re hearing from victims from all over the place, from other states and everything, who have been still silent.”
Jones is calling for a grand jury report in every state including West Virginia.
“I know that parishioners, what I’m hearing, is they’re very angry. They need to get angry. They need to wake up and see what’s going on in their church,” Jones said.
Bishop said the investigation into Bransfield, who started as bishop in 2005, is currently a church investigation only with no criminal allegations.
“We’re unaware of any criminal investigation taking place but we stand to work fully and cooperate in any such type of review. We’ll comply with any reporting obligations that we’re required to,” Bishop said.
A percentage of the state’s 77,000 Catholics will attend mass this weekend, Bishop said it’s not known what local priests will say, if anything, about the investigation. He urged church members to pray for their local priests.
“We don’t know what any type of homily is going to be, but I think it’s safe to say that Archbishop Lori will address the Catholic faithful of West Virginia during his mass Saturday evening,” Bishop said.
That service will be at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling at 6 p.m. Saturday.