Bishop Bransfield resigns; investigation into sexual harassment claims begins

WHEELING, W.Va. — The bishop of the Catholic Church in West Virginia has resigned and an investigation is getting started into allegations that he sexually harassed adults.

Bishop Michael Bransfield

Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston announced Thursday Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael Bransfield and appointed Baltimore Archbishop William Lori as apostolic administrator.

Wheeling-Charleston Diocese spokesman Tim Bishop said Lori, who will oversee the investigation into the allegations, was scheduled to begin meetings in Wheeling Thursday afternoon.

“I know that it is his hope that the investigation be lay led. So led by lay leaders around the church. I think that is very important,” Bishop said. “For him to reach out to them and say you are going to be an integral part of this investigation–I think that is very important. I think the lay people in the diocese are going to be very accepting of that.”

The specifics of the allegations against Bransfield, 75, who was installed as bishop of Wheeling-Charleston in 2005, have not been released.

“My primary concern is for the care and support of the priests and people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston at this difficult time,” Archbishop Lori said in a statement released Thursday. “I further pledge to conduct a thorough investigation in search of the truth into the 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.”

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a statement on the investigation Thursday afternoon:

“The allegations against Bishop Bransfield are disturbing and warrant a close review by the State of West Virginia to ensure that West Virginians are protected. My Office will be closely reviewing this matter to determine how best we can protect West Virginians who might have been victims in this scandal. We have reached out to the Diocese and expect they will be fully cooperative in efforts to get to the bottom of these matters,” Morrisey said.

Bishop said the day-to-day operations of the diocese would continue. He urged Catholic Church members in West Virginia to let the investigation to take its course and pray for local priests.

“These gentlemen who stand in front of a pulpit every day, in many instances, they are the men on the frontlines for us. We hold them up in prayer that they will find the words to address their parishioners,” Bishop said.

In April 2012, Bransfield issued a statement denying he had ever sexually abused children which had been alleged by a witness in a trial of two other priests. Bransfield called the allegations “horrific” adding they were “unbelievable and shocking.”

The Wheeling-Charleston Diocese released a statement in July 2012 saying they had identified the boy who had allegedly made the allegations and he denied any abuse by Bransfield.

Bransfield has been instructed by Pope Francis to live outside West Virginia pending the conclusion of the investigation. Bishop said Thursday he hadn’t spoken with Bransfield and didn’t know where he was.

Archbishop Lori will conduct Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Bishop said Archbishop Lori’s rapid response to the allegations shows his pastoral concern.

“First, for the alleged victims. Second, for the faithful of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and all the staff and priests with the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston,” Bishop said.

Lori will likely remain in apostolic administrator at Wheeling-Charleston until a new bishop is named.

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