The Philadelphia Inquirer
July 22, 2012
By John P. Martin, Inquirer Staff Writer
Bishop Michael Bransfield in 2005, when he was named to head Wheeling-Charleston.…
After a four-month inquiry, Rigali, then head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, declared unfounded a claim that Bransfield had molested a Lansdale Catholic High School student in the 1970s.
The outcome wasn’t unusual – other priests had been cleared of decades-old allegations – but the process was.
In a break from practice, the accusation against Bransfield bypassed the archdiocese’s civilian review board, according to a source briefed on the case but not authorized to publicly discuss it. The board was formed to conduct independent examinations of abuse claims and assesses priests’ suitablility for ministry.
Instead, Rigali acted after reviewing the reports of an investigator who interviewed Bransfield, his accuser and others.
And though the archdiocese routinely publicly identifies and suspends priests as it reviews allegations against them, four years passed before the complaint against Bransfield came to light, and then only in passing at the landmark clergy-sex abuse trial. Still, it proved enough to rekindle a long-dormant criminal inquiry and spark new questions about Bransfield, a Philadelphia native who spent his early years as a priest here and who now serves as West Virginia’s top prelate.
The bishop has said that he never abused anyone and that he was vindicated after a “full investigation” into the accusation.
Representatives for the archdiocese and Rigali declined last week to discuss Bransfield, the allegations against him, or their findings.
The church’s handling of the complaint, the decision by Montgomery County prosecutors to reopen a review, and the not-so-casual dropping of Bransfield’s name at the widely watched trial all flow from the same facts:
At 68, Bransfield, head of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, has become a leader in the national bishops’ conference. And he was also once friends with a notorious priest, Stanley Gana, at the same time Gana was allegedly serially raping and molesting Philadelphia boys.
In interviews last week, the two Gana accusers whose trial testimony unleashed the scrutiny on the bishop described for the first time their contact with Bransfield in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Both men said they had no proof or knowledge that Bransfield abused anyone. Instead, they said they were disturbed by his association with Gana and presumed he knew Gana was assaulting them.