Chancery of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in Wheeling, West Virginia (Photo: Michael Iafrate)

“Follow the Truth Wherever it Leads”

Resisting the Jurisdictional Mentality that Protects Abusers in the Church

When the Boston clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in 2002, I was working as a campus minister in West Virginia. One afternoon I sat around a table in a campus lounge with a handful of students and a priest colleague who was also on staff. Together we shared our reactions to the overwhelming reports of the Boston abuse, and the priest and I helped the students plan a prayer service of lament. Nine years later, after moving on to another university in Pennsylvania, the priest was “permanently removed” from ministry following the emergence of a credible decades-old accusation of abuse. His name now appears in the recently released grand jury report of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania (though his name is redacted). He is also named in lists of credibly accused priests released by dioceses in West Virginia and in Pennsylvania where he served.

The case of this priest suggests one reason why the PA report has hit close to home for a large number of Catholics over a large geographical area. In some ways, the report could be called a regional report, not only because of those dioceses’ proximity to other dioceses (like West Virginia), but because of the ways dioceses interpenetrate each other. I have never lived in Pennsylvania, but I know at least three priests named in the PA report because each of them spent significant time in West Virginia.

And yet, none of these three priests, under normal circumstances, would necessarily be considered the “responsibility” of my home diocese according to a jurisdictional mentality that remains strong in the Roman Catholic Church despite the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. This jurisdictional understanding of church emphasizes, at least in certain circumstances, the autonomy of and rigid boundaries between individual dioceses rather than the organic relationships between them. And with regard to the issue of clergy sexual abuse, this jurisdictional ecclesiology is the theological counterpart to the legal protectionism of diocesan lawyers and other church leaders. Theological and legal boundary-making can work together to enable the protection of abusers, leading to a juridical “sorting out” of which abusive priests are the responsibility of which diocese or other church body, such as a religious order.

Although dioceses are distinct legal entities both in terms of civil and church law, in real life the boundaries between them are also fluid. Priests and bishops can be transferred from one diocese to another, and even when stationed in one diocese can live and work in another. The constant movement of people and relationships means that abuse and its cover-up takes place through networks of dioceses and other church institutions just as much as within bounded ecclesiastical territories. This is precisely what the PA report portrays. Covering six dioceses, the report’s depiction of the movement of predator priests not only within but across dioceses helps to expose the fallacy of jurisdictional thinking in the church and the way it can conceal how abuse and its cover-up actually works.

One can see jurisdictional protectionism at work in some of the self-generated lists dioceses are now releasing of priests who have been “credibly” accused (as defined by the diocese itself) of abuse. The scope of these lists varies widely from diocese to diocese, with each diocese coming to different definitions of what and who, exactly, they are “responsible” for reporting. For example, the Diocese of Steubenville named only diocesan priests in the list it released in October, an exercise of jurisdictional exclusion that allowed them to omit abusive priests from religious orders who served within the diocese. But if we think about clergy abuse according to the way the church actually works rather than in terms of rigid jurisdictional boundaries, the parameters of diocesan lists of accused clergy would necessarily err on the side of being inclusive rather than exclusive. We might even expect that lists from regionally adjacent dioceses would overlap.

In many ways, the list produced by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia reflects this shift in thinking away from jurisdictionalism. When diocesan officials announced in October that they were compiling a list, they listened closely to local Catholics who asked that the disclosures be as comprehensive as possible. They affirmed that religious order priests, for example, would be included. They also listened as some Catholic school teachers argued that the West Virginia list should include priests like Christopher Foxhoven of the Steubenville diocese who had recently been pulled from ministry for his illegal three-year relationship with a teenage altar girl that recently resulted in pregnancy. Catholic teachers noted that, in addition to serving diocesan parishes in southeast Ohio, he said Masses and heard confessions informally at Catholic schools in West Virginia along the diocesan border, giving him access to hundreds more Catholic young people.

Indeed, some of the least formal and most hidden — and therefore more concerning — arrangements between dioceses involve “borrowing” priests for school Masses and penance services. These regional connections often go undocumented, and therefore not likely to be tracked on official diocesan lists of abusive priests. Ignoring this movement across diocesan boundaries can conceal the “geography” of abuse. In an acknowledgement of this fluidity, the diocese issued a public statement about the Steubenville list alerting West Virginia Catholics to the fact that “some” priests from Steubenville served informally in the state, and they privately assured teachers that Foxhoven would be included in the forthcoming list.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston released two lists of credibly accused priests in late November — the first, a list of clergy who had abused minors within the diocese, and the second, a list of clergy who had served in the diocese but who had abused minors elsewhere. The diocese’s openness to input during the process of data gathering, the high degree of disclosure about particular cases, and the inclusion of the second list of priests all suggest a desire on the part of the diocese to reject jurisdictional protectionism in favor of greater transparency. And yet, although Foxhoven was sentenced to 12 years in prison just days before the release of the lists, he was ultimately not included.

West Virginia Catholics were disappointed by this, as well as a second significant omission: former Bishop Michael Bransfield whose September resignation triggered an immediate investigation into long-rumored allegations of sexual harassment of adults. Bransfield’s career, too, reveals how fluid clerical networks transgress the boundaries of dioceses. Before his consecration as bishop of West Virginia by then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Bransfield climbed the clerical ladder first in his home diocese of Philadelphia and then in Washington, D.C. as rector of National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Additionally, the present investigation of Bransfield takes place just six years after reports surfaced of allegations that he abused minors decades ago in Philadelphia, allegations that Cardinal Justin Rigali reportedly chose not to disclose to Philadelphia’s archdiocesan abuse review board. Bransfield and other officials of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston have repeatedly denied the allegations, and the jurisdictional disconnect between West Virginia and Philadelphia has worked to Bransfield’s advantage by discouraging West Virginians from asking further questions.

In the weeks following Bransfield’s retreat from West Virginia, the diocese came under the interim leadership of Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori while a five-person team from Baltimore conducts the investigation into Bransfield’s alleged misconduct. But Bransfield’s omission from the diocese’s list of credibly accused clerics was seen as suspicious by West Virginia Catholics as well as by clergy abuse survivor organization SNAP, seemingly calling into question the credibility of the Bransfield investigation. In its defense, the diocese reverted to the jurisdictional mentality, stating that the diocese’s list includes only those clergy accused of abusing minors and that Bransfield’s alleged abuse of minors was determined to be “non-credible” by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Any questions about that investigation should be addressed to Philadelphia, they said, implying that the West Virginia diocese had no responsibility to investigate them further.

But many questions remain about how these allegations against Bransfield were handled, both internally by the church and by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office which claimed to have reopened their own investigation in 2012. In fact, a colleague of mine and I sat with a high-ranking official from the diocese recently, furrowing our brows trying to recall the facts. Ultimately, the diocesan official could not give a definitive account of the allegations, how exactly they were deemed non-credible, or who precisely had deemed them such.

So while Archbishop Lori has instructed the investigation team to “follow the truth wherever it leads,” the West Virginia diocese has given every indication that questions about Philadelphia are off limits. But West Virginians will be expecting these questions to be addressed when the results of the Bransfield investigation are publicized, and the credibility of both the current Bransfield investigation and the West Virginia list of accused priests hinge on the question of what really happened in Philadelphia. Indeed, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston itself, as well as the Bransfield investigation team, should be the ones “forwarding questions” to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and to Philadelphia’s civil authorities about the processes they used to determine that the accusations are “not credible” rather than claiming that jurisdictional boundaries prevent them from doing so. And archdiocesan and civil authorities should welcome those inquiries and cooperate to the fullest extent possible in order to produce a definitive statement on those allegations.

Recent revelations and reports painfully confirm that, yes, clergy sex abuse is everywhere. But the PA grand jury report and the latest round of scandals underscore the way abuse occurs in, and in between, particular places — places each with their own histories and connected to other places in previously unseen ways. Jurisdictional thinking is an outdated ecclesiological fiction that obscures these histories and connections, and ultimately protects abusers. If church authorities are serious about transparency and justice, wouldn’t they use whatever resources they have to follow the tentacles of abuse and its cover-up across dioceses rather than hiding behind that fiction? In order to “follow the truth wherever it leads,” wouldn’t dioceses be eager to cooperate in order to produce more fluid — and therefore more honest — accounts of how this abuse of power and of persons works? And if not, why not?

It’s time to connect the dots.