St. Joseph Cathedral, Wheeling, WV (Photo by Michael Iafrate)

“Lay Involvement” in Church Investigation Does Not Guarantee Truth or Transparency

But the laypeople of “unimportant” diocese have the ability to influence the entire U.S. Catholic Church on accountability

What is happening in the Catholic Church in West Virginia is truly remarkable, notable and important to watch.

Occurring in the immediate wake of the Cardinal Theodore McCarrick scandal and the release of the damning PA grand jury report, the resignation and subsequent investigation of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield for alleged sexual harassment of adults are of national significance. His past history in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. connect him directly to wider circles of influence at play in the U.S. church at this time. Additionally, the present investigation of Bransfield takes place just six years after he was alleged to have abused minors decades ago in his home diocese of Philadelphia, allegations that Bransfield and other officials of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston have consistently denied.

Still, more than just another clerical spectacle, the laypeople of our mainly “rural” and presumably “unimportant” diocese are in the position to influence the entire U.S. Catholic Church on a path toward greater transparency and justice, away from all forms of abusive behavior.

There are signs that West Virginia Catholics are doing just that.

Our interim bishop, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, appointed Bryan Minor, a layperson, as his delegate to handle daily diocesan operations. In fact, lay administrators are, for the most part, running the show with ordained members of the former bishop’s curia slipping into an almost penitential silence.

Grassroots Catholic organizers recently met with Minor to bring him bold and forthright questions from a number of concerned Catholics. At that meeting, he showed admirable sincerity, candor, remorse, compassion and commitment to work towards healing in the Diocese, and readily agreed to keep us informed about the investigation process. Indeed, in a major turnaround, last week the Diocese announced that a list of priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse over the past several decades was being compiled and would be published in the coming weeks.

One senses a sigh of relief in the voices of Minor and other diocesan employees, as if a fog has been lifted, or scales have fallen from some eyes, after over a decade of abuse of power. Lay leaders deserve this break and time for healing for they, too, have been victims of clerical abuse — if not sexual, the kind that comes from a culture of fear and silence.

Nevertheless, “lay involvement” has not resulted in full transparency and does not guarantee truthtelling. Despite the openness of lay diocesan staff, under the direction of Archbishop Lori, the Diocese and investigation itself bear the marks of the institution’s habitual secrecy.

For example, while it is understandable that the names of the five-layperson investigative team would not be publicized before or during the investigation, Lori has not explained why he chose these specific individuals over others. It is especially concerning that one individual on this team is reportedly a Baltimore lawyer who defended abuser priests in Lori’s archdiocese, as this calls into question the investigation’s credibility.

Lori has assured grassroots groups of Catholics that he will meet with us to discuss further concerns and ideas, and we look forward to that conversation.

Among the additional concerns West Virginia Catholics have been raising:

  • If the diocese gave more details about the reporting process it would go a long way in assuring those who call the hotline with allegations of harassment by Bransfield. The safety of victims and job security of diocesan employees must be first priority.
  • Whatever scant reporting on the investigation has appeared in any news source has come from the Diocese’s own press writer. Tight control over the message leads to a lack of information for the public. Seeing investigative journalists as allies would build the trust the hierarchy says it sincerely desires.
  • Results of the Bransfield investigation must be made public upon completion, unlike the results of the investigation of Bishop Martin Holley, who Pope Francis recently removed from the Diocese of Memphis for administrative — not criminal — issues.
  • Whatever is revealed in Bransfield’s sexual misconduct case must not be used to distract from disclosing deeper problems in the Diocese with regard to finances, human resources, and the leadership of Wheeling Jesuit University.
  • A self-reported list of accused abusive priests is not enough. Investigation by external, civil authorities is common sense. Neither the Diocese nor Patrick Morrisey have disclosed the extent of the Attorney General’s involvement, and both parties will need to define what it means to be “credibly accused.”

West Virginia Catholics encourage lay employees to continue using their influence on these matters within the Diocese as other laypeople work outside the diocesan structure for accountability. We applaud individuals and whole parishes who have already voiced their suggestions in letters to the hierarchy. And grassroots Catholic organizations promise to keep listening and encouraging cooperation among West Virginia Catholics during this time of renewal and rebirth, that we might “become the church we wish to see in the world.”