Monday, March 11, 2019

In "Almost Heaven," The Hammer Falls – With Rome's Consent, WV Probe Ends With Bishop's Suspension

As the leadership of the US bishops inches toward a partial embrace of Cardinal Blase Cupich’s “metropolitan proposal” for investigating allegations against prelates, the lone test-case for the likely national setup has come in for a landing both successful and brutal all at once.

In a release made from Baltimore with the Vatican's implicit approval, early this morning Archbishop William Lori announced a formal suspension from ministry of Bishop Michael Bransfield (above), who was quickly removed from the helm of West Virginia’s diocese of Wheeling-Charleston days after turning 75 last September amid serial allegations of sexual harassment of adults.

Tapped by Rome to oversee the statewide diocese during the vacancy, Lori – who, as Bransfield’s metropolitan, was approached with the allegations from several individuals last summer – was likewise tasked by the Holy See with conducting a preliminary investigation into the reported misconduct.

Despite initial hopes of completing the probe by Christmas, the process – conducted by an all-lay group and overseen by a former state-level prosecutor – produced sufficient evidence that the panel's work wasn’t able to wrap up until early February, uncovering significant financial impropriety along the way, on top of substantiating the charges of the bishop's sexual misconduct.

While officials maintain that no evidence of crimes was discovered in the review, according to a Whispers op close to the process, the findings against Bransfield proved so overwhelming that, within days of receiving the final report in mid-February, Lori made an emergency trip to Rome to brief senior Vatican officials in person on the outcome.

As hinted here at the time, today’s announcement could be clearly foreseen last month, when the Wheeling church moved to strip Bransfield’s name from both a high-school gym and a new wing of the diocese’s lead Catholic hospital.

Over his 14-year tenure, the now-suspended prelate – long one of the global church’s top financiers – spent heavily to invest in Wheeling’s church infrastructure, a largesse aided by the West Virginia diocese’s status as one of American Catholicism’s wealthiest outposts thanks to its century-old bequest of a Texas oil field, the revenues from which have left the 125,000-member diocese with cash reserves stretching into nine figures (i.e. over $100 million).

While the limits of Lori’s authority mean that, for now, Bransfield’s suspension extends solely to the archdiocese of Baltimore and his now-former diocese, with the findings before the Holy See, current projections anticipate that a relatively brief administrative process in Rome will affirm the conclusions of the Wheeling investigation and bar the bishop from all ministry on a universal level.

Though several US prelates have resigned and lived in a de facto state of removal from ministry upon earlier revelations of misconduct with adults, a public decree and sanction against Bransfield from the Vatican would be the first such move of its kind in a case not involving minors.

On another front, given the significant precedent of last month’s findings against the dismissed cleric Theodore McCarrick, once a cardinal and archbishop of Washington – and long a close Bransfield ally – it’s at least possible that the misconduct charges could end up before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which previously restricted itself to allegations involving children, until adding accusations from adults (in light of the "abuse of power") into its determination of the graviora delicta ("grave crimes") that warranted McCarrick's watershed removal from the priesthood.

With the investigation concluded, only now can the search for Bransfield’s permanent successor begin – as with last week's quick move on Memphis, however, the misconduct probe will go a long way toward the first and longest part of every appointment search: Rome’s consultation on the state of the diocese. As the Vatican is already well-aware of the gravity of the Wheeling situation, and considering Lori’s taxing shuttle-duty between Baltimore and West Virginia, it wouldn’t be surprising to have the latter’s new bishop emerge by the beginning of the summer recess in late June.

In a separate yet related development, the allegations against Bransfield spurred West Virginia's Attorney General Patrick Morissey to announce that the claims against the bishop "warrant a close review" following the September disclosure.

While US civil authorities have launched some 15 statewide investigations – and at least one Federal probe – over recent months, in West Virginia's case, no developments since Morissey's initial statement have yet come to light.

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On the national scene, meanwhile, measures and protocols to enforce the accountability of bishops and investigate allegations against them will be center stage this week in Washington as the USCCB Administrative Committee convenes on Tuesday morning for its first meeting of the year.

In keeping with post-summit comments made by the bench’s president, the likely focus of the three-day agenda will be the means by which Cardinal Daniel DiNardo’s earlier push for lay-led review of accusations of prelates can be worked into a “hybrid” with Cupich’s “metropolitan plan,” which the Chicago cardinal presented before Francis – clearly with the Pope's approval – in his keynote at last month's abuse summit in Rome:

The canonical fine-points of the mash-up still being ironed out, the result is slated to be one of four separate documents to be voted on by the bench at its June plenary in Baltimore, each of which will ostensibly need a two-thirds margin for approval and recognitio (confirmation) by the Holy See.

Notably among the other pending texts is another stab at a protocol first attempted at last November's plenary – guidelines for the restriction of bishops found to either have abused or shown grave negligence (read: cover-up) in their response to cases. The earlier draft of that document was pulled from consideration even before Rome's short-circuit of all the other votes was made known in the first minute of the last general meeting, to the shock of all but a handful of attendees.

All that said, for the immense focus the November meeting and last month's summit received in American media, the even more critical Vatican event in terms of the US' crisis response isn't coming until late this year – the ad limina visit of the Stateside church, first reported here last July, which'll see each of the nation's 198 dioceses placed under Rome's microscope from November into February 2020.

The US' first Vatican exam since Francis' election six years ago this week, the massive Quinquennial Reports detailing the state of each diocese are already being prepared in every Stateside Chancery. While some of the travel dates for the USCCB's 15 regions might still be moved due to mid-November's election of the bench's next President and his deputy, the diocesan reports are due six months ahead of its respective bishop's scheduled visit.