The Vatican on Wednesday announced the resignation of Bishop Richard J. Malone, who stoked fury in his Buffalo diocese for the alleged mishandling of sexual abuse claims, and whose tenure became emblematic of the Catholic Church’s struggle to overcome its central crisis.
Under Malone’s watch, Buffalo had become perhaps the U.S. Church’s most scandal-tainted diocese. It faces an FBI probe and more than 200 lawsuits. Malone pledged to institute reforms, but he was instead battered by accusations of coverup and by embarrassing leaks. One whistleblower said she found a 300-page dossier on accused priests hidden away in a supply closet near a vacuum cleaner.
In a short statement, the Vatican said that Malone would be replaced on a temporary basis by Albany’s bishop, Edward Scharfenberger.
Malone, 73, is departing two years before the mandatory age at which bishops must offer their retirements to Pope Francis — though many prelates stay on the job beyond the 75-year mark. The Vatican did not explain the reasons for Malone’s resignation.
Malone’s case offers mixed signals about how the Vatican is dealing with bishops accused of negligence or coverup and whether changes drawn up by Francis will help the institution police its upper ranks.
The Vatican did not use a system, put in place by the pontiff earlier this year, that would have allowed the region’s top bishop — in this case, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York — to open an investigation. Instead, in something of an ad hoc measure, the Vatican dispatched a different prelate, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, on a “nonjudicial” fact-finding mission to Buffalo.
The Associated Press reported last month that DiMarzio himself is facing accusations of sexually abusing a child. DiMarzio denies the allegations.
For more than a year, Malone had resisted calls to step down. But the pressure ratcheted up as the revelations seemed to build. In September, a Buffalo television station broadcast audio, secretly recorded by the bishop’s priest-secretary, in which the bishop worried about what might happen if the sexual harassment accusations that a seminarian had leveled against a priest became public.
“This could be the end for me as bishop,” Malone said in the leaked recording.
But the situation was even more convoluted. The seminarian, Matthew Bojanowski, accused Malone of failing to take actions against the parish priest. Meantime, news outlets obtained a letter from the bishop’s priest-secretary to Bojanowski that suggested the two had a romantic relationship.
In September, Malone held a news conference in which he awkwardly tried to make sense of the “complex situation” and faced sharp questions about his judgment.
The local congressman called on Malone to resign. So too did a council of prominent Catholics. A petition calling for Malone’s departure gathered more than 12,000 signatures, accusing him of deceit and for being a “silent accomplice” to the crimes of priests. A Buffalo News poll in September said that 86 percent of Catholics wanted him to resign. Picketers had followed the bishop to recent events, and the newspaper reported that the diocese had ceased publishing the bishop’s event calendar.
“Bishop Malone did this to himself by ignoring the problems that existed in Buffalo,” Bojanowski said by email. “He lied to the people, wanting them to think that there was transparency, when all there was were coverups upon coverups.”
“There are many priests in Buffalo that need to be laicized,” Bojanowski continued. “Bishop Malone leaving is just a start, but far from over. Buffalo is in desperate need of a strong leader who will stand up to the many bully priests that don’t want to serve their community, but rather just serve themselves.”
Malone has been bishop of Buffalo since 2012. Last month, he traveled along with other New York State bishops to the Vatican and met with Pope Francis. After returning, Malone issued a statement that gave no indication he planned to step down.
“In a few words spoken privately to me, it was clear that the pope understands the difficulties and distress we here in Buffalo, and I personally, have been experiencing,” Malone said at the time. “He was very understanding and kind.”
The problems for Malone escalated early in 2018 when an initial accuser came forward, describing molestation as a teenager at the hands of a priest. A wellspring of abuse complaints followed, and in March 2018, Malone released a list of 42 priests who had been credibly accused of abuse, mostly from earlier decades. But it was anything but full transparency: Malone’s former administrative assistant had seen an earlier draft of the list. It contained more than 100 names.
Going public to “60 Minutes” last year, the former administrative assistant, Siobhan O’Connor, accused Malone of wiping some of the most problematic names from the public record. One of the missing names was that of a priest who had been accused of inappropriately touching two boys. According to the “60 Minutes” report, Malone endorsed that priest for a job as a cruise ship chaplain.
At the end of another long day trying to sign up new clients accusing the Roman Catholic Church of sexual abuse, lawyer Adam Slater gazes out the window of his high-rise Manhattan office at one of the great symbols of the church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“I wonder how much that’s worth?” he muses.
Across the country, attorneys like Slater are scrambling to file a new wave of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by clergy, thanks to rules enacted in 15 states that extend or suspend the statute of limitations to allow claims stretching back decades. Associated Press reporting found the deluge of suits could surpass anything the nation’s clergy sexual abuse crisis has seen before, with potentially more than 5,000 new cases and payouts topping $4 billion.
It’s a financial reckoning playing out in such populous Catholic strongholds as New York, California and New Jersey, among the eight states that go the furthest with “lookback windows” that allow sex abuse claims no matter how old. Never before have so many states acted in near-unison to lift the restrictions that once shut people out if they didn’t bring claims of childhood sex abuse by a certain age, often their early 20s.
That has lawyers fighting for clients with TV ads and billboards asking, “Were you abused by the church?” And Catholic dioceses, while worrying about the difficulty of defending such old claims, are considering bankruptcy, victim compensation funds and even tapping valuable real estate to stay afloat.
“It’s like a whole new beginning for me,” said 71-year-old Nancy Holling-Lonnecker of San Diego, who plans to take advantage of an upcoming three-year window for such suits in California. Her claim dates back to the 1950s, when she says a priest repeatedly raped her in a confession booth beginning when she was 7 years old.
“The survivors coming forward now have been holding on to this horrific experience all of their lives,” she said. “They bottled up those emotions all of these years because there was no place to take it.”
Now there is.
AP interviews with more than a dozen lawyers and clergy abuse watchdog groups offered a wide range of estimates but many said they expected at least 5,000 new cases against the church in New York, New Jersey and California alone, resulting in potential payouts that could surpass the $4 billion paid out since the clergy sex abuse first came to light in the 1980s.
Lawyers acknowledged the difficulty of predicting what will happen but several believed payouts could exceed the $350,000 national average per child sex abuse case since 2003. At the upper end, a key benchmark is the average $1.3 million the church paid per case the last time California opened a one-year window to suits in 2003. That offers a range of total payouts in the three big Catholic states alone from $1.8 billion to as much as $6 billion.
Some lawyers believe payouts could be heavily influenced by the recent reawakening over sexual abuse fueled by the #MeToo movement, the public shaming of accused celebrities and the explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report last year that found 300 priests abused more than 1,000 children in that state over seven decades. Since then, attorneys general in nearly 20 states have launched investigations of their own.
“The general public is more disgusted than ever with the clergy sex abuse and the cover-up, and that will be reflected in jury verdicts,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who was at the center of numerous lawsuits against the church in that city and was portrayed in the movie “Spotlight.”
Said Los Angeles lawyer Paul Mones, who has won tens of millions in sex abuse cases against the church going back to the 1980s: “The zeitgeist is completely unfavorable to the Catholic Church.”
For Mones, the size of lawsuit payouts under the new laws could hinge on whether most plaintiffs decide to settle their cases with dioceses or take their chances with a trial.
“The X-factor here is whether there will be trials,” he said. “If anyone starts trying these cases, the numbers could become astronomical.”
Since the 15 states enacted their laws at different times over the past two years, the onslaught of lawsuits is coming in waves.
This summer, when New York state opened its one-year window allowing sexual abuse suits with no statute of limitations, more than 400 cases against the church and other institutions were filed on the first day alone. That number is now up to more than 1,000, with most targeting the church.
New Jersey’s two-year window opens this week and California’s three-year window begins in the new year, with a provision that allows plaintiffs to collect triple damages if a cover-up can be shown. Arizona, Montana and Vermont opened ones earlier this year. Even one of the biggest holdouts, Pennsylvania, is moving closer to a window after legislators voted last month to consider amending its constitution to make it easier to pass one.
Already, longtime clergy abuse lawyer Michael Pfau in Seattle says he’s signed up about 800 clients in New York, New Jersey and California. Boston’s Garabedian says he expects to file 225 in New York, plus at least 200 in a half-dozen other states. Another veteran abuse litigator, James Marsh, says he’s collected more than 200 clients in New York alone.
“A trickle becomes a stream becomes a flood,” Marsh said. “We’re sort of at the flood stage right now.”
Church leaders who lobbied statehouses for years against loosening statute-of-limitations laws say this is exactly the kind of feeding frenzy they were worried about. And some have bemoaned the difficulty of trying to counter accusations of abuse that happened so long ago that most witnesses have scattered and many of the accused priests are long dead.
“Dead people can’t defend themselves,” said Mark Chopko, former general counsel to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There is also no one there to be interviewed. If a diocese gets a claim that Father Smith abused somebody in 1947, and there is nothing in Father Smith’s file and there is no one to ask whether there is merit or not, the diocese is stuck.”
Slater’s Manhattan offices may have views of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, spiritual home of New York City’s Catholic archdiocese, but ground zero for his church abuse lawsuit operation is a call center, of sorts, about an hour’s drive away in suburban Long Island, in an office building overlooking a parking lot.
There, headset-wearing paralegals in a dozen cubicles answer calls in response to ads on talk radio and cable TV news channels pleading: “If you were sexually abused by a member of the clergy, even if it happened decades ago … you may be entitled to financial compensation.”
That pitch spoke to 57-year-old Ramon Mercado, who had long kept silent about the abuse he suffered in the 1970s, in part because he didn’t want to upset his devout Catholic mother. Since her recent death, he’s ready to talk about the New York City priest who invited him into his Plymouth sedan to warm up on a cold day and ended up molesting him hundreds of times over the next three years.
“I was sitting in my living room and someone came on TV, ‘If you’ve been molested, act now,’” Mercado said. “After so many years, I said, ‘Why not?’”
When such calls come in, the paralegals are trained to press for details but to do so gently.
“What age would you say you were?”
“Ten or 11? OK. Would you remember the face if you saw it?”
“He would take you out of your bed? What did he say when he came to get you?”
“Do you want to take a break? Are you OK? Are you sure?”
The next step is to get a lawyer on the line to see if it’s a case they can take to court. Slater says that out of the more than 3,000 calls his firm has taken leading up to and since the opening of New York’s one-year window, it has signed up nearly 300 clients, and expects another 200 by the middle of next year.
One recent day, lawyers talked to at least a half-dozen potential plaintiffs by lunchtime, with one saying she was raped at a first communion party and another saying a priest sodomized him after he was told to pull down his pants so his temperature could be taken.
In a windowless break room over pizza, the lawyers recounted some of the other horrific claims they’ve heard in just the past few months: A young girl penetrated by a finger, then a fist; a boy raped by three priests at the same time; an altar boy told to perform oral sex and then swallow because it would “absolve him of his sins.”
One plaintiff still smells the alcohol on the priest’s breath decades later. Another says he can still hear the priest approaching his classroom as he came to get him, the squeak of shoes in the school hallway.
One man called with his story and later killed himself. A terminally-ill woman called from a hospice care center — “I’ve been holding this in my whole life.”
Many of the accusations involve those already identified by dioceses as “credibly accused” — there are 5,173 priests, lay persons and other clergy member that meet that standard, according to a recent AP tally. Those are the easy cases.
But many others are like Mercado’s, involving priests never accused publicly before, some long dead. And so that turns lawyers into cold-case investigators, calling retired Catholic school teachers and retired rectory staff, combing through yearbooks and, in Mercado’s case, tracking down missionary workers who went on the priest’s overseas trips.
“This type of case isn’t for every law firm. It’s not a hit-in-the-rear car accident,” Slater said. “There is work to be done.”
And money to be made. For his fee, Slater said he plans to ask for a full third of any awards his clients collect and he’s been spending in anticipation, hiring a half-dozen new paralegals, opening an office in New Jersey and breaking a wall in Long Island to make more room.
One of the lawyers eating pizza, Steven Alter, pushed back when asked if the people coming forward are just in it for the money.
“It’s not a cash grab,” he said. “They want to have a voice. They want to help other people and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I haven’t had one person ask me about the money yet.”
This is the day the Catholic Church has long feared.
The church spent millions of dollars lobbying statehouses for decades, arguing it would be swamped with lawsuits if time limits on suing were lifted. That battle now lost, it is girding for Round Two, by turning to compensation funds and bankruptcy.
Compensation funds offer payment to victims if they agree not take their claims to court. They offer a faster, easier way to some justice, and cash, but the settlements are typically a fraction of what victims can get in trials. And critics say the church is just using them to avoid both a bigger financial hit and full transparency.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan set up the first fund in 2016, pitching it as a way to compensate victims without walloping the church and forcing it to cut programs. It has since paid more than $67 million to 338 alleged victims, an average $200,000 each.
The idea has caught on in other states. All five dioceses in New Jersey and three in Colorado opened one, as did seven dioceses in Pennsylvania and six in California, including the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest in the U.S.
Such funds, Dolan said in a newspaper op-ed piece last year, “prevent the real possibility — as has happened elsewhere — of bankrupting both public and private organizations, including churches, that provide essential services in education, charity and health care.”
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League and a longtime critic of the new statute-of-limitations laws, said their effect — if not their intent — “is to disable the church.”
“When a diocese goes bankrupt, everyone gets hurt,” he said.
But bankruptcy has become an increasingly more common option. Less than a month after New York’s one-year lookback window took effect, the upstate Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy, the 20th diocese or religious order in the country to do so, listing claims from alleged abuse survivors and other creditors as much as $500 million. Assets to pay that are estimated at no more than one-fifth that amount.
The Diocese of Buffalo may be next. It has begun paying victims of the 100 priests it considers “credibly accused” of abuse, tapping proceeds from the sale of a lavish $1.5 million mansion that once housed its bishop who is facing pressure to resign.
When a diocese files for bankruptcy, lawsuits by alleged abuse survivors are suspended and payments to them and others owed money — contractors, suppliers, banks, bondholders — are frozen while a federal judge decides how much to pay everyone and still leave enough for the diocese to continue to operate. It’s orderly and victims avoid costly and lengthy court cases, but they often get less than they would if they were successful in a trial.
A recent Penn State study of 16 dioceses and other religious organizations that had filed for bankruptcy protection by September 2018 found that victims received an average settlement of $288,168.
Bankruptcy can also leave abuse survivors with a sense of justice denied because the church never has to face discovery by plaintiff lawyers and forced to hand over documents, possibly implicating higherups who hid the abuse.
For many of his clients, Slater said, the fight in court is crucial because they want to expose the culture behind the crime, not just out a single priest.
“They want to see how the church allowed them to be abused, how they ruined their lives. The church is solely in possession of the information and there is no other way to get it,” he said. “It’s a different process in bankruptcy — you don’t get discovery and you don’t get it in compensation programs. The truth never comes to light.”
Other church tactics in the past few months could be a harbinger for the future.
In July, the Archdiocese of New York sued 31 of its insurers, fearing they would balk at paying all the new alleged victims.
And just last month, church officials on nearby Long Island sought to throw out New York’s new statutes of limitations law in sex abuse cases, arguing it violates the due process clause of the state constitution. The Diocese of Rockville Centre contends time limits to file suits can only be extended in “exceptional circumstances,” such as when plaintiffs are unable to file because they are abroad in a war zone.
Another pair of long shot cases are being closely watched because of the obvious financial implications. Five men who claim they were sexually abused by priests when they were minors filed suit in Minnesota earlier this year contending some of the responsibility rests with the world headquarters of the church — the Vatican. Then came another abuse suit last month in Buffalo accusing the Vatican of racketeering.
The Vatican is a sovereign state widely seen as off limits to abuse victims, but some lawyers say it’s time, especially now that U.S. dioceses are under attack, that it begins tapping its vast wealth.
Raymond P. Boucher, a veteran Los Angeles sexual abuse attorney, contends the Vatican’s legendary riches include stashes of art in vaults that could not possibly be exhausted “and still pay every single claim that anybody could bring in the United States.”
“They have them just in the vaults. They don’t even have to take anything off the walls.”
Michael J. Bransfield was just a couple of years into his tenure as West Virginia’s bishop in 2007 when one of his former students called a church sexual abuse hotline. Decades earlier, at a Catholic high school, Bransfield had repeatedly summoned him from class, escorted him to a private room and fondled his buttocks and genitals, the caller said.
The former student said he was a freshman when the unwanted touching began.
It was a stark warning about a cleric who allegedly went on in the next decade to grope and sexually harass seminarians and young priests in West Virginia.
The former student’s allegation, first reported to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where Bransfield taught, was eventually referred to the highest levels of the U.S. Catholic Church and the Vatican, as well as to the police, according to the findings of a recent church investigation obtained by The Washington Post.
But no action was taken against Bransfield — and the church’s own investigators now say the allegation may warrant further examination.
The former student, speaking to reporters for the first time, told The Post that church officials might have prevented Bransfield’s alleged wrongdoing in the years since if they had taken his claim more seriously.
“They looked the other way,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he has not told his family about his experience. “More people got victimized.”
Bransfield had close ties to two high-ranking clerics in Philadelphia who had responsibility for assessing sexual abuse claims at the time, a Post examination found. The cardinal in Philadelphia and one of his top aides received thousands of dollars in cash gifts from Bransfield before or after he was absolved of the hotline allegation in a process that was never made public, according to internal financial documents.
The Post has previously reported that Bransfield gave $350,000 in cash gifts, using church money, to clerics in the United States and at the Vatican over more than a decade. This is the first reported example of Bransfield giving money to a cleric involved in ruling on a sexual abuse claim against him before his retirement.
Bransfield stepped down as bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in September 2018, as church officials announced an investigation into allegations of sexual and financial wrongdoing spanning his 13-year tenure.
In February, a team of lay investigators, led by outside attorneys, concluded that he subjected eight young clerics in West Virginia to unwanted sexual overtures, sexual harassment and sexual contact.
The alleged sexual and financial misconduct was documented in a confidential report that was sent to the Vatican. Those findings remained secret until June, when The Post published the first in a series of stories drawing on the confidential report and other internal church documents.
The existence of the hotline complaint became public several years ago during an unrelated sexual abuse trial of two priests, but details of the allegation and the church’s handling of it have not been previously reported.
In a recent interview, Bransfield denied any sexual or financial misconduct. He said the former student’s allegations were untrue and probably motivated by a desire for financial payment.
“They investigated the whole thing, and he’s a wack job,” Bransfield said. “There was never any grounds to it.”
Bransfield said that while teaching at Lansdale Catholic High School in the late 1970s, he regularly took students out of class and privately interviewed them about their school and family lives but that nothing untoward happened.
“I was chaplain, and I’d ask them how they were doing,” he said. “It was a normal thing.”
Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, defended the handling of the claim but did not respond to specific questions about the process.
“I can say with certainty that this matter was not only investigated internally,” he said in a statement. “It was reviewed by law enforcement on two occasions and no criminal charges were filed.”
At the time, church officials privately concluded there were inconsistencies in the former student’s account, but the recent church investigation raised questions about that conclusion, according to the confidential report. Investigators wrote that such inconsistencies in decades-old accounts of sexual abuse are common.
The former student told The Post that the law enforcement investigations stalled because police told him they could not guarantee his identity would not become public. Law enforcement authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
He recently filed a claim to a victims compensation fund in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
‘He told me to relax’
By the time of the hotline complaint, Bransfield had risen to prominence in the Catholic Church.
In the 1970s, he served as a religion instructor and chaplain at Lansdale High School in Montgomery County, Pa., about 30 miles from downtown Philadelphia. He went on to assignments at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, where he eventually rose to rector. In 2005, he was installed as bishop in West Virginia.
That year, though, a landmark grand jury report about sexual abuse of minors by Philadelphia clerics mentioned Bransfield, saying that a priest who was a friend of his had sodomized a teenage boy at Bransfield’s New Jersey beach house.
The former Lansdale student saw news coverage of the grand jury report in the Philadelphia press and began considering whether to come forward, he told The Post.
“This is something I was going to take to my grave,” he said. “You feel shame. It’s sad. It’s very sad.”
The Post located the former student — whose name is not included in the confidential investigative report — with help from a Catholic advocacy group. He agreed to be interviewed at his attorney’s Philadelphia office.
The Post generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse without their permission.
Now in his mid-50s, he has worked a variety of blue-collar jobs. He comes from a large family of devout Catholics. Since graduating from Lansdale, he said, he has struggled with depression and drug and alcohol abuse.
In 2007, he decided to call the hotline established by the Philadelphia Archdiocese several years earlier in response to the church’s sexual abuse crisis. That call was the beginning of a long effort by the former student to hold Bransfield to account, he said.
He told a private investigator working for the archdiocese that Bransfield started singling him out for extra attention soon after his freshman year began. Bransfield summoned him out of classes, sometimes by knocking on the classroom door and beckoning him by crooking his finger, he told The Post.
At first, Bransfield took him on walks and showed him around the school. Eventually, Bransfield steered the teen into a small office he used near a teachers’ lounge. It was there, he said, that Bransfield directed him to stand behind a desk, beside Bransfield’s chair, and read a passage from a book.
“He told me to relax and read and calm down,” the former student said in the interview.
Bransfield put his hand on the teenager’s lower back, then moved it to his buttocks and began fondling his genitals over his clothing, the former student said. Similar episodes happened at least five times during his freshman and sophomore years, he said.
He said he told no one about the encounters until the day he called the hotline.
After speaking with the archdiocese’s investigator, the former student asked for a copy of his report. He said it never arrived.
A different investigative path
In the years following his complaint, Bransfield’s accuser said he was left in the dark.
Behind the scenes, Cardinal Justin Rigali, then the archbishop of Philadelphia, and other ranking clerics were handling his complaint, according to the confidential report.
Under procedures established after the clergy sexual abuse scandal, each diocese and archdiocese set up an independent review board to assess sexual abuse claims against priests. The accusation against Bransfield took a different path because he had been elevated to bishop before the complaint was made, church investigators wrote in the recent confidential report.
In October 2009, behind closed doors, Rigali formally declared the allegations were unsubstantiated because of inconsistencies in the former student’s account, including precisely when and where the alleged abuses occurred, according to the confidential report.
Rigali, who is now retired, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Before and after the secret pronouncement about his fate, Bransfield maintained warm relations with leaders of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where he started his career.
Using money from the West Virginia diocese, Bransfield gave some of those clerics thousands of dollars in cash gifts. Among them was Rigali, who in 2011 received a check for $1,000, internal documents show.
From February 2009 through last year, Bransfield gave five checks totaling $3,750 to then-Monsignor Timothy C. Senior, the vicar for clergy in Philadelphia, whose responsibilities included helping to assess sexual abuse claims against clerics.
Gavin, the spokesman for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, declined to say whether Senior played a role in Bransfield’s case.
Among Rigali’s top aides was a nephew of the bishop’s, the Rev. Sean Bransfield, an assistant judicial vicar. Starting in 2013, Bishop Bransfield gave his nephew more than $9,000 over five years.
In a statement earlier this year for an article about the gifts, Senior said that he thought the money was Bransfield’s and that he had “done nothing wrong” in accepting it.
Sean Bransfield said through a spokesman in June that “he logically assumed gifts from a family member came from Bishop Bransfield’s personal funds” and denied wrongdoing.
Michael J. Bransfield said the cash gifts had no connection to the claim against him. He described himself as a “very close friend” of Senior and said they had exchanged gifts over the years.
“I was very friendly with him,” Bransfield said.
In the mid-1970s, Senior was a student of Bransfield’s at Lansdale High School, graduating before the alleged abuse happened. In July 2009, shortly before Rigali absolved Bransfield of wrongdoing in connection with the hotline complaint, Rigali and Bransfield jointly led the ceremony for Senior’s ordination as auxiliary bishop.
Reporting his accusation again
A few details of the hotline claim became public in 2012, during a sensational trial of two Philadelphia priests accused of sexual abuse and child endangerment.
In April that year, newspapers reported that a witness had mentioned rumors about Bransfield, catching the attention of the former Lansdale student who had called the hotline five years earlier.
He decided to contact the archdiocese to again tell his story to a church official. “I’m like, ‘This still has to be addressed. I want to do something here,’ ” he said.
In response to media questions, church officials publicly acknowledged the 2007 hotline complaint but released few details. The officials said they were reexamining the allegation and had notified law enforcement authorities in Montgomery County, Pa., as they did immediately after the hotline call several years earlier.
County detectives spoke with the former student and took him to Lansdale High School to talk in more detail about the claims. But the former student said he saw an administrator he knew and balked at going in. The former student feared he might be recognized and did not want anyone to know he had been abused.
Montgomery County authorities “determined further investigation was unwarranted,” the recent confidential church report said.
The archdiocese sent the allegation to the Vatican, according to previously unreported details in the report.
The matter was reported first to the apostolic nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic outpost in Washington, D.C. It was then forwarded to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican office that oversees bishops worldwide, the investigative report said.
“The investigative file we reviewed does not reflect any further action,” the report said.
A Vatican spokesman did not respond to questions about the handling of the complaint or to requests for an interview with Ouellet.
Bransfield, meanwhile, was living extravagantly as head of the diocese in West Virginia. Church investigators found that he spent millions of dollars in the diocese’s money on personal expenditures, including travel by private jet and renovations to his church mansion, according to internal church documents.
Bransfield also cultivated seminarians and young priests and subjected them to unwanted attention, including sexual remarks and intimate touching, according to the confidential investigative report. In some cases, he groped or kissed them, it said. He also allegedly exposed himself and made sexually charged remarks about their bodies. Bransfield asked that some of the young men accompany him on lavish trips to Florida, the Caribbean, Paris, London and Rome.
Some of the young clerics “were broken by the experience,” suffering depression or fear as a result of their interactions with Bransfield, the investigative report said.
At the same time, Bransfield was drawing on diocese funds to send cash gifts to influential clerics who had sway over his career. They included tens of thousands of dollars sent to the nuncios in Washington and more than a dozen cardinals in the United States and at the Vatican, some of them aides to the pope.
During the recent investigation, Bransfield’s accuser spoke several times with a church investigator.
The former student’s attorney, David Inscho, insisted the church could have done much more to stop Bransfield when his client came forward. “The church had everything they needed . . . to start canonical proceedings, to have had him removed from active ministry,” Inscho said.
In their recent report about Bransfield, the church investigators cast doubts on the thoroughness of the earlier investigations of the former Lansdale student’s claims. They said that the inconsistencies in the victim’s accounts are “typical of these types of cases when a substantial amount of time has passed” and that they believed the matter “may warrant further inquiry.”
“The victim remains willing to be cooperative in any further investigation that the Philadelphia Archdiocese may feel is warranted,” they wrote.
Judge Sara Smolenski, chief judge of the Kent County District Court, has been denied Communion at the church where she has been a parishioner for more than six decades because she is married to a woman.
It is a move that for many was the final straw in a pattern of behavior that has them calling for the removal of a priest — a priest who came to St. Stephen Catholic Church about three years ago.
In 1966, under the leadership of Rev. Msgr. Edward N. Alt, St. Stephen Catholic School became the first integrated Catholic school in Metro Grand Rapids and had a student body that was nearly 40 percent non-Catholic.
This tradition of inclusion and acceptance would be the essence of the school and the church for 50 years.
But now, some here say that is changing.
“I’ve been a member of St. Stephen’s Catholic Parish for 62 years, basically,” Smolenski said.
Smolenski who has been on the bench for nearly 30 years, comes from a family of prominent community members, including her father who was also a district court judge, and her brother, a state appeals court judge.
“I was baptized there, my parents were married there, every one of my nine siblings went to school (from) first through eighth grade. We buried my parents out of that school,” Smolenski said. “This is a church that is a part of who I am. This is a church who helped form my faith.”
News 8 featured Smolenski in March of 2016, when she became the first Kent County elected official to marry someone of the same sex.
But it was just last Saturday that Smolenski got a call from the parish priest, Father Scott Nolan.
“The way he said it was ‘because you’re married to Linda in the state of Michigan, you cannot accept communion,’ that’s how he said it,” Smolenski explained. “I try to be a good and faithful servant to our Lord Jesus Christ. My faith is a huge part of who I am, but it is the church that made that faith, the very church where he is taking a stance and saying ho-ho, not you.”
It was a devastating revelation for the lifelong Catholic who months earlier gave $7,000 to the parish building fund.
“Oh my gosh, I’m not going to get Jesus at the church I have devoted my life to,” Smolenski said, fighting back tears. “I thought of my mom and dad who devoted their whole life to raising us Catholic, spending all that money at the Catholic education.”
Smolenski was not the first person to be denied, according to a dozen people News 8 talked to Tuesday, including one same-sex couple who was denied the Eucharist during their child’s communion service.
“The public shunning — everything about it was offensive,” Smolenski said of the denial months before her own.
It is part of a pattern, according to Micki Benz, a 40-year member of the parish who is a part of a group of members who have decided to speak out.
They point to the words of Pope Francis who wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation.
Evangelii Gaudium, translates as “joy of the Gospel,” that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak and the church is not a toll house but a place for everyone.
“(Nolan) has eliminated teachers who are gay. He has made it clear that gay people are not welcome,” Benz said.
For a period of time, Nolan forbade non-Catholics from participating in church services, including choir and reading before the congregation, members say.
Parishioners met with Nolan and were hopeful that he was changing his ways, until last Saturday when the beloved judge was denied Communion.
Nolan talked to News 8 briefly Tuesday, promising he would speak on the issue but then did not call back or return messages.
There are those who believe Nolan is in the right, but they would not go on camera. Others with kids attending school would not go on camera due to fear of reprisal, but all say they love the church and want healing.
“I love the St. Stephen’s I knew. I don’t love the St. Stephen’s of now,” Smolenski said.
Some members say it would be better overall for the church to change pastors.
“We don’t see Father Scott changing; therefore we’ve come to the conclusion that it’d be better for him and us if there were a change in our pastors,” Benz said.
Some parishioners have drafted a letter to Bishop David Walkowiak, bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, explaining their position and asking for a meeting — a request he has not responded to in the past.
When Vermont’s Catholic Church recently came clean about its half-century-long history of child sex abuse claims against 10% of its clergy, many wondered how much money the state’s largest religious denomination had on hand to deal with a potential new wave of lawsuits.
But that figure doesn’t include an estimated $500 million in property that church leaders stashed into trusts more than a decade ago to protect those assets from priest abuse settlements.
In the spring of 2006, then-Bishop Salvatore Matano began to see how much the scandal, first exposed by the Boston Globe, would cost the church.
The Vermont diocese had paid one accuser $20,000 to drop his court case in 2003. A year later, two more men demanded $120,000 and $150,000 respectively before they agreed to settle. In 2006, the church, facing a six-figure debt and a seemingly endless series of civil lawsuits, saw individual settlement claims rise to nearly $1 million.
That’s when Matano hatched an idea. The bishop told his attorney to place each of the diocese’s local parishes — some 130 at the time — into separate trusts whose holdings could only be tapped for “pious, charitable or educational purposes,” shielding the property from potential multimillion-dollar jury verdicts.
“In such litigious times, it would be a gross act of mismanagement if I did not do everything possible to protect our parishes and the interests of the faithful from unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault,” Matano wrote in a private letter to concerned Catholics.
Soon after, the diocese’s lawyer quietly sent a stack of two-page “deed into trust” form letters to municipal clerks throughout the state.
Although news reports revealed the diocese’s initial idea for shielding assets 13 years ago, details about how the church carried out the plan, what it stockpiled and where everything would lead haven’t been reported until now. As renewed scrutiny of priest misconduct raises new questions about the diocese’s capacity for future payouts, the trusts could soon be tested.
‘The information we have is sufficiently compelling’
Ever since 17th century Catholic explorer Samuel de Champlain inspired the name of the Green Mountain State — “Voilà les monts verts!” he reportedly exclaimed four centuries ago — the church has played a prominent role in Vermont history, boasting as many as 157,000 members as late as 1980.
But its reputation was besmirched when former residents of Burlington’s now-closed St. Joseph’s Catholic orphanage spoke publicly in the 1990s about enduring physical and psychological abuse during the facility’s operation from 1854 to 1974.
The diocese offered each orphanage resident $5,000 to drop their right to sue. As many as 160 considered the deal and more than 100 accepted payment, according to news reports from the time.
When the press reported on a statewide priest misconduct scandal in the early 2000s, church leaders used a similar strategy to keep survivors from talking.
The idea initially worked. In the fall of 2003, the diocese settled the first lawsuit for a small unspecified sum.
“I’m not going to tell you the amount, although it’s relatively low,” the accuser’s lawyer said at the time of a figure reported to be $20,000. “It was never about the money, it was getting the church to recognize what they did was wrong. We don’t think this is the end of the story. We think there are other victims out there.”
Other survivors weren’t as easily satisfied. A year later, the diocese settled two more cases for $120,000 and $150,000. The church also revealed it had spent more than $700,000 to squash earlier lawsuits dating back to 1950 and another $2 million for orphanage-related compensation, counseling and legal fees.
The diocese doesn’t have insurance for abuse cases and therefore must pay for settlements with assets on hand. (Church leaders stress they don’t tap regular collection money or the diocesan Bishop’s Fund for settlements.)
By 2005, more than a dozen people had filed lawsuits seeking liens on church property totaling up to $30 million.
“We believe the information we have is sufficiently compelling that seven-figure verdicts are quite likely,” their lawyer, Jerome O’Neill of Burlington, said at the time about the possibility of jury trials. “We want to make sure that there are sufficient assets available if we are successful in our actions.”
‘This was much more than we wanted to pay’
Soon after, O’Neill scored big when a judge ordered the Vermont Attorney General’s office to share the priest misconduct files it obtained from the diocese. The lawyer received hundreds of pages of paperwork chronicling the fact the church knew several of its priests had faced accusations of child sex abuse for decades but did nothing to alert the public or police.
By the spring of 2006, O’Neill had 17 new clients and a slate of trials set to start the day after Easter. What the public didn’t know: the first of those cases centered on claims against the former Rev. Edward Paquette, who secret files showed to be the worst serial predator of all the state’s clergy.
A court order restricted anyone involved from talking publicly. But privately, O’Neill and church leaders understood the value of the papers the lawyer held in his hands. If they were introduced in court, a shocked jury might award a survivor a multimillion-dollar verdict.
The church seemed ready to reject escalating settlement demands as Burlington’s Chittenden Superior Court screened jurors for the first Paquette trial in April 2006. Then the judge, gaveling in proceedings, announced the parties had forged a last-minute agreement for a record $965,000.
“This was much more than we wanted to pay,” the diocese’s lawyer said outside court. “But we decided that it would be the best to minimize the cost.”
Church leaders had hoped the settlement would keep the accuser from talking publicly. But once the court lifted its gag order upon the close of the trial, O’Neill — whose client hadn’t signed a nondisclosure agreement — surprised everyone by revealing all of the evidence.
The documents showed Vermont Catholic leaders knew two other states had dismissed Paquette for child sex abuse before they assigned him to Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.
“The dossier is large and the history long,” the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, had warned his Green Mountain State colleagues in a letter about the priest’s record of molesting boys.
For the first time, the public had a glimpse of what the diocese had covered up for decades.
‘Unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault’
By the first week of May 2006, the church, suddenly in debt more than $1 million and facing a rising number of lawsuits, was studying its financial options. It soon made headlines by announcing it wanted the judge who oversaw the $965,000 settlement to be barred from presiding over the remaining cases.
“The diocese has great concern over the lack of a level playing field,” its lawyer said at the time. “We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re trying to keep prejudice from building.”
Unbeknown to the public, another church attorney was mailing two-page form letters to municipal clerks to secure parish property into individual local trusts.
“This deed into trust shall operate as an assignment of all personal property, tangible and intangible, fixed or moveable, together with all accounts, funds, benefices and entitlements, related to the ownership, operation, management, control, preservation and use of the herein conveyed real estate,” each document says.
As outlined in the papers now on file in town clerk’s offices, the diocese’s bishop is the “trustee” of each trust, each parish pastor is the “trust administrator” and each parish finance council forms the “trust advisors.”
“Thus, the present diocesan protocols and regulations for the administration of parishes remain, in effect, unchanged,” Matano wrote in his private letter to concerned Catholics.
Speaking at a 2006 Mother’s Day reception at the Woodstock Inn, Matano told attendees the trusts were “an extra layer of protection” from anyone seeking to tap church assets.
“I’m really in a no-win situation,” he said. “I want to be sensitive to victims, but I don’t want to inflict pain on innocent parishioners. It’s certainly just to ask the church to be accountable, but is it just to destroy parishes, schools and other agencies of care to do so?”
Learning about Matano’s statement about protecting the church from “unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault,” the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priest blasted the bishop for “attacking deeply wounded men and women who were raped as kids by priests.”
“How can you lash out at them and call their long overdue, David vs. Goliath effort an ‘unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault?’” survivors wrote in a letter to Matano.
‘It has a very serious impact on a small, rural diocese’
O’Neill responded more strategically. The lawyer, knowing the church doesn’t pay taxes and its properties aren’t listed at fair market value, sought assessments of the holdings’ true financial worth.
Former state economist Arthur Woolf reviewed insurance and municipal records to place a “market value” of all Vermont Catholic Church-related property at between $270 million and $500 million.
An insurance company, for its part, estimated the replacement cost of all parish, school and support buildings at $400 million, noting the number didn’t put a price tag on the underlying land.
Matano, who steadfastly confined his media comments to diocesan-run press outlets, defended the trust idea in a rare 2006 interview. Noting “this is not in any way intended to penalize victims,” the bishop said the plan was designed to reassure Vermont churchgoers who feared the potential loss of their parish holdings.
“They had no part in these awful events of the past,” he said. “I think it’s unfair to penalize them and say they are responsible.”
Matano wasn’t the only Catholic official aiming to shield assets. U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, for example, was head of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2007 when he worked to move nearly $57 million in church holdings into a cemetery trust to protect them “from any legal claim and liability,” he wrote in a letter to the Vatican.
O’Neill believes the act of shifting assets into trusts broke Vermont’s fraudulent deeds law, which bars any transfer “with intent to avoid a right, debt or duty.” He filed state and federal cases in 2009, charging the diocese not only shielded parish property but also $3.8 million into a pension fund and another $3.7 million into a Vermont Catholic Charities account.
“You can’t take property you have, transfer it and then say it’s beyond the reach of your creditors,” the lawyer explains today.
Headlines about the trust plans soon gave way to news of more lawsuits, more settlements and a string of trials. Juries went on to slam the church with a record $8.7 million verdict in May 2008, a nearly $3.6 million verdict in December 2008 and a $2.2 million verdict in October 2009.
“It’s a very, very large amount of money,” Matano told reporters at the time. “It has a very serious impact on a small, rural diocese.”
To ensure the church paid, a judge placed liens not only on the 32-acre Burlington headquarters and the site of the former St. Joseph’s Orphanage but also a portion of its investment portfolio. By the start of 2010, a second judge overseeing more than two dozen additional lawsuits proposed merging the cases into an unprecedented joint trial.
The diocese, fearing bankruptcy, announced it wanted to settle rather than try to defend against the cases.
With most of its assets in the trusts, the church raised $10 million by selling its Old North End offices and campus — the largest open tract of land on the Lake Champlain waterfront in the state’s most populous city — to the alternative liberal arts Burlington College in 2010.
“This will be truly transformative for the college,” the school’s head, Jane O’Meara Sanders, said at the time.
“I think Bishop Coyne is trying to deal with the legacy problem of abuse,” O’Neill says. “I perceive him as someone who wants to be fair. But whether the amount of money the diocese has is adequate to resolve the cases remains to be seen.”
The diocese didn’t respond to calls for comment other than to report Coyne was away this past week at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops annual general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland. He’s returning home to a church that’s financially stable. But that could change if the latest lawsuits go to trial.
Settling what he thought were the last of the abuse cases long ago, O’Neill dropped his fraudulent deeds fight and allowed the six-year statute of limitations for contesting the issue to pass. But if a future jury awards a big payoff to one of his clients, the lawyer believes a judge could rule the parish trusts to be diocesan assets and therefore available for tapping.
“The fact the bishop is the trustee makes the trusts more vulnerable to attack,” he says. “You’d have to have a judgment before it became a real issue, but if the diocese is unable to pay, we will have no hesitancy to reach for those assets. The church may have transferred them, but who’s controlling the puppet strings?”