Two Bishops Accused of Sexually Harassing Adults Are Barred From Priestly Duties

Bishop Michael Bransfield served as the highest-ranking Catholic official in West Virginia until his retirement in September. He was accused of sexual harassment and financial improprieties.

By Liam Stack

The archdiocese of Baltimore said on Monday that it had barred two bishops from performing priestly duties and referred their cases to the Vatican after an internal investigation into allegations that they had sexually harassed adults, including one claim that was dismissed by church investigators a decade ago.

The announcement shined a light on the alleged abuse of adults, an often overlooked corner of the Catholic Church abuse scandal, and drew parallels to the downfall of Theodore E. McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, who was expelled from the priesthood last month after the church found him guilty of abusing children and adult seminarians.

“When you have a situation like this, usually there is a power imbalance where the victim feels compelled to do what the priest is telling them to do,” said David Lorenz, an abuse survivor and local leader in Maryland with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “That was the case with Cardinal McCarrick and the seminarians.”

One of the men referred to the Vatican, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, served as the highest-ranking Catholic official in West Virginia until he retired in September. While the investigation into him focused on adults, he was implicated in the sexual abuse of children by a witness in a 2012 trial, according to news media coverage of the trial. He has long denied that claim.

Bishop Gordon Bennett was accused of sexually harassing a “young adult” in Jamaica in 2006.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore was named apostolic administrator of Bishop Bransfield’s diocese, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia, and was instructed by the Vatican to investigate the allegations against him, which grew to include claims of financial wrongdoing.

The investigation lasted five months, included five investigators who were not priests, and involved interviews with 40 people, Tim Bishop, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said in an interview. He said the archdiocese would provide no detail about either man’s accusers or the nature of any financial impropriety.

“The initial scope of the investigation was sexual harassment of adults, then it turned to talk more about financial improprieties under Bishop Bransfield’s leadership of the diocese,” Mr. Bishop said. He said in the investigation that “the archbishop would be likened to a prosecutor” and that “the Holy See will be the judge and the jury.”

The second man who was barred, Bishop Gordon Bennett, served as an auxiliary bishop in Baltimore from 1998 to 2004, when he was appointed bishop of Mandeville, Jamaica. The archdiocese said it received an allegation that he had sexually harassed a “young adult” in Jamaica in May 2006 and reported it to the Vatican embassy in Washington.

Bishop Bennett, a Jesuit, resigned from his post in Jamaica in August of that year. But church investigators cleared him of the allegation in 2009 and the Congregation for Bishops, in Rome, reinstated him to “limited episcopal ministry subject to oversight,” according to a statement from the Jesuits West Province.

It said he then worked for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and ran Jesuit retreats for laypeople for almost a decade. He has not served in public ministry since his case was reopened in August, and he is now undergoing cancer treatment, the province said.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore led an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by two bishops.

Bishop Bennett did not appear on lists of credibly accused priests released in recent months by either the Maryland Province, where he long worked, or the Jesuits West Province in Portland, Ore., to which he was administratively attached.

“That list dealt with men who were credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor,” Tracey Primrose, a spokeswoman for the province, said in an email. “He is accused of sexual harassment of an adult. There’s a big distinction there.”

Mr. Bishop said the penalties that applied to both men meant they could not act as bishops, could not participate in celebrating Mass and could not perform any of the Catholic sacraments, which include performing baptisms, confirmations and marriages.

He said reports on both men had been sent to the Vatican, which could keep the restrictions put in place by Archbishop Lori, enhance them or take “whatever action they feel is necessary,” which could include removing them from the priesthood.

But Mr. Lorenz, the advocate for abuse survivors, criticized the decision by the church to conduct an internal investigation, even one that included a panel of laypeople. He pointed out that church officials had known about allegations against Bishop Bennett for 13 years.

“Here is another case where they are just holding it in, they are doing the investigation themselves and they have held themselves up to be the judge and the jury,” Mr. Lorenz said. “On the first accusation they should go to the police and say, ‘I, a bishop, am not qualified to run a criminal investigation so you should do it, not me.’”

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