Just moments before an American delegation of cardinals arrived at the Vatican to discuss the clerical sex abuse crisis with Pope Francis on Thursday, Francis announced that he had accepted the resignation of West Virginia bishop Michael Bransfield following allegations of sexual harassment of adults. Francis also announced that he had authorized another bishop, William Lori of Baltimore, to investigate those allegations.
In a statement, Lori referred only to the plan to investigate Bransfield’s alleged sexual harassment of adults. However, in 2012, Bransfield was also accused of having sex with a minor by an unnamed witness in an unrelated clerical sex abuse trial. The witness claimed to have heard the account from another priest. At that time, Bransfield vociferously denied all accusations against him, saying, “To be now unfairly included in that group and to hear the horrific allegations that are being made of me is unbelievable and shocking. I have never sexually abused anyone.” He continued to serve as bishop, and did not face any repercussions for the allegations at that time.
Bransfield submitted his letter of resignation to the pope last week, as bishops are expected to do once they turn 75. Traditionally, the pope declines to accept this resignation, and the bishop continues to serve at the pope’s pleasure. In this case, however, Francis accepted Bransfield’s resignation within days of its submission. It is currently unclear whether the forthcoming investigation into Bransfield will expand to include the 2012 incident. Lori says he has committed to “a thorough investigation in search of the truth into the troubling allegations against Bishop Bransfield.”
Bransfield is not the only church leader expected to step down. Earlier this week, Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, DC, announced that he would soon head to the Vatican to discuss his possible resignation with Francis after being implicated in covering up a number of sexual abuse cases. Wuerl is accused of knowing about and failing to report the actions of ex-DC Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who was stripped of his title this summer after revelations emerged of decades-long abuse of junior seminarians and minors and other instances of child sex abuse detailed in a recent Pennsylvania grand jury report, which documented instances of abuse by hundreds of priests against 1,000 minors. Like Bransfield, Wuerl handed in his resignation letter when he turned 75; Francis has yet to accept it.
The news of Bransfield’s resignation suggests that the Vatican is ramping up its efforts to combat the global clerical sex abuse crisis. Earlier this week, Francis announced that he would convene a global summit this February to deal with the church’s handling of sex abuse cases — an unprecedented move that may signal a much more intense approach to the crisis, which the Vatican has historically dismissed as a localized issue.
Part of the reason for the intensification of the Vatican’s approach, however, may be that Francis himself has recently been implicated in participating in a cover-up. Last month, former Vatican official Carlo Maria Viganò accused Francis of knowingly overturning sanctions against McCarrick put into place by Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI. Francis has refused to comment on these allegations.