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Philadelphia prosecutors reinvestigating allegation against West Virginia bishop

Catholic World News - July 24, 2012

At the request of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Montgomery County district attorney’s office is reinvestigating an abuse allegation against Bishop Michael Bransfield, who was appointed Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston in 2004 and installed the following year. The bishop has repeatedly stated that he has never abused anyone.

Ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1971, the prelate was named director (1986) and later rector (1990) of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

Reportedly bypassing its civilian review board, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had retained an investigator who cleared Bishop Bransfield in 2008 following an allegation that he had fondled a high school student on more than one occasion in the 1970s.

Cardinal Justin Rigali served as Archbishop of Philadelphia from 2003 until his 2011 retirement. He was succeeded by Archbishop Charles Chaput.

According to District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, the Montgomery County district attorney’s office also investigated the allegation against Bishop Bransfield in 2008 but did not press charges because of the statute of limitations and lack of cooperation from the alleged victim.

In April, during a Philadelphia abuse trial, a 48-year-old man testified that over three decades ago, he was abused by Father Stanley Gana, a priest removed from ministry in 2002. The man testified that the abuse took place at the future bishop’s New Jersey beach residence as well as at a Pennsylvania farm owned by Father Gana. The man also testified that Gana had told him that the future bishop abused another teenage boy. While this testimony was hearsay, a second witness at the trial—who later became a priest, but then left the priesthood—testified that he had a lewd conversation with the future prelate.

Following the testimony of the two witnesses, a Philadelphia assistant district attorney revealed in court that prosecutors were aware of an allegation “of a fondling of a student by Bransfield”--the allegation quietly investigated in 2008 and distinct from the conversation at Gana's farm.

After the trial testimony, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia referred this old allegation to the district attorney.

“I think we have the moral obligation to report our conclusion to the archdiocese to ensure that they have the information needed to protect children,” said Ferman, who added that it was “unlikely” that Bishop Bransfield would be charged.

One of the two witnesses at the trial had testified that Gana, speaking of Bransfield, said, “Well, I know he's having sex with the kid in the front seat.” The conversation allegedly took place at Gana’s farm.

Two alumni of the Catholic high school at which Bransfield taught recall a trip with Bransfield to Gana’s farm in the late 1970s. Both told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the future bishop did nothing inappropriate.

“I've talked to my buddies who were with me that weekend,” recalls Ronald Rock, who says he was sitting in the front passenger seat. “There was no inappropriate anything. . . . [Bransfield] was a guy’s guy. We would joke about girls. There was no inappropriate anything.”

Following the comments by the two alumni, Bishop Bransfield issued a statement.

“I am pleased to be able to say that this allegation has been put to rest,” Bishop Bransfield said. “Ron Rock, the high school student whom I had allegedly victimized (now a prominent Philadelphia businessman), has now publicly confirmed that this allegation is completely false. Timothy Love was also with us on that occasion, and he has also confirmed the completely innocent and proper nature of my friendship with them. I am very grateful to these two Catholic men, both of whom are in their 50s, who have come forward on these matters. I am very fortunate that they have come forward 35 years later to defend me.”

“The witness who testified at the trial about Gana’s purported statement to him about Bransfield has recently confirmed that he has no knowledge of any abuse by Bishop Bransfield at any time,” the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston added in a separate statement.

Referring to the reinvestigation of the allegation that he had fondled a student, Bishop Bransfield said:

At the trial, the prosecuting attorney also made reference to an allegation of improper conduct that had been made by a former student at Lansdale Catholic in 2007. This allegation, which also dated back to the 1970s, was immediately reported to the District Attorney. No charges were brought. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia also conducted a full investigation of the allegation at the time the allegation was received. The investigation included interviews of me, the accuser and others who were at Lansdale Catholic at the time in question.

At the conclusion of the investigation, I was formally notified that the allegation had not been substantiated and that steps were to be taken to restore my good reputation. I was very thankful to have this matter resolved—or so I thought—in 2008. But now the allegation has resurfaced and been reported in the press once again. I can only repeat what I have stated before publicly: I have never abused anyone.

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  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Jul. 24, 2012 9:24 PM ET USA

    There is something rotten in Philadelphia and it is not cheese. It is the prosecutor's office. They seem intent on persecuting any members of the existing Catholic hierarcy that had the misfortune of serving in that community. Their ultimate goal may be harming Archbishop Chaput, who has been outspoken about the abortion on demand features of Obamacare and problems with other government activities.

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