Pope Francis, who was meeting with a delegation of U.S. Catholic leaders Thursday to discuss burgeoning clergy sex scandals, has instructed the archbishop of Baltimore to investigate charges of sexual harassment of adults by the bishop of a West Virginia diocese who resigned last week.
Archbishop William Lori said in a statement on the website of the Archdiocese of Baltimore that he planned to conduct a thorough investigation into the “troubling allegations” against Bishop Michael Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Bransfield had been implicated in 2012 in an infamous Philadelphia priest sex abuse case, but denied ever abusing anyone and claimed vindication years ago. He continued with his ministry until he offered to retire, as required, when he turned 75 last week.
Lori said in his statement that a hotline was set up for potential victims to call, and vowed to conduct a thorough investigation into claims against Bransfield.
At the same time, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, was expected to ask Pope Francis to accept his resignation following charges he covered up a series of allegations of clergy sexual abuse over several years, according to media reports.
Pressure was building for Wuerl to step down after a Pennsylvania grand jury report released last month charged that the cardinal, who was head of the Pittsburgh diocese from 1988 to 2006, was part of a “systematic cover-up” involving hundreds of predator priests who abused more than 1,000 children over seven decades.
The latest shakeups come as Francis was meeting in the Vatican with U.S. cardinals and bishops who sought answers about the handling of accusations of sexual abuse against now ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, had requested the papal audience last month following revelations that McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, had risen through church ranks even though the allegations of sexual misconduct were known in U.S. and Vatican circles.
DiNardo requested a full-fledged Vatican investigation into the allegations that McCarrick sexually molested and harassed minors as well as adults. The meeting was to include Francis’ top sex abuse adviser, Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
DiNardo has said the recent accusations of an alleged coverup by top Vatican officials, including Francis, deserve answers.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a retired Vatican ambassador, has alleged that the pope had rehabilitated McCarrick from sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI for having molested and harassed adult seminarians.
The Vatican hasn’t responded to the charges but had promised “clarifications” that could follow Thursday’s meeting with the U.S. delegation.
Earlier this year, after repeatedly discrediting victims of a notorious Chilean predator priest, the pope admitted to “grave errors in judgment” and took steps to make amends, sanction guilty bishops and remake the Chilean episcopacy.
Even DiNardo’s own record on protecting children has now come into question. On the eve of his audience with Francis, The Associated Press reported that two victims in Houston had accused him of not doing enough to stop a priest who was arrested this week on sexual abuse charges.
The archdiocese issued a statement Wednesday confirming that both people had come forward to report abuse by the priest, the Rev. Manuel LaRosa-Lopez, one of them in 2001. The priest is now the pastor at St. John Fisher Catholic Church in Richmond while also serving as the archdiocese’s episcopal vicar for Hispanics.
As the scandals mount, Francis on Wednesday summoned the presidents of Catholic bishops conferences worldwide to the Vatican in February to discuss protecting children and preventing sexual abuse by priests.
The meeting, on Feb. 21-24, is believed to be the first of its kind and comes amid the growing criticism over the pope’s handling of sex-abuse cases dating back decades.
The public outcry worldwide over sex scandals was particularly evident in the pope’s visit to Ireland three weeks ago when he met eight survivors of sexual abuse. In a speech at Dublin Castle, Pope Francis asked forgiveness for the “abuses in Ireland, abuses of power, conscience and sexual abuses” perpetrated by Church leaders over such “repellent crimes.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
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