Bishop denies witness' abuse allegations

The name of Michael J. Bransfield , left, a bishop in West Virginia, came up in testimony in connection with the Rev. Stanley Gana, top, who has been accused.
The name of Michael J. Bransfield , left, a bishop in West Virginia, came up in testimony in connection with the Rev. Stanley Gana, top, who has been accused. (DALE SPARKS / Associated Press, file)
Posted: April 20, 2012

Complaining that he was blindsided while on church business in the Vatican, the bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday angrily denied trial testimony in Philadelphia alleging that he sexually abused a child during the late 1970s.

"I have never sexually abused anyone," Bishop Michael J. Bransfield said in a statement the diocese released.

Bransfield, 68, issued his statement after two witnesses at the child sex-abuse and conspiracy trial involving Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests referenced him while describing their own alleged abuse, and a prosecutor said Bransfield had been accused in a separate instance of fondling a minor.

On Wednesday, a 48-year-old man identified only as "John" in the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report, told a Common Pleas Court jury how he was molested for more than six years beginning in the eighth grade by the Rev. Stanley Gana, a priest in his Kensington parish.

The man described meeting Bransfield, a native of Roxborough ordained by the late Cardinal John Krol, one summer in the late 1970s or early '80s when he lived on Gana's remote 110-acre farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. The witness said he was building a flagstone wall when a car pulled up driven by then-Father Bransfield that contained several teen boys.

" 'They're his fair-haired boys,' " the witness said Gana told him after Bransfield drove away. " The one in the front seat he is having sex with.' "

The witness said Gana and Bransfield were close friends and added that he was once sexually abused by Gana during a visit to Bransfield's Shore house in Brigantine.

"The implication was clear," the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington, asserted in court Tuesday after the jury had been sent home for the day. "Bransfield is having sex with those boys, the same as Gana is having sex with Gana's boys."

Prosecutors are also aware of a separate allegation "of a fondling of a student by Bransfield," Blessington told Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina. He did not elaborate, and the judge has barred the lawyers from publicly commenting in the case.

On Monday, another accuser told jurors that once, after abusing him, Gana put him on the phone with Bransfield, who was then in Washington. He said Bransfield told him: "I'm going to have Stanley put you on a train and come down and see me sometime."

Bransfield has never been charged with sexually assaulting any children, although his friendship with Gana was mentioned in the 2005 grand jury report of clergy sexual abuse in the archdiocese.

In his statement, Bransfield, West Virginia bishop since 2004, said he was "deeply saddened by the priest child-abuse scandal that has been connected to a handful of my former colleagues and friends from St. Charles Seminary."

"Over the years, I have felt devastation for both the victims and the church as I learned about the terrible actions they took with innocent victims."

Bransfield categorically denied the trial testimony, saying that "to now be unfairly included in that group and to hear the horrific allegations that are being made of me is unbelievable and shocking."

"I consider Philadelphia my home," the statement continued. "I have openly been an advocate for the eradication of the abusive behavior of priests in every diocese, and have demonstrated this in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston."

Though he acknowledged being a public figure who is "subject to public criticism," Bransfield said "the nature of these statements and the manner in which they were released . . . go way beyond any sense of fairness and propriety."

Bransfield said Philadelphia prosecutors had been told he was not aware of or present at the Brigantine house when the alleged sexual encounter occurred between Gana and the witness.

The bishop added that he let "numerous friends and priests" use the Shore house.

Gana, 69, was removed from ministry in 2002. He was laicized in 2006.

Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams, said the gag order barred her office and prosecutors from commenting on Bransfield's statement.

Wednesday's testimony about the friendship of Gana and Bransfield came after city prosecutors told Sarmina a West Virginia judge had refused to honor a "material witness petition" from the District Attorney's Office.

According to Blessington, the unnamed West Virginia judge had prevented him from calling to the stand Msgr. Kevin Michael Quirk, one of three church judges in the 2008 canonical trial of the Rev. James J. Brennan on child sex-abuse charges.

Blessington has said he wants to present testimony from Quirk about Brennan's testimony at the canonical trial.

Although the trial was in Philadelphia, Quirk is now assigned to the West Virginia diocese, where he is judicial vicar and Bransfield's assistant.

Bransfield's statement did not address the judicial impasse involving Quirk and whether he will testify.

The failure to address that question was again criticized Thursday by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: "Every day that Bransfield refuses to make Father Quirk testify, he is helping to keep alleged clergy sex crimes and cover-ups covered up. We have to wonder what Bransfield fears about Father Quirk's testimony."

Brennan, 48, is a defendant in the Philadelphia criminal trial for allegedly trying to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996, an assault he has denied.

On trial with Brennan is Msgr. William J. Lynn, 61, who, as secretary for clergy of the Philadelphia Archdiocese from 1992 to 2004, was responsible for investigating allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Lynn is the first church official criminally charged with enabling abusive priests or covering up the abuse.

Much of Thursday's trial session involved the in-court reading of sections of Lynn's June 2002 testimony to a grand jury examining clergy sex abuse.

In his questioning before the grand jury, Lynn acknowledged that he had the authority to expand the probe into Gana after the first accuser came forward in 1992.

That man, a seminarian, gave Lynn the names of two other men who had allegedly been abused by the priest, but Lynn chose not to follow up. The accusation was made at the time he was moving into his job as secretary for clergy, Lynn told the grand jury.

"Looking back on it, I feel that it was just one of those things that fell through the cracks," he testified a decade ago.

He also acknowledged taking no such steps in 1995, after a second man came forward with an allegation against Gana. Lynn told the grand jury the archdiocesan practice at the time was not to seek out other possible victims because therapists had advised church officials that do so "might revictimize them all over again."

He also chose not to report the allegations to the civil authorities, who could have launched an investigation, he told the grand jury.

Why not? a prosecutor asked him at the time.

"Because we weren't required to," Lynn replied.


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or follow @joeslobo on Twitter.

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