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W.Va. Catholics react to Bishop abuse allegations

Apr. 18, 2012 @ 07:19 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Roman Catholics reacted with disbelief, shock and anger Wednesday after a witness at a clergy-abuse trial in Philadelphia testified that the leader of West Virginia’s 76,000 Catholics committed sexual abuse.

Monsignor Edward Sadie, rector of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Charleston, said he finds the allegations against Bishop Michael Bransfield “impossible to believe.”

“Everything I know about him, he’s a perfect gentlemen and he’s been very thorough in seeing to it that we observe all the (child protection) procedures that come up,” Sadie said.

A man testified that a priest raped him at a New Jersey home owned by Bransfield and that his accused abuser told him the bishop also sexually abused a boy. The Associated Press does not generally identify people who say they have been sexually abused.

The testimony came at the trial of the Rev. James Brennan, who’s accused in a 1996 child-sex assault.

Bransfield graduated from St. Charles Borromeo seminary in 1971, a year after Stanley Gana. The witness Wednesday told jurors that Gana abused him throughout high school on trips to Disney World, Niagara Falls and at Bransfield’s beach house in Brigantine, N.J.

Bransfield is not charged with any crimes.

Bryan Minor, spokesman for the statewide Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, said diocese officials learned of the allegations through media reports.

“Until such time that the facts and issues surrounding this testimony are made fully known to the diocese, we cannot comment,” he said in an email. “However, this is certainly an opportunity for us — as a church — to remember all victims of sexual abuse and to pray for them and their families.”

Outside St. John University Parish in Morgantown, a priest and several people heading to afternoon Mass either declined to comment or said they knew nothing about the allegations.

Margery Webb, 20, of Charleston, only knows Bransfield by name but was shocked by word of the accusations.

“I’ve heard stuff like this about Catholic priests before and it really is a terrifying thought to think that somebody who’s supposed to be in the priesthood — sort of a leader in the community in a way — would take advantage of their parishioners,” she said.

Bransfield was anointed the eighth bishop of West Virginia in February 2005 at age 61, succeeding retiring Bishop Bernard Schmitt. He’d been ordained a priest in his hometown of Philadelphia in May 1971 and earned a master’s degree in philosophy from The Catholic University of America in Washington.

He was assigned to the National Shrine as director of liturgy in 1980 and became rector in 1990, when the pope designated the shrine a basilica.

At the time of his ordination in West Virginia, he said he wouldn’t shy away from taking public stands on important issues.

In 2006, his first pastoral letter focused on issues ranging from access to health care to the importance of living a healthy lifestyle and the epidemic of childhood obesity.

In 2009, he held a special Mass to celebrate the second inauguration of West Virginia’s first Catholic governor, Democrat Joe Manchin. It was a rarity for West Virginia, where Catholics make up barely 4 percent of the state’s population.

Manchin, now a U.S. senator, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Bransfield also made news in April 2010 when he devoted a homily in Wheeling to the 29 men killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. Four years, he said, is too short a time between West Virginia mine disasters. The last had been at the Sago Mine in 2006, where 12 men perished.

“Can those entrusted with the protection of miners be trusted to fulfill the jobs and enforce the laws?” Bransfield asked. “Is our technology in the U.S. mines in 2010 equal to the technology that is easily available in other industries? Is it safer to travel in space than to work in a West Virginia mine?”

Last year, he issued a pastoral letter demanding that West Virginia offer better care for people suffering from chemical dependency and mental illness. Although there have been improvements, Bransfield said residents still lack the support they need.