WHEELING,W.Va. – A civil lawsuit filed in Ohio County Circuit Court alleges Bishop Michael Bransfield to be “a sexual predator” prone to binge drinking liquor, then molesting young men.
The suit filed Friday lists the complainant only with the initials “J.E.,” described as having been a personal altar server and secretary to Bransfield, former bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The suit alleges the plaintiff was sexually assaulted by Bransfield in 2014 and was a victim of sexual harassment by him for years prior to that.
J.E. is listed as a current resident of Pocahontas County, W.Va., but was a resident of St. Clairsville when the alleged incidents took place between 2008 and 2014.
The defendants named in the suit are Bransfield, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and numerous “John Does” associated with the diocese.
Tim Bishop, spokesman for the diocese, said the diocese does not comment on pending litigation.
“We will address it through the proper forum – either in the courtroom or through court documents,” he said.
The legal action was filed by attorney Robert B. Warner of Charleston, who speculated that more victims will speak out against Bransfield.
“It took courage for my client to come forward and be the first to file a lawsuit,” Warner said. “It brings to light the conduct of Bransfield, and I hope that encourages other victims to come forward against the church.”
Late last year, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston released a list of 31 priests against whom credible allegations of sexual misconduct had been made, dating back to the 1950s.
“It is disturbing the church releases a list of priests’ names and Bishop Bransfield’s name was not on it,” Warner said. “It was common knowledge there were allegations against him in the past. Why would his name have not been on the list?
“It will be interesting to see why the bishop’s name was not on list when there were so many allegations.”
Allegations against Bransfield
The court filing alleges Bransfield to be “a binge-drinker of alcohol, nightly consuming one-half to one whole bottle of Cointreau liquor, an 80-proof orange-flavored alcohol costing well over $20 a bottle.”
“Upon information and belief, defendant Bishop Bransfield was a sexual predator with lustful disposition toward adolescent males,” the suit states. “After being placed in a position of trust by defendants, Bishop Bransfield sexually abused, molested, fondled and assaulted J.E. and other adolescent and ‘adult’ males by, through and during his employment as Bishop with the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.”
The suit alleges the diocese was aware of a 2007 complaint that Bransfield fondled a young male under his care and supervision, “and yet took no action to appropriately investigate, counsel or sanction Bishop Bransfield.”
In 2008, J.E. became part of the pontifical crew servicing Bransfield during Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling. At Bransfield’s request, J.E. eventually became the personal altar server to Bransfield.
The suit alleges that during his tenure on the pontifical crew and while a seminarian, J.E. was subjected to sexually suggestive gestures, including hugging, kissing and “inappropriate touching and fondling by Bishop Bransfield, with the full knowledge of other employees, agents and servants of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.”
Bransfield later chose J.E. to be his interim secretary, and it was customary for the bishop’s secretary to move into the bishop’s home and to live full-time there.
“Monsignor Kevin M. Quirk, rector of the Cathedral of St. Joseph, knowing Bishop Bransfield’s illegal and improper propensities toward molestation of young males, fought to keep J.E. from moving in to Bishop Bransfield’s home, but did so in a manner that protected Bishop Bransfield’s true nature as a sexual predator,” the suit states.
As Bransfield’s secretary, J.E. was required to travel with him around the diocese. During a May 2014 trip to Charleston to conduct Mass, Bransfield was “heavily drinking and inadvertently locked himself out of the parish,” according to the suit. Quirk phoned J.E. to have him unlock the parish doors and let Bransfield inside.
“Initially, (Quirk) agreed to stay on the telephone with J.E. while he let defendant Bishop Bransfield into the parish,” the suit states. “But upon opening the door and letting Bishop Bransfield in the home, J.E. ended the conversation in order to be able to assist the drunken Bishop Bransfield into the parish.”
Once inside, the suit alleges, Bransfield exposed himself to J.E., grabbed him and began to sexually abuse him.
“J.E. struggled free of Bishop Bransfield’s grasp, ran into another part of the parish and locked himself in a room until daylight,” the suit states. “The following morning, Bishop Bransfield acted as if nothing had happened and carried on with church business as usual.”
J.E. had intended to go to seminary and become a priest, according to the lawsuit. But Monsignor Paul A. Hudock – a former secretary of Bransfield who was then director of vocations – did not believe J.E. was “right” for the clergy, and he worked to make J.E.’s admission into seminary school difficult, according to the suit.
“Following his (alleged) attack on J.E., Bishop Bransfield pulled rank and got J.E. admitted to seminary over the objection of Msgr. Hudock,” the suit states.
J.E. did not excel in seminary school, but found himself overcome with depression and suffering a severe crisis of faith as a result of his experiences with Bransfield, according to the suit. J.E. would leave both the seminary and the Catholic church.
“J.E. did not dare report Bishop Bransfield’s conduct for fear of reprisal,” the suit states. “J.E., being part of the Bishop’s inner circle, had seen the treatment and ostracism of once highly regarded church members who had dared to criticize or speak ill of the Catholic church or Bishop Bransfield.
“J.E. was fearful of retribution not only for himself, but also for his parents and members of his extended family.”
negligence among counts
There are nine counts against defendants listed in the lawsuit:
Count 1 in the suit alleges Bransfield engaged in sexual harassment under the West Virginia Human Rights Act.
Count 2 alleges the diocese owed J.E. a “duty of care to effectively screen, monitor and supervise its clergy,” and that it had a special duty to act appropriately upon complaints.
Count 3 states “John Does,” as agents of the diocese, owed J.E. a duty in loco parentis to observe, investigate, report and take action on all inappropriate contact between altar boys and clergy.
Count 4 states all defendants were acting as agents of the Catholic church and Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, and are liable for injuries to J.E. caused by his experiences there.
Count 5 alleges the diocese owed J.E. “a non-delegable fiduciary duty,” and recklessly and negligently exposed J.E. to Bransfield while knowing he was a sexual predator.
Count 6 alleges negligent hiring, retention and supervision by the diocese, while Count 7 alleges civil conspiracy among the defendants.
An eighth count states fraudulent concealment occurred among the defendants. And a ninth count alleges an infliction of emotional distress “atrocious, intolerable and so extreme and outrageous as to exceed the bounds of decency.”
Counsel seeks for J.E. a settlement in “an amount exceeding the minimum jurisdictional requirements of this court” to compensate J.E. “for his losses, injuries and damages.”
“I think what happened to my client … needs to be compensated,” Warren said. “We need to hold the church accountable for years and years of not monitoring or properly investigating accusations of misconduct against priests.
“We could reach an agreement that would to go beyond financial reward. We could make changes to protect children and young priests in the future,” he said.