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Bishop Michael Bransfield Under Investigation After Fondling Complaint From '70s Reopened

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Bishop Michael Bransfield was accused of sexual abuse in the 1970s in a fondling complaint that has been recently reopened.
Bishop Michael Bransfield was accused of sexual abuse in the 1970s in a fondling complaint that has been recently reopened.

PHILADELPHIA -- Authorities have re-opened a 2007 fondling complaint against a priest who taught at a suburban Philadelphia high school and is now the Roman Catholic bishop of West Virginia.

The complaint stems from Bishop Michael Bransfield's days at Lansdale Catholic High School in the 1970s. The Philadelphia Archdiocese said it did not find the complaint credible at the time, and passed it on to Montgomery County authorities.

But the archdiocese said last week that the complaint has been reopened.

"The Archdiocese of Philadelphia promptly reported the allegation against Bishop Bransfield to the Montgomery County D.A.'s office in 2007. ... The situation is again being reviewed by law enforcement authorities," spokesman Kenneth Gavin said in an email.

The development comes with the recently completed Philadelphia priest-abuse trial in which a witness testified that a priest who abused him told him that Bransfield was sexually involved with a young teen. The witness also said he was raped by the priest at Bransfield's beach house.

Bransfield, who has led the West Virginia diocese since 2005, says he wasn't home at the time, and denies ever abusing anyone.

The trial ended with Monsignor William Lynn convicted of endangering children as secretary of clergy, and the jury deadlocked on sex abuse charges against the Rev. James Brennan.

Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington disclosed in a sidebar conversation, made public since the June 22 jury verdicts, that Bransfield himself was under investigation for a complaint that stems from his teaching stint at Lansdale Catholic.

The statute of limitations may have been tolled, or stopped, when Bransfield left the state in about 1980 to work at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Blessington said.

At the time of the incriminating testimony regarding Bransfield, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston called the trial "a circus" and said Philadelphia prosecutors were trying to "smear individuals not on trial ... to bolster their persecution of the church." Last week, the diocese said a recent Philadelphia Inquirer report on the fondling complaint was "old news" and referred reporters to an April statement.

"I have never sexually abused anyone," Bransfield said at the time.

During the trial, a 48-year-old Philadelphia man testified that the Rev. Stanley Gana raped him at Bransfield's beach house in Brigantine, N.J. Bransfield acknowledged letting Gana, a seminary friend, use the house, but Bransfield said he was not there at the time.

The witness said he once saw Bransfield at Gana's mountain house with a car full of boys. Gana referred to the youngsters as Bransfield's "fair-haired boys" and said Bransfield was having sex with one of them, the witness testified.

A second Gana accuser testified that Gana once put him on the phone with Bransfield and said Bransfield joked that he wanted to meet the boy.

"I'm going to have Stanley put you on the train to come down and see me sometime," Bransfield allegedly told the boy.

Gana was defrocked but never criminally charged. A current phone number for Gana could not be found.

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Ferman has confirmed to The Intelligencer of Doylestown that she has reopened the 2007 fondling complaint.

"Based on the statute of limitations and the victim's unwillingness to talk to investigators, we did not have a sufficient basis at that time to move forward," Ferman told the newspaper on July 9. "Within the last month, new information has come forward to cause us to re-examine the older complaint."

Ferman did not return messages from The Associated Press.

Although the Philadelphia Archdiocese suspended about two dozen accused priests in 2011, the national "zero tolerance" policy for accused priests apparently did not reach Bransfield.

Bransfield is from a prominent family of Philadelphia clerics. A nephew, the Rev. Sean P. Bransfield, is a judicial vicar and vice chancellor at the Cardinal's Residence in Philadelphia. Another relative, Monsignor J. Brian Bransfield, works for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.

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