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Bishop Bransfield denies sexual abuse accusations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Bishop Michael Bransfield, the highest-ranking Catholic official in West Virginia, strongly denied allegations he sexually abused a young boy more than 30 years ago.

The denial came one day after a witness in a clergy sex-abuse trial in Philadelphia testified that he was sexually assaulted in a home owned by Bransfield, and that his abuser also told him Bransfield was abusing another boy.  

"I have never sexually abused anyone," Bransfield said in a statement released by the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese Thursday morning.

Bransfield is not charged with any crimes.

The statement was the bishop's first chance to address the allegations. Bransfield, 68, said he was out of the country and unreachable for comment when the story broke Wednesday.

"I was in Rome attending meetings at the Vatican when this false story about me was publicly released by the media without my knowledge or input," Bransfield said. "To say I was shocked and saddened would be an understatement."

The 48-year-old witness -- identified only as "John" in grand jury records -- was testifying in a criminal trial against Monsignor William Lynn and Rev. James Brennan.

Lynn is accused of covering up sex abuse allegations for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He is the first U.S. church official charged with child abuse and endangerment for allegedly protecting predators in the church.

Brennan is facing charges related to a 1996 child-sex assault.

Bransfield said he has been "deeply saddened" by the priest child abuse scandal involving his former colleagues from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

"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 said. "To now be unfairly included in that group and to hear the horrific allegations that are being made of me is unbelievable and shocking."

The witness in the Philadelphia trial told the jury he saw Bransfield bring several boys to a Scranton, Pa., farm owned by former diocese priest Stanley Gana more than 30 years ago.

The man said Gana told him Bransfield was having sex with one of the boys.

The witness told the jury Gana raped him for years and that Gana and Bransfield were close friends. He said Gana once sexually abused him during a visit to Bransfield's New Jersey beach house.

Another witness testified that Bransfield had a lewd conversation with him.

Details of the testimony were circulated in various media reports Wednesday.

Bransfield, who was in Rome attending meetings at the Vatican when the story broke, challenged the witness account and the way information came out in various published reports.

 "I understand that I am a public figure and therefore subject to public criticism," he said. "The nature of these statements and the manner in which they were released however go way beyond any sense of fairness and propriety."

He also said the detail about Gana sexually abusing someone at his New Jersey beach home was misleading.

"What did not get released was additional information available to the Prosecutor that I was not aware of the incident and was not present at the house at the time," Bransfield said. "Gana has confirmed those facts in prior reports."

Victim advocates had been calling on Bransfield to explain himself after the allegations were made Wednesday.

David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said his organization was disappointed that Bransfield only released a statement and did not take questions publicly.

"It's important to remember that both accusers gave testimony yesterday under oath. Bransfield didn't," Clohessy said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

"Both accusers let themselves be questioned, in public, by lawyers from both sides. Bransfield didn't. Both accusers are cooperating with the legal process. Bransfield isn't."

Clohessy also blasted Branfield's criticism over how the news broke Wednesday.

"It's pathetic for him to posture like he's been victimized because he didn't get some kind of special treatment from the justice system," he said. "Bransfield's a smart man. He's known, for years, about the Philly grand jury report that mentions him, and about the trial ... so his claim of being 'shocked' rings more than a little hollow."

SNAP had already been critical of Bransfield for not making a priest in the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese readily available to testify at the Philadelphia trial.

Earlier this week, a prosecutor complained in court of problems in getting Father Kevin Quirk of Wheeling to come to court to testify. Quick is an aide to Bransfield.

Quirk served as a canonical judge at a church trial of Brennan. Prosecutors are working to obtain a material witness order from a Wheeling judge that will force Quick to go to Philadelphia to testify.

"Every day that Bransfield refuses to make Fr. Quirk testify, he is helping to keep alleged clergy sex crimes and cover-ups covered up," Clohessy said.

A Philadelphia native, Bransfield was installed as head of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese in 2005. He is the eighth bishop to represent West Virginia.

The diocese on Wednesday called the trial a "circus" and accused Philadelphia prosecutors of trying to smear people who have never been charged with a crime.

In addition to the sexual abuse claims, prosecutors allege Lynn allowed dangerous priests to work with children in the parish to protect the church's reputation. The church also is accused of keeping secret files dating back to 1948 that allegedly show a long-standing conspiracy to protect priests and cast doubt on sex-abuse victims. 

In his statement Thursday, Bransfield asked church members to keep him and the church in their prayers as the trial continues.

"At the same time, please join me in prayer for all those who have been affected by sexual abuse," Bransfield said.

Clohessy said if anyone feels compelled to support or defend Bransfield, that they will do so appropriately and not attack the accusers.

"We urge West Virginia citizens and Catholics to keep open minds," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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