WHEELING – A former altar server and secretary to resigned Catholic Bishop Michael J. Bransfield has filed a lawsuit claiming the bishop sexually molested him.
The plaintiff, only identified as J.E., filed his complaint March 22 in Ohio Circuit Court against Bransfield, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and up to 20 unidentified defendants.
“The complaint is very specific and lays out the details,” attorney Bobby Warner of Warner Law Offices in Charleston told The West Virginia Record. “I find it troubling that while we continue to hear Bishop Bransfield’s name and alleged allegations, no one has stepped forward as an individual.
“I believe our client is the first individual who has had the strength and courage to step forward. It’s very troubling to me that while they’ve released names of individuals within the church in the press, Bishop Bransfield’s name wasn’t on the list. When, as you can see in our complaint, there have been prior allegations and investigations about him.”
The Diocese declined comment.
“The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston cannot comment on pending litigation," it said in a statement. "The Diocese will answer the filing in the proper forum."
According to the complaint, J.E. was a resident of St. Clairsville, Ohio, when the alleged incidents occurred. He now lives in Pocahontas County.
J.E. says first came in contact with Bransfield when he attended the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling.
“Bransfield was a sexual predator with lustful disposition toward adolescent males,” the 21-page complaint 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 complaint says the other defendants knew of such accusations against Bransfield as early as 2007. Yet, it says they “took no action to appropriately investigate, counsel or sanction” Bransfield. In 2012, Bransfield was accused by two witnesses of associating with a priest who sexually abused minors and of being aware of the sexual abuse. The complaint says no discipline was taken against Bransfield.
The Diocese covered all of Bransfield’s living expenses, including food and drink and a personal chef.
“Bransfield was 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,” the complaint states. “Bransfield was known to defendants to drink until he was intoxicated at which point he would engage in grossly inappropriate behavior, including but not limited to making sexually suggestive gestures, hugging, kissing, inappropriately touching and fondling seminarians.”
In 2008, J.E. became part of the pontifical crew servicing Bransfield during mass at St. Joseph’s. He eventually became Bransfield’s personal altar server.
“J.E. was subjected to sexually suggestive gestures, hugging, kissing, inappropriate touching and fondling by Bishop Bransfield with the full knowledge of other employees, agents and servants of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.”
Soon, J.E. was picked by Bransfield to serve as his interim secretary.
“Bransfield lobbied to have J.E. move into his home and live with the bishop full time,” the complaint states. “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 into Bishop Bransfield’s home, but did so in a manner that protected Bishop Bransfield’s true nature as a sexual predator.”
As his interim secretary, J.E. traveled with Bransfield around the Diocese, which covers the entire state of West Virginia. During a May 2014 trip to Charleston, Bransfield allegedly was drinking heavily and locked himself out of the parish. J.E. helped Bransfield into the parish.
“Once inside the parish, defendants Bishop Bransfield exposed his erect penis, grabbing J.E. from behind, pulled J.E. against him, running his hands down J.E.’s chest and over his genitals,” the complaint states. “J.E. struggled free of Bishop Bransfield’s grasp, ran into another part of the parish and locked himself in a room until daylight.
“J.E. was mortified and emotionally traumatized by the attack. The following morning, Bishop Bransfield acted as if nothing had happened and carried on with church business as usual.”
J.E. later was admitted to seminary school, but he says he didn’t excel.
“He found himself overcome with depression and suffering a severe crisis of faith as a result of the behavior of Bishop Bransfield and the sexual assault he had endured,” the complaint states. “J.E. dropped out of seminary school after which he was effectively ostracized by his former colleagues and friends. J.E. has had no further involvement in the Catholic Church and struggles to find purpose and meaning in his life, having lost forever the lifelong dream of joining the clergy.”
J.E. says he didn’t report Bransfield’s conduct for fear of reprisal.
“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,” the complaint states. “J.E. was fearful of retribution not only for himself, but also for his parents and members of his extended family.”
He says he didn’t feel safe telling his story until the Diocese invited anyone who had been victimized by a priest to report their experiences.
The complaint accuses the defendants of sexual harassment, sexual assault, negligent conduct, negligence, misfeasance, nonfeasance, carelessness, recklessness, vicarious liability, breach of non-delegable duty, negligent hiring and retention and supervision, civil conspiracy, fraudulent concealment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
J.E. seeks joint and several compensatory damages, punitive damages, pre- and post-judgment interest, attorney fees, court costs and other relief.
The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge David Sims.
Bransfield was bishop of the Diocese from 2005 to 2018. As is custom, he resigned when he turned 75. Pope Francis has asked for an investigation into Bransfield's alleged sexual harassment of adults. That report was released March 11. It stated that there was no evidence of criminal activity by Bransfield, and it has been sent to the Vatican for review. But, Bransfield has been told not to "exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston."
J.E.’s complaint was filed just days after West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office filed a lawsuit against the Diocese and Bransfield, saying they knowingly employed pedophiles. The AG’s complaint, filed March 19 in Wood Circuit Court, also says the Diocese and Bransfield failed to conduct adequate background checks for those working at the Diocese’s schools and camps, all without disclosing the inherent danger to parents who purchased its services for their children. The lawsuit alleges those actions lacked transparency and stood in sharp contrast to the Diocese’s advertised mission of providing a safe learning environment.
Earlier this month, the Diocese announced it had completed an investigative report into allegations related to Bransfield. Morrisey is urging the church to release that report and fully cooperate with his office to uncover any violations of law in West Virginia.
Warner said he was surprised when the AG’s office filed its complaint.
“It’s very ironic that members of the church were aware I was preparing this complaint over the last two weeks, then the AG’s office filed their suit,” Warner said. “But, there are no individuals named in their complaint. Personally, I think it is better for individual attorneys to represent individuals.”
Warner said his filing has nothing to do with the AG’s complaint.
“My investigation shows that this is a cultural epidemic,” Warner said. “I believe there to be many more victims. No matter how they reach out – either through the AG’s office or with a private attorney – it’s time for this conduct to stop.
Unfortunately, the church doesn’t seem to be able to take care of it on its own. Hopefully, we can have the right attorneys come forward to change the culture and hold the church accountable.”
Warner said he has talked to other potential plaintiffs.
“Obviously, the decision to move forward in a case like this and file a lawsuit is a very difficult decision for the individuals involved. But at this point, there are potential plaintiffs who are considering their options.”
Ohio Circuit Court case number 19-C-99