Pope Francis accepted the resignation of an American bishop accused of sexually harassing adults and assigned another bishop to investigate the matter, Vatican officials announced Thursday amid a wave of scandals enveloping leaders within the Catholic Church.
News of the investigation came as a meeting was underway between Francis and U.S. cardinals and bishops to discuss allegations involving a former American cardinal.
Michael Bransfield, the West Virginia bishop who resigned Thursday, had been implicated in 2012 in a Philadelphia priestly sex abuse case, but he denied ever abusing anyone and claimed vindication years ago, according to The Associated Press. He continued with his ministry until he offered to retire, as required, when he turned 75 last week.
The Vatican announced Francis accepted his resignation at the exact moment the U.S. delegation was arriving at the Apostolic Palace for the meeting with the pope.
Francis appointed Baltimore Bishop William Lori to take over Bransfield's Wheeling-Charleston diocese temporarily. Lori said in a statement that Francis had also instructed him to "conduct an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment of adults against Bishop Bransfield."
“My primary concern is for the care and support of the priests and people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston at this difficult time,” Lori said in a statement. “I further pledge to conduct a thorough investigation in search of the truth into the troubling allegations against Bishop Bransfield and to work closely with the clergy, religious and lay leaders of the diocese until the appointment of a new bishop.”
In past court cases involving Bransfield, church officials and witnesses accused him of molesting teenage boys – a claim that Bransfield has denied, according to the Washington Post.
Lori also set up a hotline for potential victims to call.
The Bransfield revelation comes in the wake of the June 20 announcement that one of the most prestigious U.S. cardinals, Theodore McCarrick, had been accused of groping a teen-age altar boy in the 1970s.
Francis removed McCarrick as a cardinal in July after a U.S. church investigation found the allegation credible. After news broke of the investigation, several former seminarians and priests came forward to report that they too had been abused or harassed by McCarrick as adults.
The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, had requested the papal audience last month following revelations that McCarrick had risen through church ranks even though the allegations of sexual misconduct were known in U.S. and Vatican circles, The Associated Press reported.
DiNardo requested a full-fledged Vatican investigation into the McCarrick affair, and said he also wanted answers to allegations that a string of Vatican officials -- including Pope Francis -- knew of McCarrick's misdeeds but turned a blind eye.
The Vatican hasn't responded to allegations by its former ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, that Francis effectively rehabilitated McCarrick from sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI over allegations McCarrick would routinely invite seminarians to his beach house and into his bed.
Francis, however, has responded to the overall scandal with a series of initiatives aimed at trying to convince the faithful he "gets it" and is prepared to take measures to put an end to what he has called the "culture of cover-up" in the church.
On the eve of the U.S. audience, Francis announced he was summoning the presidents of bishops conferences around the world to a February summit to discuss prevention measures and protection of minors and vulnerable adults.
The surprise announcement was largely dismissed as a belated damage control effort by victims' advocates. Church historians questioned why such an urgent problem was being scheduled for discussion six months from now with the very bishops who are blamed for much of the scandal.
"Where are the laity and others who might provide both new and uncomplicit voices and insights into the process?" Margaret Susan Thompson, associate professor of history at Syracuse University, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Even DiNardo's own record on protecting children has now come into question. On the eve of his audience with Francis, The Associated Press reported two victims in Houston had accused him of not doing enough to stop a priest who was arrested this week on sexual abuse charges.
The archdiocese issued a statement Wednesday confirming that both people had come forward to report abuse by the priest, the Rev. Manuel LaRosa-Lopez, including one of them in 2001. The priest is now the pastor at St. John Fisher Catholic Church in Richmond while also serving as the archdiocese's episcopal vicar for Hispanics.
The delegation of U.S. bishops announced no plans to speak to the media after their audience.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.