In the Church Scandals, All Roads Lead to Rome, and Many Run through D.C.

Pope Francis and Cardinal Donald Wuerl (right) at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 2015. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
A disproportionate number of the American churchmen involved in the latest revelations of abuse or cover-up have spent significant time in the Washington archdiocese.

While all roads in the scandals involving sexual abuse by Catholic priests lead back to Rome, it appears that one of those roads runs through the lush landscaping of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the U.S. capital. A disproportionate number of the American bishops and cardinals entangled in the latest revelations of abuse and cover-up have spent significant time in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

From former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose same-sex predatory behavior has been well documented, to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who in the Pennsylvania grand-jury report has been identified as having covered up for same-sex predatory behavior, to Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, who resigned last week pending an investigation into allegations that he too engaged in sexual misconduct — all have spent decades of their clerical careers in the D.C. archdiocese.

Bishop Bransfield, who recently resigned as the bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling–Charleston, held a number of positions at the National Shrine from 1980 through the 1990s. He was appointed its tenth director in October 1986. Few of the faithful in the D.C. archdiocese ever knew that Bransfield, highly regarded for his fundraising ability, had been implicated in an abuse scandal dating back to the 1970s in the Philadelphia archdiocese. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, in 2012 a Philadelphia man testifying in court alleged that a priest had abused him for years beginning in the 1970s and had told him that a colleague, one Father Bransfield, also had sex with teenage boys.

A second accuser told jurors that, after abusing him, the Philadelphia priest put him on the phone with Bransfield, who was then in Washington, and that Bransfield told him, “I’m going to have Stanley,” the abusive priest, “put you on a train to come down and see me sometime.” A prosecutor at the trial said the information that Bransfield was alleged to have fondled a student came to light in 2007 but that the prosecutors did not pursue the case then, deciding to reopen it only later, in 2012. Bransfield resigned last week after Pope Francis ordered an investigation into the slightly less incendiary allegations that the bishop had sexually harassed adults.

It is difficult to understand why anyone thought that Bransfield, despite allegations of abuse dating back to the 1970s, was in 2005 considered a strong candidate to be bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling–Charleston. But since the allegations were not publicly acknowledged until 2012, we cannot know that they were known by those who nominate priests to the episcopate.

The D.C. archdiocese is involved as well in a sexting sting in 2013. According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, five young men provided similar accounts that Father Matthew Riedlinger, a priest of the Diocese of Trenton but with ties to the National Shrine and the D.C. archdiocese, harassed and made them the object of his sexual obsession. Four of the five were in their late teens or early 20s when Riedlinger began inappropriate and persistent sexual communications with them. Tim Schmalz, one of the victims, said he met Riedlinger, a Catholic University graduate who at the time was approaching ordination, through Monsignor Walter Rossi, the National Shrine’s rector. Rossi was a friend of Riedlinger’s, having vacationed with him in Rome, the Star-Ledger reports. Schmalz said that Rossi recommended to young men discerning a vocation to the priesthood that they seek out Riedlinger as a mentor.

An altar server at the Basilica, Schmalz collaborated with a friend whom Riedlinger was also sexually harassing. Together the two of them arranged a sting operation. They claimed that they were not looking to have the priest charged but that they only wanted to prove to the diocese that he had a problem and should be removed from ministry. Pretending to be a 16-year-old boy, they friended Riedlinger on Facebook initially and later on Google Voice, and within a week the priest steered the conversation to sex and pornography, in texting conversations that lasted up to six hours. Schmalz and his friend cut off contact and forwarded a transcript of the exchanges to Trenton’s Bishop David M. O’Connell, formerly the president of Catholic University of America, located in Washington.

O’Connell assured Schmalz that he had personally escorted Riedlinger to a hospital for inpatient treatment, but no one notified the parishioners at the priest’s former parish. Schmalz and his friend continued to press the diocese to inform the parish, saying that they worried that Riedlinger might have spoken to other teens as he had spoken to them through texting. In a written statement, Bishop O’Connell told parishioners of the complaints a day after the Star-Ledger questioned the diocese about Riedlinger and the decision to withhold information about the allegations against him. O’Connell remains the bishop of Trenton, and Monsignor Rossi remains the rector of the National Shrine in Washington.

Staff of the National Shrine have been instructed to call the police if George Neumayr is seen on the grounds. Neumayr, a journalist with the American Spectator and the author of The Political Pope, has been investigating Wuerl’s role in sex-abuse scandals, writing a series of articles about, for example, the cardinal’s multimillion-dollar penthouse on Embassy Row, where he employs a chef. Another embarrassment uncovered by Neumayr is that Father Emmanuel Betasso leads Catholic retreats in the D.C. archdiocese even after having been arrested for, and confessing to, the molestation of a male teenager in a hot tub some years ago.

During the days of the Emperor Caesar Augustus, when all roads really did lead to Rome, no roads connected the peripheral cities of the empire to one another. The reason for that was to make it more difficult for the cities to join forces and rise up in rebellion against Roman rule. Those days are over. Now we are all linked by an information superhighway that makes it much more difficult for bishops, including the bishop of Rome, to keep secrets from the faithful.


Anne Hendershott — Anne Hendershott is a professor of sociology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where she also serves as the director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life. She is author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops Are Revitalizing the Church.

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