Prosecutors are reviewing a claim that Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, a Philadelphia native serving as the top Catholic official in West Virginia, fondled a Lansdale Catholic High School student in the 1970s, according to interviews and court records.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia learned of the allegation in 2007 and forwarded it to
Montgomery County prosecutors, a spokesman for the archdiocese said Friday.
What happened to that probe is unclear.
But Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said her office was now reviewing a complaint against Bransfield.
The suggestion that Bransfield, who hails from a Philadelphia family of prominent clerics, knew about or participated in sexual misconduct with minors was among the most explosive - and unresolved - revelations in the landmark trial of two Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests.
Prosecutors wouldn't elaborate after his name emerged in testimony in April.
The bishop, 68, angrily denied any wrongdoing then, and stood by that denial Friday, his spokesman said.
A trial transcript that became public after the trial ended last month shed new light on the claim. In it, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington said prosecutors first learned about the accusation against Bransfield almost three decades after he left the high school in northern Montgomery County for a post in Washington.
Blessington told Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina that the bishop could still face charges because the statute of limitations on the crime froze when Bransfield moved from the Commonwealth in 1980.
"It was a fondling/groping incident, at a high school, Lansdale Catholic . . . ," Blessington said, according to the transcript of their April 19 sidebar conference outside the courtroom.
"Not long after that, he leaves the jurisdiction, so we may be within the statute."
The prosecutor did not explain if the accuser has agreed to cooperate or what detectives or church officials have done to substantiate or refute the accusation. Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, said the office would have no comment on Bransfield.
Church officials initially passed a complaint to Montgomery County prosecutors in 2007, archdiocesan spokesman Kenneth Gavin said Friday.
Bruce Castor, then the Montgomery County district attorney, said he did not remember the allegation or the outcome of any investigation.
"Those complaints routinely went to the [assistant district attorney] in charge of sex crimes for review," Castor, who left the office in 2008, said in an e-mail Friday. "What became of that one, if it came to us, I simply don't know."
Ferman, his successor, declined to discuss details of the ongoing review.
Bransfield has been the leader of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese since 2005 and an elected treasurer for the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops.
Before that, he spent more than two decades working at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington and rose to become its rector, a prominent post within church circles.
A nephew, Sean Bransfield, is a vice chancellor for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Another relative, Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, is a ranking officer at the U.S. bishops' conference.
Michael Bransfield had never been publicly accused of misconduct until his name emerged during the trial for Msgr. William J. Lynn and the Rev. James J. Brennan.
Two men testified that they talked to or saw Bransfield during years they were serially raped and molested by one of his friends and seminary classmates, Stanley Gana.
One of the witnesses said Gana regularly put him on the phone with Bransfield when Gana was serially abusing him in the 1980s. During one phone call, he said, Bransfield told him: "I'm going to have Stanley put you on a train and come down and see me sometime."
The second witness reported seeing Bransfield driving a carload of adolescent boys near a farm Gana owned in Northeast Pennsylvania.
"They're his fair-haired boys," Gana allegedly told the teen as Bransfield drove away. "The one in the front seat he is having sex with."
Prosecutors in the case also took aim at Bransfield after a priest from his diocese unexpectedly resisted a subpoena to testify at the trial. In the sidebar conference, Blessington told the judge that he believed Bransfield was behind the delay.
"This is almost beyond comprehension, Your Honor," Blessington said, according to the transcript. "That's the guy that's directing, is negatively influencing all our lives - that pedophile, or at least that alleged pedophile who is running that archdiocese."
After the testimony from Gana's accusers, Bransfield quickly fired back. He said Gana had been his seminary classmate, but he denied knowing about any misconduct with minors. He also called the trial "a circus" and accused prosecutors of unfairly smearing his name.
"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," the bishop said. "To say I was shocked and saddened would be an understatement."
His spokesman, Bryan Minor, said Friday that Bransfield stood by his earlier comments and declined to say more. Neither diocese spokesman could say if there had been an internal church review of the allegations.
Under a zero-tolerance policy passed a decade ago by the U.S. bishops, accused priests are immediately removed from active ministry until allegations are resolved.
More than two dozen Philadelphia-area priests were placed on administrative leave for more than a year while archdiocesan officials reexamined past claims against them.
Bishops answer only to the pope and are not under the same constraints. Still, a handful have resigned in the last decade after being accused of sexual misconduct.
At least eight others remain in active ministry after denying the allegations against them, according to the watchdog group BishopAccountability.org.
Terence McKiernan, the group's president, said he was unaware of any accusations against Bransfield.
He suspects many accusations against bishops never come to light.
"I think they are out there," McKiernan said. "The more powerful they get, the more intimidating they are, and the less people are willing to speak out."