WHEELING - Two men who were among a group of teens that accompanied Michael J. Bransfield when he was a priest to a Pennsylvania farm in the late 1970s to visit another priest told a Philadelphia newspaper this week that Bransfield did nothing inappropriate during their time together.
The men, Ronald Rock and Timothy Love, gave statements to the Philadelphia Inquirer that contradict claims made in a Philadelphia courtroom earlier this year.
During what has been called the "landmark" clergy-sex abuse case, a witness testified that a former defrocked priest who was not on trial, Stanley Gana, told him that Bransfield was having a relationship with one of the boys in the group that visited the farm. The witness, Mark Berkery, who told investigators that Gana had abused him for years, claims that Gana called the group Bransfield's "fair-haired boys."
Rock and Love were students of Bransfield's at Lansdale Catholic High School in Philadelphia at the time. They said they had talked Bransfield, who was their history teacher and is now bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, into coming on the trip with a group of others to a cabin in Friendsville, Pa., owned by Rock's parents. Gana's farm was nearby, so the group paid a visit.
Berkery testified during trial that he was working at Gana's farm when Bransfield and the others in his group pulled up in a vehicle. The group left after a short visit, at which time Berkery said Gana told him about the alleged sexual relationship between Bransfield and the "kid in the front seat."
Rock said he was in the passenger seat next to Bransfield during the trip.
"I've talked to my buddies who were with me that weekend," Rock said. "There was no inappropriate anything. ... (Bransfield) was a guy's guy. We would joke about girls. There was no inappropriate anything."
Love also recalled the trip and said nothing inappropriate took place.
Both of Gana's alleged victims also said they had no proof that Bransfield did anything inappropriate.
The Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston said in a statement issued Monday that the comments from Rock and Love refute speculation that Bransfield, 68, may have sexually abused teenage boys when he was a priest in the Philadelphia area. The diocese also stressed that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia declared another allegation from the 1970s against Bransfield in which he allegedly fondled a student at Lansdale Catholic to be unfounded.
Bransfield, who denies any wrongdoing, is a native of the Philadelphia area. He has never been charged with any crime.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston previously pointed out that during the trial, "one witness was permitted to offer hearsay testimony that Gana, an admitted abuser, had said that ... Bransfield had engaged in improper conduct with a high school student, but that alleged victim has denied that he was ever abused and Gana has denied making the accusation."
Also during the Philadelphia trial, the local diocese noted that prosecutors brought to light an allegation that Bransfield had fondled a Lansdale Catholic student. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia referred the matter back to Montgomery County, Pa., officials for review.
Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said it is "unlikely" Bransfield will be charged with a crime related to allegations that he groped or fondled the student, noting the allegations appear to fall beyond the criminal statute of limitations. However, she added she plans to conduct a thorough investigation due to a "moral obligation to report our conclusion to the Archdiocese (of Philadelphia) to ensure that they have the information needed to protect children."