No autopsy was performed after priest died just two days before facing charges in 2007; retired priest claims he reported abuse decades earlier
By Michael M. Barrick and Michael J. Iafrate
WHEELING, W.Va. — In November 2018, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (DWC) joined numerous other dioceses in publishing a list of priests that they believe have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. The DWC’s list discloses various information about each priest, including assignment histories, the dates of the alleged abuse, and the dates on which the diocese says it learned of the accusations. In some cases, the disclosure of such information raises even more questions. The late Fr. Charles E. McCallister is one such case. Although the DWC claims that it only learned of allegations of McCallister’s abuse of a minor shortly before his death in 2007, new details of the McCallister story raise questions about church officials’ possible knowledge about the priest’s alleged behavior as well as their handling of allegations over at least two decades under the leadership of four West Virginia bishops.
Criminal investigation and death
According to a Civil Complaint filed against the DWC and McCallister’s estate on Feb. 7, 2008, civil and diocesan authorities received an allegation of sexual abuse by the priest in March 2007. The allegation was initially reported to a hotline by the victim’s doctor when the victim — who was then a college student — underwent an emergency hospitalization. In that Complaint, the plaintiff claimed that he was sexually abused by McCallister from approximately 2003-2006, beginning when he was 15 years old and for about three years thereafter, while McCallister was assisting at Immaculate Conception parish in Clarksburg. The abuse hotline reported the allegation to the DWC, the West Virginia State Police, and the Harrison County Prosecuting Attorney and triggered a criminal investigation.
McCallister was set to be charged on Oct. 15, 2007 with Sexual Abuse in the Third Degree against a minor in Harrison County, according to former Harrison County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Shaffer. Shaffer said that the allegations against McCallister were investigated by Harrison County Sheriff’s Department Detective Pat McCarty. “Deputy McCarty felt he had enough to bring felony charges.” However, added Shaffer, “We offered misdemeanor charges because the victim didn’t want to testify. I was never in the business of victimizing the victim.”
Shaffer said that he offered McCallister — through his attorney — a plea deal. On Friday, Oct. 12, 2007, McCallister was told he would need to report to a magistrate in Harrison County on Monday, Oct. 15 to be charged. Shaffer shared, “What our goal was was to give the victim closure. We knew there was a civil case going on and we knew the victim didn’t want to testify in a criminal or civil trial.” He explained, “McCallister had to enter a guilty plea. It couldn’t be a ‘No Contest’ because a guilty plea can be used in a civil case, but a No Contest plea can’t.” Shaffer added, “The plea was approved by the victim and his mother. It was the best way to accomplish our goal.”
However, McCallister died suddenly on Oct. 13, just two days before he was to be charged.
Despite the timing of McCallister’s death, an autopsy was not ordered. That is not unusual according to current and former prosecutors in West Virginia who spoke to us on condition of confidentiality. All concurred that, unless something unusual was suspected by those first at the scene, an autopsy would not be commonly requested. Because McCallister was found deceased in a chair by a family member, according to Shaffer, the manner of his death was not immediately seen as suspicious, presuming his family shared no information with authorities regarding pending criminal charges against him. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for law enforcement authorities to be unaware of investigations in other jurisdictions.
McCallister’s death was therefore ruled as the natural result of respiratory failure with underlying causes of emphysema and COPD.
However, Shaffer added that if McCallister had died in his jurisdiction of Harrison County, “I would have ordered an autopsy.” According to Shaffer, he only learned of McCallister’s passing on Oct. 15 — the very day he was to be charged — from the detective investigating the alleged crimes for the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department. He explained that the timing of his death just days before he was to be charged would have raised enough questions to justify an order for an autopsy.
Shaffer also observed that, because charges were never filed, “The value of the plaintiff’s civil case went down with McCallister’s death.”
The 2008 Civil Complaint
Further details about the allegations against McCallister emerged when the victim filed a Civil Complaint in Feb. 2008, just months after McCallister’s death. Identified as “John Doe I,” the plaintiff stated that the abuse occurred in the church sacristy as well as other locations and “…comprised at least 50 separate sessions of sexual abuse.” The Complaint stated, “The abuse included mutual masturbation, and McCallister urged Plaintiff to penetrate him anally and attempted to have the plaintiff perform oral sex on him.”
The Complaint added, “At all times material herein, the Plaintiff believed that it would be sinful or wrong to make any kind of accusation against a priest or bishop; and that priests and bishops could not and would not engage in conduct considered evil or wrong or illegal.” The Complaint states that the plaintiff had suffered psychological problems, attempted suicide repeatedly, had his faith undermined, and ultimately withdrew from college, all as a result of the alleged abuse.
The complaint sought unspecified compensatory damages.
The suit included as defendants the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (DWC), then-Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, and former Bishop Bernard W. Schmitt, and alleged that the DWC had previously received at least one report of “inappropriate conduct with a young male and yet failed to conduct an investigation to determine the extent of that conduct.”
A subsequent Amended Complaint added Kiwanis Club International, Kiwanis Club of West Virginia, Key Club International, and the Key Club of West Virginia as defendants. McCallister had served as Administrator of the Key Club of West Virginia and often had access to minors through his participation in these organizations. The complaint asserted that McCallister was suspended by Kiwanis in or around 1998 for alleged abuse of a male member of the Key Club of West Virginia. The plaintiff asserted that McCallister had abused him through this Key Club position in addition to his role at the parish.
The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice on Nov. 13, 2008 with little to no additional information reported. However, according to the Final Settlement Report of McCallister’s estate, a disbursement of $50,000 was made for an unspecified “Litigation Settlement,” as well as a disbursement to the law firm of McNeer, Highland, McMunn and Varner, L.C. for $7,000. In all, $85,700 in disbursements were paid from his estate, which was valued at $225,616.50.
It is noteworthy that both Key Club International and Kiwanis International Foundation disclaimed the $5,000 that McCallister had intended to be left to each organization. However, the West Virginia Key Club did accept the $50,000 McCallister bequeathed to them from his estate toward its scholarship fund.
Also notable is the fact that McCallister had written a new Last Will and Testament in his own handwriting on Oct. 2, 2007, when he already knew that the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department was investigating him and only 11 days before he died. In addition to monies, property, and a vehicle to be left to various family members, the Will also designated $30,000 worth of chalices to be left to the late Fr. Cesidio Federico, then pastor of Immaculate Conception in Clarksburg, as well as $10,000 “for Masses for a ‘special intention’… to be sent to Father Federico at Immaculate Conception Parish for distribution as he sees fit.”
Questions about DWC transparency
When John Doe’s lawsuit became public in Feb. 2008, the DWC issued a statement that the diocese immediately suspended McCallister when the allegation was first received on March 2, 2007. The statement pointed out that “In the course of the investigation, Father McCallister denied any wrongdoing.” The statement continued, “The Complaint alleges facts which are substantially embellished, exaggerated and inconsistent with Diocesan policies, Diocesan action in the case, the details and investigation of this claim and the actual conduct and history of the alleged victim. Just as it abhors misconduct, it also abhors misstatements and exaggerations designed to embellish a claim or cause of action.”
The DWC’s Answer to the Complaint likewise denied the allegations of abuse: “Defendants deny that Plaintiff was abused by Father Charles McCallister and demand strict proof.” In its defense, the DWC asserted that “If the allegations… are deemed to be accurate, then Defendants assert that such conduct was done outside the scope of his employment and/or relationship with [DWC].”
DWC’s Answer also confirmed the Complaint’s claim that a DWC priest “repeatedly contacted plaintiff, urging him not to press criminal charges against McCallister,” but argued that “such conduct was without approval or authority of the [DWC] and said priest was acting outside the scope of his authority as a priest of the Diocese.”
Once the case was dismissed in Nov. 2008, DWC does not seem to have acknowledged publicly that the allegations were credible or that any settlement had taken place. The first acknowledgement of the credibility of the 2007 allegations seems to be the DWC’s list of credibly accused priests released ten years later in Nov. 2018.
Bryan Minor, the Delegate for Administrative Affairs for the diocese, declined an in-person interview about the McCallister allegations, but said via email: “I cannot make much comment as there was a non-disclosure clause that I must abide by. It was at the request of the other parties and regards identity and final results.” He continued, “I can confirm that we received a credible complaint, it was reported to the authorities, and the priest died before the local authorities completed their investigation. Suit was filed against the Diocese, McCallister’s estate, the Kiwanis Club and the Key Club and it was settled. We treated it as a credible complaint and handled as one. We also list him on our credibly accused list.”
Minor concluded, “I can confirm that we had no other complaints on Fr. McCallister and none have surfaced since we listed him.”
Previous allegations had reportedly been sent to Rome
Despite the DWC’s claims, a retired DWC priest says that he had reported credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by McCallister to church officials both verbally and in written communications as early as 1974, and again in 1983, 1985, and 1986. The retired priest, speaking to us on the condition of confidentiality, shared information which corroborates the claim of the 2008 Civil Complaint that the DWC had previously received at least one report of “inappropriate conduct with a young male and yet failed to conduct an investigation to determine the extent of that conduct.”
Our source alleges that he had verbally alerted then-Bishop Joseph H. Hodges, who had become bishop of the DWC in 1962, multiple times about McCallister’s behavior, approximately in 1974 and 1983. Upon Hodges’ death in January 1985, this priest, along with other individuals in the DWC, received an inquiry from the Vatican’s Apostolic Delegate in Washington, D.C., asking for input on the worthiness of two possible candidates to succeed Bishop Hodges. As part of his response, the priest took the opportunity to include additional information about McCallister, who had held a position at the chancery since the early 1970s: “Charles E. McCallister should not be considered for bishop because information has come to me that he is a pedophile.”
Our source acknowledged that the allegation he made was shocking, but avowed that it was credible. “The person that McCallister abused came to me and shared with me first-hand details of the abuse. He was a minor. Basically, what this person told me was that if he did not comply with McCallister’s sexual demands, McCallister said he would ruin his young career and spread lies about him to destroy his public reputation.”
Following the death of Bishop Hodges, McCallister was appointed Diocesan Administrator, placing him in charge of the DWC until a new bishop was named. According to our source, the position gave McCallister himself access to all personnel files, including his own.
McCallister would not become the new bishop of West Virginia. Rather, on June 4, 1985, it was announced that Francis B. Schulte, an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was appointed to that position.
Our source stated that shortly after Bishop Schulte’s appointment he sent a second letter to the Vatican Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura with further information about the abuse allegations. This priest explained, “The Signatura is like the FBI of the Vatican. I was confident that they would ‘vet’ the information I reported. It was the kind of information they had to ‘vet.’ After this kind of information is received, a report is sent to the Apostolic Delegate in Washington, D.C. This office in turn sends a report to the diocesan bishop with the information. In this case, the report would have been sent to Bishop Schulte.”
In other words, our source alleges that Bishop Schulte too would have known about McCallister’s alleged abuse of a minor.
He continued, “Well, Schulte wasn’t going to launch any kind of investigation into McCallister, the person who had just served as Diocesan Administrator, and was now advising Schulte on the running of the diocese. Schulte also had ambitions for being transferred in due course to a more prestigious position, and wasn’t going to allow any hint of scandal to be made public. He couldn’t take the risk of being left in West Virginia for the rest of his career.” (In 1989, four years after coming to the DWC, Schulte was appointed Archbishop of New Orleans).
The retired priest added that he did not tell anyone in the DWC about his letter to the Signatura, because if he did, McCallister would learn of his activities and attempt to circumvent them. “My only purpose in writing was to stop McCallister from being considered as bishop. It was the sole way to get the process of him becoming a bishop stopped.”
Although he was not elevated to the position of bishop, any allegations of abusive behavior which may have been reported to church officials did not prevent McCallister from continuing a role as Vice Chancellor in Wheeling under Schulte’s successor, Bishop Bernard Schmitt. McCallister remained in that position until 1994, followed by a period of residency at Paul VI Pastoral Center in Wheeling until 1998. Schmitt later permitted McCallister to assist at Immaculate Conception parish in Clarksburg, an unofficial assignment which continued when Bishop Michael Bransfield was installed in 2005. (It is notable McCallister’s assignment history provided on the DWC’s most recent list of Credibly Accused Clergy seems to be incomplete precisely during the period of John Doe’s alleged abuse. No assignments for McCallister appear beyond 1998, save for one month at Immaculate Conception in October 2003.)
Minor, representing the DWC, did not reply to attempted follow-up questions regarding this incomplete assignment history or the claim that McCallister had been reported to church authorities prior to 2007.
The DWC is currently named as co-defendant in at least two civil lawsuits related to alleged sexual abuse. In the first, the WV Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is suing the DWC and former bishop Michael Bransfield for decades of alleged cover-ups related to abuse. In the second, a former seminarian and secretary for Bransfield is suing the former bishop, the DWC, the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference, and 20 John Does for alleged sexual assault by Bransfield.
The DWC also refused to comment publicly upon the contents of an internal church investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct and financial impropriety by Bransfield until the Washington Post exposed the details of the report, including what seems to be DWC officials’ inaction regarding Bransfield’s behavior.
In early May, Pope Francis made it mandatory for clergy to report cases of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups to the Church, saying, “The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful.” With regard to the questions raised by the case of Charles McCallister or by more recent allegations in the state of West Virginia, it remains to be seen how closely the DWC is willing to adhere to the pope’s mandate.
If you have been sexually abused by a priest — or any person — contact law enforcement officials immediately.
If you have been sexually assaulted or abused by a priest in the diocese, contact the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) or SNAP West Virginia.
© Catholic Committee of Appalachia & Michael M. Barrick, 2019. Barrick is owner of the Appalachian Chronicle. Iafrate is the Co-Coordinator for the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. The authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.