In March 2008, Cardinal Justin F. Rigali handed Bishop Michael J. Bransfield welcome news.

After a four-month inquiry, Rigali, then head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, declared unfounded a claim that Bransfield had molested a Lansdale Catholic High School student in the 1970s.

The outcome wasn't unusual - other priests had been cleared of decades-old allegations - but the process was.

In a break from practice, the accusation against Bransfield bypassed the archdiocese's civilian review board, according to a source briefed on the case but not authorized to publicly discuss it. The board was formed to conduct independent examinations of abuse claims and assesses priests' suitablility for ministry.

Instead, Rigali acted after reviewing the reports of an investigator who interviewed Bransfield, his accuser and others.

And though the archdiocese routinely publicly identifies and suspends priests as it reviews allegations against them, four years passed before the complaint against Bransfield came to light, and then only in passing at the landmark clergy-sex abuse trial. Still, it proved enough to rekindle a long-dormant criminal inquiry and spark new questions about Bransfield, a Philadelphia native who spent his early years as a priest here and who now serves as West Virginia's top prelate.

The bishop has said that he never abused anyone and that he was vindicated after a "full investigation" into the accusation.

Representatives for the archdiocese and Rigali declined last week to discuss Bransfield, the allegations against him, or their findings.

The church's handling of the complaint, the decision by Montgomery County prosecutors to reopen a review, and the not-so-casual dropping of Bransfield's name at the widely watched trial all flow from the same facts:

At 68, Bransfield, head of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, has become a leader in the national bishops' conference. And he was also once friends with a notorious priest, Stanley Gana, at the same time Gana was allegedly serially raping and molesting Philadelphia boys.

In interviews last week, the two Gana accusers whose trial testimony unleashed the scrutiny on the bishop described for the first time their contact with Bransfield in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Both men said they had no proof or knowledge that Bransfield abused anyone. Instead, they said they were disturbed by his association with Gana and presumed he knew Gana was assaulting them.

The spotlight has also stirred Bransfield's defenders. In interviews, two of his former Lansdale Catholic students challenged what they said had been unfair innuendo and attacks on a bishop who had never been publicly accused of wrongdoing.

The men said they spent countless hours with Bransfield as teens - including taking him on a weekend trip to a cabin near Gana's farm in northeastern Pennsylvania - and never heard or saw him act inappropriately.

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said Thursday it was "unlikely" her office would charge Bransfield over the Lansdale Catholic allegations. The claims - that the priest groped or fondled a high school student on more than one occasion - appear to fall beyond the criminal statute of limitations, Ferman said.

An identical inquiry by county prosecutors stalled four years ago because of the same concerns, and because the accuser was reluctant to cooperate, according to Ferman. She reopened the case last month because archdiocesan officials referred the complaint back to her when Bransfield's name emerged at the trial.

Ferman said she planned to conduct a thorough investigation even if charges aren't viable.

"I think we have the moral obligation to report our conclusion to the archdiocese," she said, "to ensure that they have the information needed to protect children."

Gana, 69, a defrocked priest who has been repeatedly cited by prosecutors as a predator, has never been charged with a crime or addressed the accusations. His last known address was in Florida, and he has no public phone listing.

Bransfield, a Roxborough native, has declined interview requests. Through his spokesman and lawyers, the bishop has denied any wrongdoing.

To some, he and Gana seemed a mismatched pair of friends. Gana was close to 300 pounds, with a rough-around-the-edges personality. Bransfield was taller, trimmer, and cultivated a more refined presence.

But they shared a bond as priests, graduating a year apart from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

Over the years, Bransfield let Gana use his beach house in Brigantine, N.J., and knew Gana owned a farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. Philadelphia prosecutors say Gana sexually assaulted boys at both places.

A 1974 church memo suggests Gana felt comfortable enough to confide in Bransfield about a private relationship. Introduced at the clergy sex-abuse trial this spring, the memo shows Bransfield called Msgr. Francis J. Statkus, then the chancellor for the archdiocese, after hearing that Gana was seeking a transfer, possibly to a parish in Feasterville, Bucks County.

Bransfield "stated in a confidential way that we should not assign [Gana] there because of an attachment that apparently exists in that area," Statkus wrote in the memo. He did not elaborate.

"Father Bransfield noted that he would not want this information . . . to be revealed to Father Gana," the memo said.

After several years teaching at Lansdale Catholic, Bransfield moved to Washington in 1980 for a series of prominent assignments at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He was elevated to bishop in 2005.

His ties to Gana surfaced during the recent trial over clergy sex abuse in Philadelphia. Two men testified that Gana had sexually assaulted them hundreds of times when they were adolescents and he was assigned to parishes in Northeast Philadelphia. They also suggested that Bransfield knew Gana was abusing minors, or may have molested teens himself.

Each man testified under their actual names in court. The Inquirer does not identify alleged victims of sex abuse without their permission. Of them, one agreed to release his name.

The other, identified only as "Tim" in a 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report, said he recalled speaking to Bransfield on the phone at least five times in the early 1980s, when he was a student at Archbishop Ryan High School and Gana served at Our Lady of Calvary.

Tim had a job in the parish rectory and spent evenings in Gana's bedroom, where he said the priest abused him. Sometimes Gana would call or get a call from Bransfield in Washington and pass him the phone, he said. "It was very casual: He would say, 'Here, Father Bransfield wants to talk to you, or say hello to you,' " Tim said.

"I remember thinking it's very odd that I would be talking to this priest I don't know."

In a conversation Tim recounted at trial, Bransfield allegedly told him, "I'm going to have Stanley put you on the train to come down and see me sometime."

The comment stuck with Tim. "That tells me he knew something was going on," he told The Inquirer. "Why would he put me on the phone and say that?"

Years later, Tim became a Catholic priest, although he ultimately left the priesthood. He questioned why Bransfield wouldn't have been concerned that Gana routinely had an adolescent boy at his side in the living quarters.

"If a priest friend of mine put a high school kid on the phone on a given night from the rectory, I would have a private conversation [with him] and say, 'What is he doing there?' " he said.

The second witness, Mark Berkery, told investigators Gana abused and raped him hundreds of times during and after high school.

In the interview, Berkery said he was present several times when Bransfield visited Gana at Ascension Church in the late 1970s.

"Any time Bransfield was in Philadelphia, he came and visited," Berkery said. "Gana actually said he was one of his good friends."

According to Berkery, Gana abused him multiple times at Bransfield's house in Brigantine. (Bransfield has acknowledged letting Gana use his house but said he was never there with him.)

At the trial, Berkery told jurors he was working outside at Gana's farm near the New York border one day when Bransfield drove up with a car full of teen boys. Gana chatted briefly with Bransfield before the priest drove away, Berkery said.

Berkery said he asked Gana about the others in the car. He testified that Gana called them Bransfield's "fair-haired boys." Berkery said he asked Gana what he meant and the priest replied, "Well, I know he's having sex with the kid in the front seat."

Berkery said he couldn't recall the date of the incident, but placed it during his first two summers of high school in 1979 and 1980.

Ronald Rock, a 1978 Lansdale Catholic graduate, remembers a similar encounter, but recalls it differently.

Rock said his parents owned a cabin in Friendsville, Pa., not far from the New York border, and that he occasionally took high school friends there. One weekend, he said, the group persuaded Bransfield, their history teacher, to go along.

Bransfield was a young, popular priest who coached the golf team and supervised the ski club.

"He was entertaining, he was challenging," said Rock, now a Chestnut Hill resident. "The kids gravitated toward him."

Bransfield wasn't the outdoors type and only reluctantly agreed to go with them, Rock said. When they got to the cabin, Bransfield mentioned that one of his classmates might live nearby.

"Let's go see if we can find my friend's place," Bransfield said, according to Rock.

Rock said he was in the passenger seat next to Bransfield when they arrived at Gana's farm, he said. He noticed boys there as well. The boys called Gana "Pad," short for Padre, Rock said.

Gana invited his guests for a pasta dinner, Rock said. Rock said he and his friends later returned with Bransfield to their cabin and that the weekend was uneventful.

"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."

Timothy Love, another Lansdale Catholic alum, also recalled spending a weekend with Bransfield at Rock's cabin and agreed the priest acted appropriately.

Rock said that was the only weekend Bransfield joined him and his buddies in Friendsville. He and Bransfield have remained friends over the years, Rock said. Bransfield presided at his marriage and baptism of his children.

"He's been a great family friend," he said.