West Virginia’s attorney general has sued the state’s diocese and former bishop, saying they “knowingly employed pedophiles” while failing to alert parents about potential risks at Catholic schools and other activities.
“Parents who pay and entrust the Wheeling-Charleston diocese and its schools to educate and care for their children deserve full transparency,” Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a statement.
“Our investigation reveals a serious need for the diocese to enact policy changes that will better protect children, just as this lawsuit demonstrates our resolve to pursue every avenue to effectuate change as no one is above the law.”
In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, Morrisey said he opened an investigation last fall after a grand jury in Pennsylvania found evidence that more than 300 Catholic priests had abused children in that state since the 1950s. Most of the accusations dated to before 2002, when many Catholic dioceses in the United States instituted new child safety protocols.
While more than 13 states are investigating the Catholic Church, Morrisey’s is believed to be one of the first to use consumer protection laws to hold Catholic officials accountable.
Terry McKiernan of the watchdog website BishopAccountability.org said he is not familiar with any recent civil investigations that sought to prosecute the Catholic Church in the United States through consumer protection laws.
“It’s a novel way of approaching what is, after all, a manifold societal problem,” said McKiernan, noting that non-Catholic children often attend church schools and programs. “I think it has plausibility and potential for success.”
Morrisey alleges that Bishop Michael Bransfield, who resigned in September amid allegations of sexual misconduct with adults, advertised a “safe environment” for children at Catholic programs and events such as summer camps.
“The Diocese, however, has a long history of not providing a safe learning environment for students in its schools and children attending its recreational camps,” the lawsuit states.
Morrissey is seeking a judicial order restraining the Diocese of Charleston-Wheeling from violating the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act, as well as a judgment and the imposition of monetary penalties against Bransfield and his former diocese.
In a statement, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston disputed Morrissey’s characterization of several incidents described in the lawsuit, saying that accusations were handled as soon as they were reported, at times many years after the original abuse.
“Some of the allegations of misconduct contained in the Attorney General’s Complaint occurred more than 50 years ago and some are not accurately described,” the diocese said.
“The Diocese will address the litigation in the appropriate forum. However, the Diocese strongly and unconditionally rejects the Complaint’s assertion that the Diocese is not wholly committed to the protection of children, as reflected in its rigorous Safe Environment Program, the foundation of which is a zero tolerance policy for any cleric, employee or volunteer credibly accused of abuse,” the diocese said.
Morrissey’s suit comes as the Catholic Church is facing clergy sexual abuse scandals on several continents. Last month, Pope Francis convened an unprecedented summit of Catholic leaders to address the crisis, but the meeting ended without concrete actions.
Archbishop of Baltimore William Lori announced on March 11 that he had completed a five-month investigation of “multiple allegations of sexual harassment of adults and financial improprieties” against Bransfield. The investigation was not made public. The Vatican is now expected to view the evidence.
“Pending the assessment of the findings of the Holy See,” said Lorid, “I have directed that Bishop Bransfield is not authorized to exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.”
Since the clergy sexual abuse scandal exploded in 2018, more than a third of American Catholics say they have questioned whether to remain in the church, according to a new Gallup poll.