West Virginia’s attorney general filed a consumer protection lawsuit Tuesday morning against the state’s Catholic diocese – the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston – and former Bishop Michael Bransfield, alleging that Catholic leaders employed predatory priests while falsely advertising a safe environment at Catholic schools and camps.
The diocese, meanwhile, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon accusing Patrick Morrisey of making errors in his lawsuit and defending itself as “wholly committed to the protection of children.”
Morrisey’s office isn’t responsible for criminal prosecutions.
That task would fall to county prosecutors.
Instead, Morrisey is arguing the diocese violated the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act, although he said he has been in touch with some prosecutors.
West Virginia’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act states, “Unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are hereby declared unlawful.”
Morrisey’s lawsuit, filed in Wood County circuit court, argues that the diocese “sells and supplies educational services” and that it “advertised services not delivered” and accuses it of “failure to warn of dangerous services.”
“Now some may ask why are we pursuing a consumer protection action in this matter, but the answer is very straightforward,” Morrisey said during a press conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday. “Every parent who pays a tuition for a service falling under our consumer protection laws deserves to know that their schools that their children are attending are safe.
“Now, this is obviously not a common action for our office to file, but it is a critical one, as the public relies upon the state attorney general to enforce a variety of laws, especially as they may impact the well-being of children, our most precious resource.”
Pennsylvania grand jury report
In August 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury issued a report identifying hundreds of predatory priests, including one or more who worked in West Virginia, according to the lawsuit.
Morrisey said his office began its investigation in September 2018 into whether Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children had worked in West Virginia.
Bransfield retired that same month. The pope of the Catholic Church accepted the retirement letter and began an investigation into allegations that Bransfield had sexually abused adults while he was bishop.
In 2014, David Clohessy, director of the St. Louis chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), had called on Bransfield to warn parishioners about a potentially predatory priest in West Virginia. Bransfield remained silent.
Tuesday, Clohessy said Morrisey’s lawsuit was welcome because “real change won’t come from within” the Catholic Church. He wasn’t aware of any similar lawsuits filed under consumer protection laws elsewhere in the United States.
“We believe this is a long-overdue positive step,” he said.
“For far too long, many in law enforcement have been reluctant to pursue clergy sex crimes and cover-ups. This is the kind of move that will hopefully deter cover-ups in the future in all kinds of institutions that deal with children.”
During the press conference Tuesday, Morrisey also called on the Archdiocese of Baltimore to release a report on its investigation into allegations against Bransfield.
The lawsuit accuses three bishops and the diocese of knowingly employing admitted sexual abusers, hiring priests without adequate background checks, hiring priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of children and hiring lay employees without adequate background checks. It lists several cases that Morrisey called examples of a pattern of behavior.
The allegations include:
• That Father Patrick Condron, who was employed by the diocese at St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary High School in Vienna, West Virginia, from 1980-1987, admitted to kissing and attempting sexual intercourse with a student, who disclosed the abuse in 1995. The lawsuit accuses the diocese of sending Condron to treatment for substance abuse and psychotherapy and later employing him at Wheeling Catholic Elementary School from 1998-2001.
• That Bishop Bernard Schmitt hired a priest who admitted he had been accused of sexual abuse on a 2002 application for employment at “a parish that operates an elementary school.” The priest, who was apparently from another religious order, according to the lawsuit, agreed to leave the assignment in early 2007.
• That Bishop Joseph Hodges knew a priest, Victor Frobas, had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a child in 1962, was asked to leave the Philadelphia seminary system because of it, yet was employed in West Virginia from 1965 to 1983 and “moved frequently due to suspicions of and sometimes allegations of sexual abuse of children.” He became the diocesan director of Scouting in 1971 and was accused of sexually abusing children at Camp Tygart, now Camp Bosco, according to the lawsuit. He was also accused of abuse while the chaplain of Wheeling Central Catholic High School in 1977.
• That the diocese failed to conduct a background check before hiring Ronald Cooper, who had been convicted of third degree statutory rape in the state of Washington in 1985, to serve as a non-religious teacher at Madonna High School in Weirton. He worked there from April 2011 to December 2013, according to the lawsuit.
List informed lawsuit
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston had released a list of priests deemed “credibly accused” of sexual abuse, from 1950 to 2018, in November 2018.
The diocese said, in a statement Tuesday, that Morrisey used the list they released to inform his lawsuit.
“The diocese learned from media sources today that the attorney general of the state of West Virginia, filed a civil lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Wood County, West Virginia, alleging that the diocese has violated the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act,” the statement said.
“The complaint is based in part on information included in the diocese’s November 2018 public disclosure of clergy credibly accused of child sexual abuse and on other information provided by the diocese to the attorney general over the past five months.
The November disclosure by the diocese contains details concerning both the dates of the alleged occurrences and the dates they were actually reported to the diocese, which in many cases were decades later. Further, 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 statement continued that 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 statement continued. “The program employs mandatory screening, background checks and training for all employees and volunteers who work with children.
“The diocese also does not believe that the allegations contained in the complaint fairly portray its overall contributions to the education of children in West Virginia nor fairly portray the efforts of its hundreds of employees and clergy who work every day to deliver quality education in West Virginia.”
Tim Bishop, a spokesman for the diocese, declined to elaborate on errors in the lawsuit Tuesday.
West Virginia’s consumer protection law has a four year statute of limitations for monetary damages. So instead, Morrisey is asking for non-monetary “equitable relief.”
“We’re seeking equitable relief, so number one we believe there needs to be a transparent process for how the church deals with credible allegations of sexual abuse,” he said. “Number two, we believe that there needs to be independent background checks to review very carefully people that are employed in the schools and the camps and at the church where there might be contact with children, and we believe that victims need to be made whole and we’re open-minded as to how we work through that.”
The lawsuit was apparently not filed at the request of or with the coordination of any victims willing to testify. Asked about victim involvement, Morrisey said, “We’ve been reaching out and making attempts to talk to victims but as you might imagine, a number of them would like to keep their identity concealed. We are aware of certain victims.”
“We are trying to respect the privacy of the victims. That’s paramount in this case,” he added.
He also urged victims to come forward.
Asked if any had agreed to testify, he would only say, “We will let the complaint speak for itself right now. There are no victim’s names that are listed in the complaint.”
His office does not employ counselors or victims advocates, who are trained to understand and work with people who’ve experienced trauma, and are sometimes employed at prosecutors’ offices and police stations.
Morrisey said he believes his office employs people who “have good experience and have the ability to handle those functions, but we’re always open-minded.”
“These are people that have been through a lot and so we’ve been looking at other aspects of how we might be able to continue to strengthen what we’re doing here,” he said.
Nancy Hoffman, state coordinator for the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services, said, in an email: “As West Virginia’s state sexual assault coalition of rape crisis centers, the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services supports all individuals victimized in any setting – from campuses to workplaces to religious institutions. We believe in accountability if someone is knowingly put in harm’s way.
“We also believe in due process through the criminal justice system. Most importantly, we encourage any sexual assault survivors triggered by the recent events to utilize the free and confidential support services available by calling 1-800-HOPE or by accessing our website at www.fris.org for additional information.”