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West Virginia accuses Catholic diocese and former bishops of sex abuse cover-up in unusual consumer protection lawsuit

Michael Bransfield, former West Virginia bishop, in 2005. (Dale Sparks/AP)

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey sued the Catholic diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and its former bishop Michael J. Bransfield on Tuesday, charging that they “knowingly employed pedophiles and failed to conduct adequate background checks” for people working in Catholic schools and camps, a news release from Morrisey’s office says.

The lawsuit, the latest dramatic civil action against the American church in the past year, alleges violations of the state’s consumer protection laws. It accuses the diocese of advertising safe environments for children while at the same time, the complaint says, choosing “to cover up and conceal arguably criminal behavior of child sexual abuse.”

Some child abuse experts said the move was precedent-setting, both in terms of targeting an entire diocese rather than individual priests, and by using consumer law to launch a civil lawsuit which could unlock the church’s files through legal discovery. The West Virginia attorney general used the consumer fraud strategy because, as with attorneys general in other states, he is not empowered to launch a criminal grand jury investigation.

“This is the most that we’ve seen so far in terms of prosecution, in terms of someone in the higher levels of the hierarchy. This is the first time we’ve seen a comprehensive claim against a whole diocese and a bishop," said Marci Hamilton, a law scholar and head of Child USA, a nonprofit organization focused on child abuse.

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Charles E. Zech, of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University, called the lawsuit “the logical next step" after last summer’s release of an explosive grand jury report in Pennsylvania describing abuse and cover-ups across the state in past decades.

“The consumer fraud is just to get the foot in the door," Zech said. "And then you can open up all kinds of avenues, once you’ve established that. The diocese is unwilling to provide it, this is the only way to do it.”

The Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, which covers the entire state, issued a statement Tuesday which said it “strongly and unconditionally rejects the Complaint’s assertion that the Diocese is not wholly committed to the protection of children.” The statement said the lawsuit was based in part on information provided by the church both publicly and to the attorney general in recent months, that some allegations “occurred more than 50 years ago and some are not accurately described.”

Bransfield, the only bishop named as a defendant in the suit, could not be reached for comment.

Although Catholic officials and leaders have conceded that the Church failed in the past, some consider the recent criticism unfair for an institution that has invested many millions in child protection efforts. One church official who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to appear to be defending past behavior, called the new suit a “publicity stunt,” noting that policies have changed significantly in recent decades.

Civil authorities in the past year have initiated several actions against the Catholic Church on sex abuse that are new in the United States, where the church is the largest single faith group and, survivor advocates say, has been shielded for many years by insufficiently critical law enforcement, prosecutors and the news media. Last fall, following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Justice Department opened its own investigation of alleged sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy members across the state.

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West Virginia launched its investigation last fall after Pennsylvania’s report disclosed that some of the priests there also had worked in West Virginia, the new lawsuit states, and filed subpoenas to the diocese which did not result in full disclosure. Morrisey said in an interview that he has been communicating with people working on the sex abuse issue in other states since priests have crossed state lines, and he decided it was best to file the lawsuit under consumer protection laws. Pennsylvania officials said 16 attorneys general have publicly revealed investigations of the Catholic church since the Pennsylvania grand jury report was issued.

"If we didn’t engage in this action, there would be no statewide review that would occur," he said. "The state doesn’t have the structure to do what Pennsylvania did because it doesn’t have the criminal jurisdiction."

The lawsuit is seeking a permanent court order “blocking the diocese from continuation of any such conduct,” as well as possible restitution and civil penalties. Morrisey said he is hopeful that more people will come forward and that the lawsuit could be amended to include more examples.

“I’m pleased to see Attorney General Morrisey taking such an innovative approach to protecting children in West Virginia,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said.

Advocates for the abused have cheered what they consider a late entry of top civil officials, as other countries — including Australia, Canada and Germany — have run nationwide investigations of clergy sex abuse and coverups. Many Catholic leaders have been apologetic and said they were cooperating with needed investigations; others have painted the push as anti-Catholic and unfairly targeting one community for the societal problem of child sexual abuse.

The West Virginia news comes a week after Baltimore Archbishop William Lori — whom the pope appointed last fall to investigate allegations including that Bransfield had sexually harassed adults — barred Bransfield from any priestly duties. Lori said on March 11 that his preliminary investigation, which involved five lay experts, was being forwarded to the Vatican for a final judgment.

That inquiry was looking into allegations of sexual harassment of adults and financial improprieties.

Morrisey said the U.S. church’s investigation into Bransfield was sent to the Vatican without the state being allowed to review any files. By filing this lawsuit, he said, he wants the church to become more transparent.

"There’s still a culture of secrecy," he said. "The church needs to come clean."

Morrisey also wants the diocese to have abuse allegations reviewed by third parties, not just a diocese lawyer. And, he said, he wants background checks done by independent services.

“We have reason to believe the systems in place are still inadequate,” he said.

The two counts of the lawsuit are filed under West Virginia’s consumer protection law. The first count alleges the church failed to deliver the advertised service of “providing a safe learning environment” and the second count claims the church failed to “warn of dangerous services,” by employing priests the diocese knew had been credibly accused of abuse “and intentionally failed to warn the purchasers of educational and recreational services.” The church claims to have the eighth largest school system in West Virginia by number of schools, with six high schools and 19 elementary schools.

The alleged pattern of failures by the diocese dates to as early as 1965, the lawsuit states, when the church hired a priest from Philadelphia it knew had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a child. That priest, Victor Frobas, “was moved frequently” due to allegations of sexually abusing children, and in 1972 became director of Camp Tygart, now known as Camp Bosco, the lawsuit states, before he was removed and sent to a home in Massachusetts for treatment of pedophilia. But he returned to West Virginia in 1976 and served as the chaplain at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, then took another leave after more allegations of abuse. He wound up in St. Louis, where he was convicted in 1987 of inappropriate conduct with minors and sentenced to five years in prison, the lawsuit states. Frobas died in 1993.

In another case, the complaint alleges that the diocese hired a lay teacher to work at a high school in Weirton, W. Va., in 2011 but didn’t do a background check on him. Two years later, the diocese found that the man, Ronald Cooper, was a convicted rapist in Washington state. He was fired, but the diocese didn’t disclose that it had “employed a person convicted of sexual abuse of a child,” the lawsuit states.

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“Another priest admitted on his employment application to having been accused of child sexual abuse decades earlier, yet the civil complaint alleges the diocese passed on the opportunity to thoroughly vet the priest and adequately check his background. Instead, the diocese and two bishops employed the priest for approximately four years at a parish that operates an elementary school,” the attorney general’s news release says but doesn’t specify when.

Judy Block Jones, Midwest regional leader for the advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said West Virginia fosters a tight-knight atmosphere where victims seem more afraid to come out than in other states where she spends her time.

“It’s hard to get outside law enforcement involved in anything with the Catholic sex abuse crisis,” she said. “Now they’re starting to listen.”