CHARLESTON, W.Va. (ChurchMilitant.com) - In an unprecedented legal move, the state of West Virginia has filed suit against Catholic authorities over sex abuse cover-up.
On Tuesday, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced a civil action against the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and its disgraced former bishop, Michael J. Bransfield, for allegedly "deceiving consumers and claiming their schools were safe when they were employing credibly accused pedophiles."
Diocesan officials are accused of violating West Virginia consumer protection laws by marketing Catholic schools as safe for children even as they "chose to cover up and conceal arguably criminal behavior of child sexual abuse."
The announcement follows six months of investigation into whether "Catholic priests who were active or had been employed in West Virginia had been accused of sexually abusing children."
Morrisey launched the inquiry in September after the Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed that 301 priests — including one who had worked in Wheeling-Charleston — were responsible for abusing more than 1,000 children across the Keystone State.
The suit notes that "although the state has not fully completed its investigation" — which it blamed in part on "the lack of cooperation from the Diocese" — justice officials have learned that Wheeling-Charleston "has engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices by failing to disclose to consumers of its educational and recreational services that it employed priests and laity who have sexually abused children, including an admitted abuser who the Diocese nevertheless allowed to work in a Catholic elementary school."
According to the lawsuit, Wheeling-Charleston officials "knew of sexual abuse complaints against priests of the Diocese, but, did not disclose the conduct to criminal law authorities or to parents paying for educational or recreational services."
The complaint alleges, for example, that after confessing to homosexually abusing a student at St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary High School in Vienna, Fr. Patrick Condron was sent away for "evaluation and treatment" at two different facilities. After these stints away, without notifying parents, the diocese reassigned Fr. Condron to Wheeling Catholic Elementary School, where he worked from 1998 to 2001.
"Parents who pay and entrust the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its schools to educate and care for their children deserve full transparency," Morrisey said Tuesday. "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."
Observers are suggesting West Virginia's action could set a new precedent for combatting clerical sex abuse.
"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," said Marci Hamilton of CHILD USA. "This is the first time we've seen a comprehensive claim against a whole diocese and a bishop."
Tuesday's announcement is the latest in a barrage of bad news for Bp. Bransfield, who in September resigned in disgrace amid credible allegations he sexually harassed adult males.
After investigating the accusations, last week, Baltimore Abp. William Lori, apostolic administrator of Wheeling-Charleston, declared that Bransfield can no longer exercise his priestly function.
Bransfield is also being scrutinized over his close association with serial sexual predator Theodore McCarrick. The former West Virginia bishop was consecrated by McCarrick in 2005 and later served as president of the board of trustees for the Papal Foundation, a multi-million-dollar enterprise co-founded by McCarrick and wracked by scandal over its questionable grantmaking practices.