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PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (ChurchMilitant.com) - West Virginia's attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, is battling attempts by the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston to dismiss the state's lawsuit alleging sex abuse cover-up.
Morrisey filed a legal response in Wood County Circuit Court on Wednesday to the diocese's claim made in July that it is exempt from state oversite even when it hires known pedophiles or fails to conduct adequate background checks on dangerous employees. The diocese holds that its autonomy is rooted in the First Amendment that guarantees the free exercise of religion.
In the filing on Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Douglas Davis said the state isn't trying to violate the religious beliefs and practices of the diocese. It is trying, he said, to force the diocese to be transparent about sex abusers it employs to serve customers in the state.
"The diocese of Wheeling-Charleston can hire whomever it chooses, teach as the tenets of its faith in its schools, and operate camps however it deems best," Davis wrote. "What it cannot do — and the only thing this lawsuit seeks to end — is refuse to deal honestly and fairly when it sells education and recreation services to the general public and competes with public and private schools and camps."
The state filed its lawsuit against the diocese in March alleging that it knowingly employed pedophiles and failed to conduct background checks on its employees. The diocese had been led for 13 years by the now-disgraced Bp. Michael J. Bransfield who resigned in September 2018.
The state's civil action suit is unusual in that it accuses the diocese of violating West Virginia's consumer protection laws. The suit accuses the diocese of falsely presenting the Catholic schools as safe for children while choosing "to cover-up and conceal arguably criminal behavior of child sexual abuse."
In Wednesday's filing, Davis noted that all of the state's allegations against the diocese come from diocesans records obtained by the state.
"These allegations are based on documents that the diocese itself provided to the state and describe conduct that the diocese purposely concealed from the public for 44 years," said Davis. "This conduct includes concealing abusive instructors in its schools and camps and failed to conduct comprehensive background checks it promised for all employees and volunteers to help ensure that the pattern of abuse would end."
The legal issue, said Davis, is centered on the diocese not informing the public of dangerous employees when marketing its educational services to the public.
"Like every other private school or camp in West Virginia," he said, "the diocese may not engage in unfair and deceptive conduct like this to sell its education and recreation services."
The state launched its investigation of the diocese in September 2018 following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report that found more than 300 priests were guilty of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children in Pennsylvania.
West Virginia's lawsuit filed in March charged that the diocese of 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."
"The diocese's motion to dismiss is yet another attempt to duck our calls for transparency," commented Morrisey. "Our response proves the strength of our case and why it should be decided in court. The decades-long pattern of cover-up and abuse must end and public trust must be restored."