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Joseph H. Saunders
| Saunders and Walker

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has filed a consumer protection lawsuit against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and its disgraced former bishop, Michael Bransfield for knowingly employing pedophile priests and failing to protect children.

The lawsuit 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.”

The actions of the Attorney General are unprecedented in employing consumer laws to file a lawsuit against the Catholic Church.  It is also a novel strategic move because the lawsuit targets an entire diocese and its former bishop rather than individual priests.

In the civil suit, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey alleged that West Virginia’s bishops had endangered children for decades by failing to conduct adequate background checks or disclose abuse accusations against clerics and diocesan employees to parents in the parishes where those people were assigned.

In some cases cited in the filings, child molesters were allowed to stay in parish assignments that brought them in routine contact with minors for years after they had admitted their crimes.

The lawsuit will allow the AG to comb through church documents including the diocesan secret archives which every diocese is required to maintain as prescribed by church law.

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.”

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.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston encompasses the entire state of West Virginia.  Bishop Michael Bransfield was the bishop of the Diocese until sexual abuse allegations were brought against him last September.  Bransfield abruptly left his post in September after several priests came forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct. He had been previously accused of abusing a minor during his stint as a priest in Philadelphia, although neither prosecutors nor the archdiocese took action against him.

On March 11, 2019, Archbishop William Lori who is serving as Apostolic Administrator of the diocese until the Pope names Bransfield’s successor, announced that his own internal investigation has been completed and will be sent to the Vatican.  Lori wrote, ““Pending the assessment of the findings of the Holy See, as Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, I have directed that Bishop Bransfield is not authorized to exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.”

The ongoing Bransfield investigation coupled with the Attorney General’s lawsuit will certainly lead to an examination of the corruption and extent of child sexual abuse in West Virginia’s Catholic diocese.  More priests will be named as predators and more survivors will be vindicated that justice may finally be served.


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