West Virginia Record

Monday, September 16, 2019

AG amends suit against Diocese to include more counts, more evidence

State AG

By Chris Dickerson | May 22, 2019


PARKERSBURG – West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has amended his complaint against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

The updated complaint, filed May 21, includes a new count of unfair competition and new evidence of the church's failure to conduct background checks and report abuse. The amended complaint also includes allegations the Diocese chose not to publicly disclose a report of child sexual abuse by a teacher in 2006 and permitted several individuals to work or volunteer at Catholic schools without adequate background checks.

“How can anyone reasonably argue that these allegations are old when the Church refused to release its list of credibly accused priests until after the issuance of our subpoena in the fall of 2018?” Morrisey said. “The Church needs to come clean and end the secrecy.”


Morrisey

Morrisey says other priests credibly accused of sexual abuse also were allowed to work in the Diocese without adequate background checks. He says the Diocese only released its list of credibly accused priests after the state issued its subpoena.

“The new information contained within our amended complaint further illustrates how the actions of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its policies of cover-up have harmed children,” Morrisey said. “Parents who pay and entrust the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its schools to educate and care for their children deserve full transparency.”

The count of unfair competition in the amended complaint alleges the Diocese omitted the fact that it knowingly employed priests who had admitted to or been accused of sexually abusing children in advertising materials for prospective students. It says those materials also didn’t mention the Diocese didn’t do background checks on its employees.

It also claims the Diocese relief on former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield’s policy of nondisclosure when it failed to publicly report allegations of a Catholic school teacher abusing a teenage student in Kanawha County. An internal investigation in 2006 alleged the teacher gained the student’s trust with alcohol and prescription drugs, before multiple instances of sexual abuse on and off school property.

Last month, the Diocese filed a motion to dismiss the AG’s lawsuit. Attorneys for the Diocese and Bransfield say the AG’s office failed to show a violation of the consumer credit and protection act, which was in the original complaint filed in March.

A statement from the Diocese after the suit was filed dismissed the allegations, saying the suit does not “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.”

Morrisey said the Diocese’s motion to dismiss lacks merit.

The AG's office originally brought the action against the Diocese and Bransfield for violations of the state’s consumer protection laws, in addition to seeking a permanent court order blocking the Diocese from the continuation of any such conduct. It initiated the investigation in September.

The original complaint claims the Diocese and its bishops, including Bransfield, chose to cover up and conceal probable criminal behavior of child sexual abuse. It outlines examples of how the Diocese knowingly employed admitted sexual abusers, priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse and hired others without adequate background checks.

The complaint alleges that after Father Patrick Condron admitted that he sexually abused a student at St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary High School in Vienna, the Diocese allegedly sent Condron for treatment and later reassigned him to Wheeling Catholic Elementary School, from 1998 to 2001, without notifying parents it was employing a pedophile at the elementary school.

The complaint also claims the Diocese, despite its knowledge of a credible sex abuse accusation against Victor Forbas in Philadelphia, ordained Forbas as a priest in West Virginia and years later named him director at Camp Tygart, now known as Camp Bosco, in Huttonsville. Accusations there led to treatment, but later employment as chaplain at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, after which he received more treatment and eventually prison time for pleading guilty to sexually abusing children in Missouri. He died in 1993.

The amended complaint also includes new allegations against Victor Frobas during an assignment at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Weirton from 1980 to 1982. There the now-deceased priest pulled elementary school children out of classes and is accused of using video games to gain the trust of those who were then abused in an on-site residence.

Prior to his Weirton assignment, Frobas had been accused of incidents at Camp Tygart, now known as Camp Bosco, in Huttonsville, Wheeling Central Catholic High School and Philadelphia.

The amended complaint cites incidents in Kanawha and Cabell County in adding to allegations that the Diocese did not conduct adequate background checks.

The original lawsuit says another priest admitted on his employment application to having been accused of child sexual abuse decades earlier, yet it 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 about four years at a parish that operates an elementary school.

The complaint also accuses the Diocese of failing to conduct a background check in the hiring of Ronald Cooper, who it employed as a teacher at Madonna High School in Weirton for more than two years without detecting his convictions for first-degree robbery and third-degree statutory rape in Washington. The Diocese terminated Cooper’s employment in December 2013, yet allegedly failed to disclose to parents of children attending Madonna that it had employed a person convicted of child sexual abuse, according to the complaint.

On March 22, a former altar server and secretary to Bransfield filed a lawsuit claiming the bishop sexually molested him. The plaintiff, only identified as J.E., filed his complaint in Ohio Circuit Court against Bransfield, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and up to 20 unidentified defendants.

Bransfield was bishop of the Diocese from 2005 to 2018. As is custom, he resigned when he turned 75. Pope Francis has asked for an investigation into Bransfield's alleged sexual harassment of adults. That report was released March 11. It stated that there was no evidence of criminal activity by Bransfield, and it has been sent to the Vatican for review. But, Bransfield has been told not to "exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston."

In March, the Diocese announced it had completed an investigative report into allegations related to Bransfield. Morrisey is urging the church to release that report and fully cooperate with his office to uncover any violations of law in West Virginia.

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