PARKERSBURG — West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is asking a circuit judge to allow his office to proceed with a case against the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.
Morrisey's office maintains the Diocese violated state law by knowingly employing pedophiles and failing to conduct adequate background checks for those working at its schools and camps Morrisey filed a response in the case Sept. 4 saying the Diocese’s recent motion to dismiss mischaracterized the state’s intent and distorted state law.
“The Diocese’s motion to dismiss is yet another attempt to duck our calls for transparency,” Morrisey said in a press release. “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.”
Wednesday’s filing contends the state's lawsuit does not seek to dictate how the Diocese can hire, teach and operate. Instead, the response says it seeks to enforce state law that requires honesty in advertising when the Diocese markets its fee-based schools and camps.
Morrisey's office says these facts include allegations that the Diocese hid its knowing employment of abusive priests and its failure to conduct the comprehensive background checks it promised.
The AG's office contends attempts to dismiss the state’s lawsuit rely upon a flawed reading of the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act. The state argues a consumer transaction occurs every time a parent or other person pays a fee for the Diocese’s education and recreation services, and that enforcing the law’s requirement for honest communications does not intrude into any constitutionally protected area.
The state’s response also takes issue with factual disputes set forth by the Diocese. While it contends such differences are irrelevant at this stage in the case, it argues many allegations contained in the lawsuit were based upon documents the Diocese provided to the state, describing conduct hidden from public view for 44 years after the state Consumer Credit and Protection Act became law.
The Diocese did not issue its list of credibly accused priests until after issuance of the Attorney General’s first investigative subpoena in fall 2018. The lawsuit that followed has been instrumental in educating the public on the issue, and the state’s response argues there is much more to reveal that can only be accomplished by advancing the state’s case.
The civil complaint alleges the Diocese’s conduct lacked transparency and was in contrast to its advertised mission of providing a safe learning environment.
Morrisey's office, which initiated the investigation in the fall of 2018, brought the action against the Diocese and former Bishop Michael J. 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.
Morrisey filed suit against the Diocese and Bransfield in March alleging the Diocese knowingly employed pedophiles and failed to conduct adequate background checks for those working at the Diocese’s schools and camps, all without disclosing the inherent danger to parents who purchased its services for their children. The complaint was amended in May to include several more counts and new evidence.
The updated complaint, filed May 21 in Wood Circuit Court, 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.
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.
In April, 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.
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."
Wood Circuit Judge John D. Beane is handling the case.
Wood Circuit Court case number 19-C-69