The West Virginia attorney general filed a lawsuit against a retired top bishop and the state’s only Roman Catholic diocese on Tuesday, saying that they “knowingly employed pedophiles.”
The civil suit also alleges that the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, who was recently restricted from ministry, “failed to conduct adequate background checks” for employees of Catholic camps and schools, and that they did not disclose “the inherent danger to parents who purchased its services for their children.”
In an unusual approach to pursuing the Catholic Church over sexual abuse and misconduct, the lawsuit claims that the diocese and the bishop violated the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act. Criminal prosecutions of individual abuse cases have often been hampered by statutes of limitation, but the West Virginia lawsuit is a civil action, and is directed at the church’s handling of the problem.
Pope Francis accepted Bishop Bransfield’s resignation in September amid allegations that the bishop had sexually harassed adults. American church officials were instructed by the pope to investigate the allegations.
Earlier this month, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who has been overseeing the church in West Virginia since Bishop Bransfield’s resignation, announced that the preliminary investigation had been completed. He said that Bishop Bransfield would be restricted from ministry in West Virginia and the archdiocese of Baltimore, pending a final judgment by the Vatican.
The West Virginia attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, began an investigation in September, after an explosive grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the church in neighboring Pennsylvania. The lawsuit filed on Tuesday alleges that, in multiple instances over several decades, the diocese put credibly accused priests back into ministry with children, or failed to conduct proper background checks on school employees. In one case, Father Patrick Condron, who was employed at a diocesan school in the 1980s and later admitted to sexual misconduct against a student, was returned to ministry at an elementary school from 1998 to 2001, without parents of children at the school being informed of his history.
Mr. Morrisey said he was seeking a permanent court order to block the Catholic church from continuing such conduct, and that one goal of the lawsuit was to “dramatically increase transparency” within the church.
“We believe that every parent who paid tuition for a service that falls under consumer protection laws deserves to know the schools their children are attending are safe,” Mr. Morrisey said in a phone interview. “The church itself advertised that these children would be in a safe environment.”
In West Virginia, the office of the state attorney general does not have the authority to prosecute criminal cases, only civil ones. Mr. Morrisey did not rule out the possibility of additional criminal action by the state; he said that any evidence of criminal wrongdoing would be passed on to appropriate law enforcement officials.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston said a statement would be issued about the lawsuit. The findings of the church-led investigation into Bishop Bransfield, who led the diocese from 2005 to 2018, have not yet been made public.
The legal approach of going after the church under consumer protection law was “unique,” said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a prominent canon lawyer in Pennsylvania, adding that it was the first time he had seen such a strategy.
Religion and religious education are not usually commodities subject to the policing powers of an attorney general, he said, adding that the more usual legal avenue was to accuse bishops of negligence.
“I wonder if there aren’t some First Amendment issues there,” Mr. Cafardi said about the consumer-protection lawsuit in a phone interview. “If the attorney general could convince the courts that this was more than a religious activity, he may have a case.”
There is some ambiguity around whether a priest is definitively an employee of the church. Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York, who was accused of moving around pedophile priests, once argued that the diocese was not liable for their behavior because they were independent contractors. “Every priest is self-employed,” he testified in 1997.
Mr. Morrisey said his case does not conflict with the First Amendment. “We are not seeking to engage in doctrinal questions of the church,” he said. “No one is immune from the law, and the church is not immune from consumer protection laws.”
At least 15 other state attorneys general have started investigations into the Catholic church since last summer. Mr. Morrisey said he had been in touch with some of them, but declined to say whether other states were considering a similar legal strategy.
The West Virginia investigation came in the wake of the groundbreaking Pennsylvania grand jury investigation last summer, which found that priests had abused more than 1,000 children over a period of decades and that bishops had largely hidden the priests’ crimes from the public. The lawsuit filed on Tuesday says that at least one of those priests was also employed for a time in the West Virginia diocese.