West Virginia’s attorney general files suit against diocese and former bishop

Michael Bransfield, former West Virginia bishop, in 2005. (Dale Sparks/AP)  

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (CNS) -- West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has brought a civil suit against the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and its former leader, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, citing provisions of the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act.

The investigation, which began in September, led the attorney general to conclude that the diocese and Bishop Bransfield in past years violated the consumer law by failing "to disclose to consumers of its educational and recreational services that it employed priests and laity who have sexually abused children."

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The 14-page complaint defines "educational and recreational services" as the Catholic schools, summer camps and other entities in the statewide diocese.

“Parents who pay and entrust the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its schools to educate and care for their children deserve full transparency,” Mr. Morrisey said in a statement on March 19. “Our investigation reveals a serious need for the Diocese to enact policy changes that will better protect children, just as this lawsuit demonstrates our resolve to pursue every avenue to effectuate change as no one is above the law.”

Mr. Morrissey, a Republican elected as attorney general in 2013 who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2018, said he “still believes there are so many priests and deacons in the Catholic church—who are good men—who will support this effort so we can really seek meaningful changes in how the church handles sexual abuse.”

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A statement from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, the only diocese in West Virginia, said some of the “allegations of misconduct” laid out in the attorney general’s complaint are “not accurately described.”

The diocese also said it rejects claims that children are not safe, citing “mandatory screening, background checks and training for all employees and volunteers who work with children.”

“The Diocese will address the litigation in the appropriate forum. However, the Diocese strongly and unconditionally rejects the Complaint’s assertion that the Diocese is not wholly committed to the protection of children, as reflected in its rigorous Safe Environment Program, the foundation of which is a zero tolerance policy for any cleric, employee or volunteer credibly accused of abuse,” the statement says.

In one decades-old instance cited in the lawsuit, Rev. Victor Frobas, who was forced out of the Philadelphia seminary system because of a credible accusation of child sexual abuse, was made the director of a summer youth camp owned by the diocese. Father Frobas, who died in 1993, was then accused of sexually abusing children at that post and, following a leave of absence, was later assigned to work as a chaplain at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, the lawsuit said.

In 1987, Father Frobas was indicted for molesting two boys at a parish in suburban St. Louis.

He pleaded guilty, served about two years before his death, according to the lawsuit, which seeks a court order to stop the diocese from continuing its alleged practice of employing admitted abusers and trying to cover them up. Mr. Morrisey said his office is in the process of referring individual cases to local prosecutors.

"We believe an important first step for the diocese is to come clean with what it knows," Mr. Morrisey said.

In an interview with NPR on Wednesday morning, Mr. Morrisey hinted that criminal charges against church officials may be forthcoming, but he declined to elaborate.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore has been apostolic administrator of the diocese since Sept. 13, 2018. The Vatican named him to the post the same day it announced the retirement of Bishop Bransfield as head of the diocese.

The Vatican gave Archbishop Lori a mandate to investigate allegations of sexual harassment of adults and financial improprieties made against Bishop Bransfield.

On March 11, Archbishop Lori announced that a preliminary investigation into the allegations had been completed and the findings were being forwarded to the Vatican for final judgment. At the same time, the archbishop announced restrictions on the bishop's ministry.

A news release from the Archdiocese of Baltimore March 11 noted that the preliminary investigation took place over five months. Archbishop Lori conducted the investigation with the assistance of a team of five lay experts.

The investigative team examined multiple allegations of sexual harassment of adults and financial improprieties, according to the news release. It involved interviews with more than 40 individuals, including Bishop Bransfield.

Material from Catholic News Service and the Associated Press was used in this report.

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Charlotte Bloebaum
4 months ago

I applaud the Attorney General for doing what should have been done from the very beginning. I notice the Church is quick to combat the idea they are doing nothing but in fact this is exactly what is "not" happening. The Church is dragging its feet still wanting to protect these awful priests. Additionally, although America Magazine publishes many articles about the value of women/nuns, it is lip service. Nothing changes at all, just like with the abuse situation. The Church apparently has no intention of doing anything now or in the future and that is more apparent dailyy.
I am a subscriber and in your most recent issue, you published an article about the horrors the boys experienced at the hands of the child molestor, Michael Jackson. How hypocritical! No one knows what is true in the Michael Jackson story and what is not, yet America Magazine has him convicted even though dead, took these men at their word even though they swore UNDER OATH in court that he did not do such things - while he was alive and could defend himself. He did just that - what is true and what is not is now anyone's guess because Mr. Jackson is dead. The men are free to say whatever they like and make a movie about it that is making millions. To top off that slice of cake, the Catholic America Magazine who prints articles defending the abuse and the Church monthly had the audacity to publish an article condemning the "known pedophile". I am Catholic for now but the longer this continues AND any future articles about pedophiles that do not mention priests or Catholic Church will have me canceling my subscription and maybe finally having courage to stand up and leave. This is disgusting-AG is doing the job the Church refuses to do and has refused to do for centuries. God does not approve!!!

Michael Cardinale
4 months ago

I don't know the details beyond what is in this article, but Archbishop Lori publicly removed Bishop Bransfield from his position. And, Fr. Frobas died over 25 years ago; the only cover-up is six feet of dirt. Just as you object to accusations against MJ because he is dead and cannot defend himself, most of the priests accused by the PA and NY AGs are dead. The PA AG even said he would probably have no prosecutions coming out of the Grand Jury investigation, and the PA courts, not the Church, said that those who asked for redaction had their rights violated. The Church was founded by Jesus Christ, and despite the sinners within, our priests are the only source of the Mass, sacramental Reconciliation and the Eucharist. Give up your subscription if you wish, but leaving the Church will hurt you, not those you wish to punish. There are some bad priests and bishops, but see Mt 23:1-7, 13 for what Jesus says. I contend that the vast majority, based on my experience, are good men.

Charlotte Bloebaum
4 months ago

I applaud the Attorney General for doing what should have been done from the very beginning. I notice the Church is quick to combat the idea they are doing nothing but in fact this is exactly what is "not" happening. The Church is dragging its feet still wanting to protect these awful priests. Additionally, although America Magazine publishes many articles about the value of women/nuns, it is lip service. Nothing changes at all, just like with the abuse situation. The Church apparently has no intention of doing anything now or in the future and that is more apparent dailyy.
I am a subscriber and in your most recent issue, you published an article about the horrors the boys experienced at the hands of the child molestor, Michael Jackson. How hypocritical! No one knows what is true in the Michael Jackson story and what is not, yet America Magazine has him convicted even though dead, took these men at their word even though they swore UNDER OATH in court that he did not do such things - while he was alive and could defend himself. He did just that - what is true and what is not is now anyone's guess because Mr. Jackson is dead. The men are free to say whatever they like and make a movie about it that is making millions. To top off that slice of cake, the Catholic America Magazine who prints articles defending the abuse and the Church monthly had the audacity to publish an article condemning the "known pedophile". I am Catholic for now but the longer this continues AND any future articles about pedophiles that do not mention priests or Catholic Church will have me canceling my subscription and maybe finally having courage to stand up and leave. This is disgusting-AG is doing the job the Church refuses to do and has refused to do for centuries. God does not approve!!!

Charlotte Bloebaum
4 months ago

I applaud the Attorney General for doing what should have been done from the very beginning. I notice the Church is quick to combat the idea they are doing nothing but in fact this is exactly what is "not" happening. The Church is dragging its feet still wanting to protect these awful priests. Additionally, although America Magazine publishes many articles about the value of women/nuns, it is lip service. Nothing changes at all, just like with the abuse situation. The Church apparently has no intention of doing anything now or in the future and that is more apparent dailyy.
I am a subscriber and in your most recent issue, you published an article about the horrors the boys experienced at the hands of the child molestor, Michael Jackson. How hypocritical! No one knows what is true in the Michael Jackson story and what is not, yet America Magazine has him convicted even though dead, took these men at their word even though they swore UNDER OATH in court that he did not do such things - while he was alive and could defend himself. He did just that - what is true and what is not is now anyone's guess because Mr. Jackson is dead. The men are free to say whatever they like and make a movie about it that is making millions. To top off that slice of cake, the Catholic America Magazine who prints articles defending the abuse and the Church monthly had the audacity to publish an article condemning the "known pedophile". I am Catholic for now but the longer this continues AND any future articles about pedophiles that do not mention priests or Catholic Church will have me canceling my subscription and maybe finally having courage to stand up and leave. This is disgusting-AG is doing the job the Church refuses to do and has refused to do for centuries. God does not approve!!!

Charlotte Bloebaum
4 months ago

I applaud the Attorney General for doing what should have been done from the very beginning. I notice the Church is quick to combat the idea they are doing nothing but in fact this is exactly what is "not" happening. The Church is dragging its feet still wanting to protect these awful priests. Additionally, although America Magazine publishes many articles about the value of women/nuns, it is lip service. Nothing changes at all, just like with the abuse situation. The Church apparently has no intention of doing anything now or in the future and that is more apparent dailyy.
I am a subscriber and in your most recent issue, you published an article about the horrors the boys experienced at the hands of the child molestor, Michael Jackson. How hypocritical! No one knows what is true in the Michael Jackson story and what is not, yet America Magazine has him convicted even though dead, took these men at their word even though they swore UNDER OATH in court that he did not do such things - while he was alive and could defend himself. He did just that - what is true and what is not is now anyone's guess because Mr. Jackson is dead. The men are free to say whatever they like and make a movie about it that is making millions. To top off that slice of cake, the Catholic America Magazine who prints articles defending the abuse and the Church monthly had the audacity to publish an article condemning the "known pedophile". I am Catholic for now but the longer this continues AND any future articles about pedophiles that do not mention priests or Catholic Church will have me canceling my subscription and maybe finally having courage to stand up and leave. This is disgusting-AG is doing the job the Church refuses to do and has refused to do for centuries. God does not approve!!!

Ann Hodges
4 months ago

I was a teacher in the Catholic elementary school in St Louis where Victor Frobas stalked innocent children for months. He was there unknown to our Archbishop, but at the invitation of .the parish pastor whom he met in “treatment “ at a facility in New Mexico. My heart breaks for the students in my class who were his victims. This Archbishop should be prosecuted in civil court and in Church courts for allowing this abuse.

Michael Cardinale
4 months ago

I'm a little confused. What was the timeframe that Fr. Frobas was ministering(?) in St. Louis? Should the St. Louis archbishop, or Archbishop Lori be prosecuted? You wrote that Fr. Frobas' abuse was unknown to the first, and as he died over 25 years ago, probably was unknown to the latter. As Catholics, we need to recognize that the American Church has made significant strides since 2002. Most of what is going on now are prosecutors and governors doing historical research to write reports, for their own motives; they know there is almost no one to prosecute. The important thing, now, is for Catholics to push our American bishops to implement a transparent system of accountability for themselves. Rome can do what it wishes with the information, but if we know, its options will be severely limited.

Paul Hierholzer
4 months ago

Charlotte: If you're saying that Michael Jackson shouldn't be accused of pedophilia because he's dead, then dead priests shouldn't be accused of it either. (Either way, you're wrong).

Mister Mckee
4 months ago

An important point worth noting for its change in legal strategy surfaced during the NPR interview linked above:
"Let me just briefly ask, do you think this will set precedent, that you are going at this in this way with a CIVIL suit? Can this set a precedent for other states?"

Mark M
4 months ago

It will be a happy day when the A/Gs kick in the doors of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Archdiocese of Newark and shortly after these, the Diocese of San Diego gets the kick.
Oh Happy Day!

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.]

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