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."
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.”
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.