February 2, 2023
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National Recap: West Virginia attorney general sues diocese

On March 19, the West Virginia attorney general sued the state’s Catholic diocese and a former bishop, claiming that they “knowingly employed pedophiles and failed to do adequate background-checks” for employees of Catholic schools and camps.

The suit alleges that the Catholic diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield violated the state’s consumer protection laws by not alerting Catholics to the potential dangers of sending their children to schools and camps. The specific law the suit references is the Consumer Credit and Protection Act, a law stating that a company needs to fully inform its consumers of the products they are buying. Because Catholic schools and camps often require a tuition fee, admission to them can count as a product. The suit is seeking a judicial order restraining the diocese from continuing this conduct and a judgment and imposition of monetary penalties against Bransfield and his former diocese.

Bransfield resigned from his position as bishop in September amid accusations of sexual misconduct with adults. The lawsuit accuses him of advertising a safe environment for children via the church’s camps and recreational programsa false promise given its history of employing people convicted of sexual assault. No former attendees of the diocese’s schools or camps have come forward with claims of assault.

Attorney General Patrick Morrissey said in a statement that the diocese needs to increase its transparency and its protective measures for its children and community.

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

Although the lawsuit was filed in March, Morrissey opened the investigation of the state’s diocese in the fall, shortly after the grand jury of Pennsylvania filed a report that more than 300 Catholic priests had sexually abused children since the 1950s. The report prompted a slew of investigations of different dioceses across the country, including one by the attorney general of Washington, D.C., who launched an investigation of whether or not the Archdiocese of Washington violated the law by covering up sexual abuse.  

One of the alleged cases in the suit involves Father Patrick Condron, a priest employed by the West Virginia diocese. The suit alleges that Condron admitted to sexually abusing a child, was sent to treatment and was later employed at a local elementary school. According to the suit, the parents of the children who attended the school were not notified of Condron’s past convictions or treatment. Several cases of similar instances were also highlighted in the suit.

West Virginia’s investigation of its diocese is only the latest of a series of investigations of the Catholic Church across the country; however, it is one of the first to use consumer protection laws as a means of investigating. In the past, many investigations of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse epidemic have been limited by the statute of limitations for sexual assault. However, attorney generals from several states have found ways to investigate their respective dioceses by launching civil investigations.

After filing the suit, Morrissey said that although the lawsuit is upsetting, he is confident that the diocese will cooperate for the sake of the community.

“Today is a sad day,” Morrissey said. “But the Attorney General 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.”

Meredith Burke can be reached at mburke@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @meredithsburke