Diocese seeks dismissal of lawsuit
PARKERSBURG — The attorney general of West Virginia lacks the authority to bring a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, according to a motion from the church to dismiss a lawsuit against it.
The lawsuit by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey was filed in March in Wood County and claims the diocese and former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield knowingly hired pedophiles, failed to perform employee background checks and didn’t make any such disclosures to parents in violation of West Virginia consumer protection laws.
“The (attorney general) fails to allege that the (diocese) violated the (West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act) as it pertains to credit sales, consumer loans and consumer leases,” the motion for dismissal filed on behalf of the diocese and Bransfield said. “Rather, the AG’s allegations relate to the language on (the diocese’s) website stating that it provides a safe school environment.”
The diocese in November issued a report of priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse against minors or who had other credible allegations regarding the Charter for Protection of Young People.
In September, the Vatican accepted Bransfield’s resignation and Pope Francis appointed Archbishop William E. Lori of the Baltimore Diocese as apostolic administrator of the diocese with the assignment to investigate allegations against Bransfield.
The investigation into sexual harassment and financial improprieties concluded earlier this year and was forwarded to the Vatican, but did not conclude a crime was committed, a diocese spokesman said in March.
The motion to dismiss was filed in April 18 in Wood County where Morrisey alleged several incidents occurred.
Catholic schools are not goods or services under the consumer protection act, so the attorney general has no authority for the lawsuit as the Legislature has separately regulated Catholic schools according to state code 18-3-1.
Morrisey’s complaint included two alleged violations of the consumer protection act, that the diocese failed to deliver advertised services and it failed to warn of dangerous services in violation of the act, the motion said.
The attorney general is not entitled to relief sought because none of the conduct alleged occurred within “the four year look back period” of the act, the motion said.
“The AG inappropriately uses Catholic schools as the doorway by which to enter the realm of separation of church and state by alleging that Catholic schools are currently engaged in ‘unfair or deceptive acts or practices’ when the (diocese) states on its website that it has a safe school environment,” the motion said. “The AG alleges that the website statement made by the (diocese) after its adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young people in 2002, which reflects the implementation of the charter’s ‘safe environment program,’ is illegal because, in some years prior to the adoption of the charter, it is alleged that five persons might have served in work associated with the schools somewhere in the state. Such claims are impermissible and unconstitutional.”
Morrisey said the motion “lacks merit and our office will respond in detail with the court, meanwhile our lawsuit documents the diocese’s long pattern of covering up and keeping secret the criminal behavior of priests as it relates to sexual abuse of children.”
“Not until our office subpoenaed information did the diocese publish a list of priests that it deemed to have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children, and even then that list did not detail the diocese’s failure to conduct adequate background checks for those working at its schools and camps,” a statement from Morrisey said. “Furthermore, even while the diocese talks about turning over some materials, it continues to withhold other documents subject to our subpoenas, a lack of cooperation that inhibits the state’s ability to complete its investigation.
“Those who pay tuitions to fund the diocese’s schools and camps deserve a safe learning environment just as the diocese advertises, not years of cover up and concealment as detailed in our lawsuit,” Morrisey said. “Now is the time for meaningful change. The diocese should come clean with what it knows and focus its efforts on restoring the public’s trust, and that begins with transparency.”
(Mancini can be contacted at email@example.com)