A blind eye?
Morrisey says diocese failed to report abuse
WHEELING — A convicted sex offender worked for more than two years at Weirton Madonna High School before the Diocese of Wheeling Charleston ever conducted a background check on him, according to an amended lawsuit filed by the office of West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey on Tuesday.
Morrisey has added more evidence to his original lawsuit filed in March against the diocese, which alleges the diocese and its bishops had knowledge of child sexual abuse claims against those working for the church but failed to act on them.
The amended suit adds more evidence of the diocese’s failure to conduct background checks on employees and report abuse.
It also adds a new count to the charges, “unfair competition.” Because the church allegedly neglected to properly vet its employees, this constitutes a breach of unfair competition laws, and also violates the federal Consumer Safety and Protection Act, according to Morrisey.
In a statement from the diocese, spokesman Tim Bishop said Morrisey’s claims are factually false, and that the AG’s office lacks jurisdiction to pursue the unfair competition charge. The diocese had previously moved to have Morrisey’s complaint dismissed last month.
“It is our view that the West Virginia Consumer Credit Protection Act does not pertain to issues outlined in the complaint, and that the action is outside the jurisdiction of the Attorney General…” the statement reads. “The new allegations filed today contain factual inaccuracies that are not included in the Attorney General’s prior complaint but which are, however, based in large part on information that the Diocese previously provided the Attorney General’s office. … In the strongest terms, we deny the allegation that initial background checks were not conducted on school employees, as the amended complaint contends. We can only surmise that the Attorney General’s office has not thoroughly reviewed the information which has been provided by diocesan officials to his office.”
Morrisey’s office filed the amended complaint Tuesday in Wood County Circuit Court.
It states Ronald Cooper was hired by the Diocese in April 2011 to work at Madonna High School under a “teacher’s contract,” but is believed to have worked there as a custodian.
The complaint states Cooper failed to disclose on his application form he had been convicted of third-degree statutory rape in the state of Washington in 1985, and that he also had pleaded guilty in the past to first degree robbery.
“Upon information and belief, the Diocese failed to conduct a criminal background investigation before hiring Cooper,” the complaint states. “Cooper’s criminal conduct was not discovered by the Diocese until December 2013, after Cooper had been working a Madonna High School for more than two years.
“The Diocese terminated Cooper in January 2014 after it conducted a background check that disclosed the criminal conduct.”
The amended complaint also includes new allegations against Victor Frobas during an assignment at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Weirton from 1980 to 1982. He was employed by the Diocese from 1965 through 1983.
Prior to his Weirton assignment, Frobas had been accused of incidents at Camp Tygart in Huttonsville, Wheeling Central Catholic High School and Philadelphia.
He was first accused of sexually abusing a child in 1962, but the Diocese allowed him to come to West Virginia, according to the complaint. Then Bishop Joseph Hodges opted to give Frobas a second chance at the Diocese.
“Upon information and belief, Frobas was moved frequently due to suspicions of and sometimes allegations of sexual abuse of children,” the complaint states.
During the 1970s, Frobas served as director at the Camp Tygart youth camp, as the Diocesan director of scouting, and as chaplain at Wheeling Central Catholic High School.
He later was assigned St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Weirton from 1980 to 1982, where he is alleged to have pulled elementary school children out of classes to watch video games and gain the trust of those who were then abused in an on-site residence, according to the complaint.
The amended complaint also cites incidents in Kanawha and Cabell County while adding to allegations the Diocese did not conduct adequate background checks.
The Diocese’s most recent bishop, Michael J. Bransfield, retired in September 2018. Pope Francis accepted his retirement, then ordered an investigation into allegations Bransfield had sexually abused adults while he was bishop.
“Although the Archdiocese of Baltimore has completed its internal investigation, and a report of its findings has been made, the report has not been released to the public,” the complaint states.
Morrisey called on Tuesday for the Bransfield report to be made public.
The complaint also states former bishops Joseph Hodges and Bernard Schmitt knew of sexual abuse complaints against priests in the Diocese, “but did not disclose the conduct to criminal law authorities or to parents paying (the Diocese) for educational or recreational services for their children.”
During his stop in Wheeling Tuesday morning, Morrisey encouraged more people with claims of sexual abuse by Diocese employees to step forward, and for the Diocese to be more cooperative with his office and more transparent about past reports of sexual abuse within their churches, schools and camps.
“Since the filing of my office’s complaint against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, many brave people have come forward to share their experiences working for the Diocese, volunteering for the Diocese, and being educated at schools within the Diocese.
“I wish I could report their experiences refute the allegations of the complaint. But they do not. Their experiences confirm what we allege — that the Catholic church has been covering up, concealing and denying information that it has harbored child-molesting priests for a very long time.”
The action of the church to cover up the abuses gave the church’s schools an unfair advantage when competing with other schools in their areas, according to Morrisey.
He acknowledged some of the reports of abuse received by his office are “decades old.”
“But some of these allegations are more recent, with some of this conduct occurring in 2013 and other conduct as late as 2016,” Morrisey said. “The fact some of the allegations are just coming to light now — but occurred many years ago — is entirely the fault of the Diocese for concealing the conduct of its priests working in its schools and camps for over 70 years.”
Bishop stood by the Diocese’s stance of “categorically” rejecting Morrisey’s claims.
“We categorically reject the lawsuit’s assertion that the Diocese is not wholly committed to the protection of children, as reflected in our rigorous Safe Environment Program,” the statement reads. “The Diocese has a zero tolerance policy for any cleric, employee or volunteer credibly accused of abuse and it is the policy of the Diocese to report any accusation of this nature immediately to civil authorities.
“Moreover, the Safe Environment Program of the Diocese employs mandatory screening, extensive background checks and training for all employees and volunteers who work with children.”
The Diocese operates six high schools and 19 elementary schools throughout West Virginia serving 5,100 students in 12 West Virginia counties, according to the complaint.