Supreme Court’s guidance is sought
AG’s lawsuit against diocese raises questions of law
CHARLESTON — Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said Thursday he welcomes guidance from the West Virginia Supreme Court after a judge issued an order to dismiss Morrisey’s suit against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Wood County Circuit Judge J.D. Beane granted a motion brought by the diocese to dismiss Morrisey’s lawsuit, but issued a stay Wednesday and sent certified questions to the Supreme Court to get clarification of the laws involved in the case.
“This court is a court of law, not of public opinion, and its role is to decide questions of law arising from the parties’ different views of the purpose, scope, and applicability of a specific statute,” Beane wrote in his order. “The issues presented are complex, complicated and consequential; they demand rigorous analysis by the parties and the court.”
Morrisey filed suit against the diocese in March.
The filing alleges the diocese violated the state Consumer Credit and Protection Act by not disclosing incidents of sexual misconduct and abuse at its schools and summer camps. Morrisey said he was confident in the case his office brought and understands the need for clarification.
“The court’s decision to stay our case recognizes the complexity and uncharted territory of this litigation, as well as the importance of guidance from our Supreme Court in this matter of statewide interest,” Morrisey said in a statement. “We remain confident in the strength of our arguments at the Supreme Court, although, regardless of the ultimate resolution, the need for serious transparency and reform within the diocese is clear.”
The first question sent to the Supreme Court asks whether the state Consumer Credit and Protection Act applies to religious institutions when conducting sales or advertising its educational and recreational services. Beane said it does not.
Beane also wanted to know if Morrisey’s interpretation of the Consumer Credit and Protection Act is a violation of the separation of church and state as applied by the U.S. and West Virginia constitutions. Beane said he believes it does.
“If the law is to remain vigilant in protecting religious freedom and in protecting religious institutions from substantial government intrusion over an indefinite period of time, it must continue to adhere to the constitutional prohibition against excessive church-state entanglement,” Beane wrote. “When the cumulative impact of the entire church-state relationship arising under the Consumer Credit and Protection Act is revealed it becomes clear that the constitutional prohibition against excessive church-state entanglement is violated.”
Morrisey’s suit alleges that the diocese and former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield knowingly hired pedophiles and did not conduct background checks on employees for schools and camps operated by the diocese. The Attorney General’s Office started investigating the diocese in September 2018. The office is still trying to get the diocese to release the full investigative report on former Bishop Bransfield. Only a preliminary report has been released.
“Let’s be clear about what is at stake. West Virginians did not know of the diocese’s list of credibly accused priests until after issuance of our first investigative subpoena in fall 2018, and through our subsequent lawsuit they learned of the diocese’s alleged policy of nondisclosure, evidence as to its lack of rigorous background checks and its alleged history of moving about credibly accused pedophiles without notifying the families whose tuitions fund its schools and camps,” Morrisey said.
“Without our enforcement action, everything gets swept under the rug,” Morrisey said. “There is simply no other way to obtain evidence of these allegations and provide the public the transparency it so desperately seeks about these horrifying matters.”
In a statement released Thursday morning, diocese spokesperson Tim Bishop thanked the court for granting its motion to dismiss. Bishop said he expects the Supreme Court to agree with the circuit court.
“Looking ahead, we are confident that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals will affirm the circuit court’s decision,” Bishop said. “The diocese wishes to again assert its full commitment to the protection of those young people entrusted to its care in its primary and secondary schools across the state of West Virginia through its ‘Safe Environment’ program. We have no more sacred trust than the nurturing of these young minds and souls and have instituted rigorous standards for all who bear responsibility for their care: priests, religious clergy and sisters, lay educators, employees and volunteers.”
(Adams can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)