CHARLESTON — A judge asked the West Virginia Supreme Court on Wednesday to consider the viability of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s lawsuit alleging that the Wheeling Charleston-Diocese knowingly hired employees at its camp and schools who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children.
Wood County Circuit Judge J.D. Beane ruled against Morrisey, but he put the case on hold and asked the high court to weigh in on whether the lawsuit is even viable under the state’s consumer protection laws.
He specifically sent up two questions:
- Does the Consumer Credit and Protection Act, as it pertains to unfair methods of competition and/or deceptive practices, apply to religious institutions?
- Would applying the law as Morrisey requested be “an excessive entanglement of church and state,” which is prohibited by the state and federal constitutions?
Beane ruled against Morrisey on both counts. He said if the law is “to remain vigilant in protecting religious freedom and in protecting religious institutions from substantial government intrusion,” it must refrain from mingling between church and state.
“A panoramic view of the entire relationship between church and state arising from application of the Consumer Credit and Protection Act to religious schools reveals, not dimly but clearly, an excessive entanglement of government and religion, which is prohibited under federal and state constitutions,” he wrote in a 40-page ruling.
However, Beane put the case on hold and sent the issue to the Supreme Court, which would weigh in on those two questions.
Morrisey issued a statement Thursday, repeating his call to the diocese to release records pertaining to its internal investigation of former bishop Michael Bransfield. The developments come as Bransfield has been embroiled in alleged widespread misuse of church funds, along with accusations that he sexually harassed adults while serving as a bishop.
“Our office is taking every action at its disposal to bring about lasting reform, but if the court determines our case cannot go forward, it would also blow a huge hole in the state’s ability to regulate deceptive advertising practices,” Morrisey said. “This would leave no other option, leaving it to the diocese to release records and enact reforms on its own unless others join the fight we started more than a year ago.”
Spokesman Tim Bishop said the diocese is pleased with Beane’s ruling, and said the organization is committed to protecting young people entrusted to its care. He said the diocese has a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse of minors by any of its employees or volunteers.
“Looking ahead, we are confident that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals will affirm the circuit court’s decision,” he said. “Moreover, we are committed to working toward restoring trust where it has been broken and to bringing about healing among all who, in any way, have been harmed.”
Morrisey filed the lawsuit in March, alleging that Bransfield developed a policy of concealing information about incidents of sexual abuse and failing to disclose these incidents on marketing materials for the school.
For instance, the lawsuit details the diocese’s hiring of Victor Frobas in 1965, fully aware that he had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a child three years prior. The diocese allegedly put him in charge of what’s now known as Camp Bosco in 1972, where he was again accused of sexually abusing children.
He was later hired to work as a chaplain in Wheeling, and then at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, where he was criminally accused and later pleaded guilty to inappropriate contact with minor.
The diocese responded in court, arguing that its schools are not covered by consumer protection laws and are outside the attorney general’s purview. Its attorneys accused Morrisey of using “decades-old allegations” to make a “factual leap,” painting the schools as unsafe environments. They disputed several of the allegations he made, while confirming others though arguing they aren’t evidence of a current unsafe environment.
Other allegations, some made in a more detailed filing, include school officials failing to notify parents of a teacher at a Catholic school sexually abusing a student; failing to perform background checks of its schools’ employees; and hiring teachers who would go on to abuse students after “inadequate” background checks.
Beane’s ruling does not address the veracity of the allegations, only whether the lawsuit is viable under consumer protection laws.
In a statement, the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests said it is disappointing to see the diocese “exploiting legal technicalities to evade responsibility for the crimes and coverups” from Bishop William Lori, who took over after Bransfield retired.
“It is terribly disingenuous for Catholic officials to take advantage of church-state separation when it is advantageous for them — such as when it enables them to keep hidden information about clergy sex crimes — while simultaneously trying to erode that separation when it is disadvantageous, such as when lobbying against state and federal laws,” the organization said in a statement.
Reach Jake Zuckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.