Morrisey takes action against diocese, former bishop

SUIT FILED — Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced a lawsuit was filed Tuesday against the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield. -- Steven Alan Adams

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced Tuesday that his office filed suit against the Catholic diocese in the state and its former bishop over alleged sexual misconduct by clergy and employees with children.

Morrisey held a press conference Tuesday at the Capitol in Charleston. The civil complaint was filed Tuesday in Wood County Circuit Court.

The civil suit alleges that the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston 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 suit also accused the diocese of not disclosing these issues to parents purchasing the educational services, a violation of state consumer protection laws.

“The Catholic church has been covering up, concealing and denying that it has harbored child-molesting priests for a long time, including right here in West Virginia,” Morrisey said. “Today, our office is taking action.”

The attorney general’s office started its investigation of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese in September.

The suit alleges the diocese, led by Bransfield, intentionally covered up sexual misconduct and child abuse by priests and employees of the diocese and cited multiple examples. Morrisey said he was unaware of any other similar enforcement action by other states.

“This is obviously not a common action for our office to file, but it is a critical one as the public relies upon the state attorney general to enforce a variety of laws, especially as they may impact the well being of children: our most precious resource,” Morrisey said.

In one case, the church sent the Rev. Patrick Condon to a treatment facility after he admitted to sexually abusing a student at the former St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary High School in Vienna. After treatment, the diocese sent Condon to Wheeling Catholic Elementary School in the late 1990s.

According to the complaint, no parents were notified.

In another case, the Rev. Victor Forbas was ordained even with an accusation of sexual abuse, then became the director of Camp Tygart (since renamed Camp Bosco) in Huttonsville, where he was again accused of sexually abusing children. After treatment, Forbas became the chaplain for Wheeling Central Catholic High School. He later spent time in prison after pleading guilty in Missouri to sexually abusing children.

In the case of Ronald Cooper, he was hired by Madonna High School in Weirton and worked as a teacher for two years before the diocese performed a background check and discovered Cooper’s earlier convictions for first-degree robbery and third-degree statutory rape in Washington state. The diocese fired Cooper in 2013, but the complaint alleges that the diocese never told parents why.

According to Morrisey, the diocese created a program meant to provide protections for children in the church in 2002, but never fully implemented it until 2005. That program included background checks, but the suit alleges that these checks were rarely conducted.

“Even though the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston adopted its own safe environment program, it persisted in covering up and keeping secret the criminal behavior of priests relating to sexual abuse of children,” Morrisey said. “The Wheeling-Charleston Diocese engaged in a pattern of denial and coverup when it discovered its priests were sexually abusing children, particularly in schools and camps run by the Catholic Church and funded through tuition paid by West Virginia consumers.”

The suit calls for the diocese to stop violating the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act, and demands that the diocese and Bransfield pay civil penalties and other relief the court orders.

Morrisey also called on the church to release the full report on the investigation of Bransfield. Last week, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori announced that a preliminary investigation on Bransfield’s conduct while bishop was forwarded to the Vatican.

The findings included sexual harassment allegations and financial irregularities.

Bransfield retired as bishop in September.

“The diocese will address the litigation in the appropriate forum. However, the Diocese strongly and unconditionally rejects the Complaint’s assertion that the Diocese is not wholly committed to the protection of children,” said diocese spokesperson Tim Bishop. “The diocese also does not believe that the allegations contained in the Complaint fairly portray its overall contributions to the education of children in West Virginia nor fairly portray the efforts of its hundreds of employees and clergy who work every day to deliver quality education in West Virginia.”

“Parents deserve transparency,” Morrisey said. “They deserve a safe learning environment just as the diocese advertises. They do not deserve years of coverup and concealment.”

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