West Virginia's attorney general sues former bishop, diocese

West Virginia’s attorney general sues former bishop, diocese

West Virginia’s attorney general sues former bishop, diocese

In this 2017 file photo, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, then head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W. Va., is seen at Wheeling Hospital. The Vatican announced his retirement from the diocese Sept. 13, 2019. (Credit: CNS.)

The Attorney General of West Virginia has sued the diocese of Charleston-Wheeling and its former bishop, Michael Bransfield.

NEW YORK — West Virginia’s former Bishop Michael Bransfield and the diocese of Charleston-Wheeling have been sued by the state’s Attorney General for allegedly covering up clergy abuse and reassigning past abusers.

According to Court documents filed in the Circuit Court of Wood County on Tuesday, the state began their investigation following the August 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that chronicled the abuse of more than 1,000 minors at the hands of over 300 priests during a seven decade span, as “one or more” of the accused priests had served in the neighboring diocese.

Since that time the diocese has received two subpoenas from Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, and the lawsuit alleges the diocese has not fully cooperated in turning over requested files.

The 14-page civil complaint states that while the investigation is still underway, it maintains that “the facts learned and the documents disclosed allege the Diocese has engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices by failing to disclose to consumers of its educational and recreational services that it employed priests and laity who have sexually abused children, including an admitted abuser who the Diocese nevertheless allowed to work in a Catholic elementary school.”

Bransfield retired as bishop of the diocese in 2018, a post he held since 2005, and at the time the Holy See named Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore both to serve as interim administrator of the diocese and to conduct an investigation into Bransfield’s handling of abuse and financial misconduct.

Earlier this month, Lori announced that he, along with a team of 5 lay experts, had completed his investigation and sent the report to Rome for review, although its findings have not been made public.

RELATED: Archbishop Lori restricts ministry of former head of West Virginia diocese

While Bransfield’s case is under review, he is not allowed to exercise priestly or episcopal ministry within the diocese or the archdiocese of Baltimore.

The court documents specifically call into question the record of Father Patrick Condron who allegedly groomed a high school student for several years resulting in eventual sexual abuse in 1995. After admitting to the misconduct, he was sent to treatment by the previous bishop, Bernard Schmitt, however he was later returned to ministry at a Wheeling Catholic Elementary School from 1998-2001 without informing parents of his past record.

The priest eventually agreed to the termination of his employment in 2007.

“Safety, however, has not always been inherent in West Virginia’s Catholic schools,” the complaint states.

The complaint also alleges that the diocese employed non-clerical teachers in its schools without proper background checks, including the 2011 employment of a high school teacher who had been convicted of third-degree statutory rape. Eventually, in 2013, the diocese terminated the employee.

The legal proceedings conclude that “the Diocese, however, has a long history of not providing a safe learning environment for students in its schools and children attending its recreational camps.” The lawsuit is brought under the grounds of the Consumer Credit and Protection Act and alleges that the diocese failed to meet or enforce the standards in which it advertised and claimed to operate.

In a statement on Tuesday, the attorney general’s office said: “Today is a sad day.”

He added, however,  that “the Attorney General still believes there are so many priests and deacons in the Catholic church — who are good men — who will support this effort so we can really seek meaningful changes in how the church handles sexual abuse.”

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