Morrisey seek information on Catholic Church sexual abuse

PARKERSBURG — West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is looking for witnesses and people who have information regarding sexual misconduct in the Catholic Church in the state of West Virginia.

Morrisey was in Parkersburg on Sunday and spoke with The Parkersburg News and Sentinel regarding his recently filed lawsuit against the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield over alleged sexual misconduct of clergy and employees with children within the Catholic Church.

“We are working hard to identify as many witnesses as possible,” Morrisey said. “We are continuing to move to the next step.”

The civil suit alleges the diocese and 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 Attorney General’s office started its investigation of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese in September. Morrisey said the diocese has been forthcoming on some things, but not all things related to this matter.

Church officials have announced a preliminary investigation on Bransfield’s conduct while bishop was forwarded to the Vatican. The findings included sexual harassment allegations and financial irregularities.

“We are still deeply troubled by the lack of transparency we’ve seen,” Morrisey said. “We are very hopeful they are going to step forward and be more transparent, provide us with the investigative report on Bishop Bransfield. They have yet to do that.

“If there is nothing to hide then let the people know.”

The diocese has cooperated to some degree, but has resisted providing a number of additional documents and getting to the bottom of a number of things involving various people, he added.

“There are a lot of big unanswered questions that need to be addressed and we need to get to the bottom of it,” Morrisey said.

The Attorney General is asking people to step forward, reach out to his office and provide information that can help with the investigations.

“A lot of times in instances like this it is the people who step forward who will provide us with additional details,” Morrisey said. “They are the ones who can make the real difference.”

They are looking for people who were in those environments, Catholic schools or camps, who saw something or experienced something to come forward and talk with their office.

Morrisey, who is Catholic himself, said they have gotten some anonymous tips, but to help build a solid case they need people who are willing to step forward and be put on the record.

“We want the folks to step up,” he said. “We believe there are more that haven’t stepped forward yet.

“We are trying to identify more victims and more witnesses.”

Morrisey said this is not limited to Catholics, but people in any environment where there has been a problem of abuse.

“People need to let us know,” he said.

Morrisey said there are still a lot of good in the Catholic Church

“We know that there are many good and honorable people in the church, a lot of priests and deacons who are doing the right things and are good men of the cloth,” he said.

With this action, many people are worried about the reputation of the church. He also acknowledges that there will be a lot of pressure on those who do come forward.

“It takes courage to step up and to speak out,” Morrisey said. “The pressure will be ferocious.

“I want people to know that they have someone they can turn to and that we will do our best to right the wrong.”

The Attorney General said he wants the church to be as forthcoming as possible about its own investigation involving Bransfield.

“We think it will be helpful,” he said adding in what they have seen, they are not sure how some conclusions were reached and require more thorough reports.

“No one is above the law,” Morrisey added. “We want to get to the bottom of this and solve the problem. We welcome anyone’s help.”

Many of the instances they have been looking into go back years where now individuals involved have died.

“We will go back to where there is credible evidence,” Morrisey said.

The consumer protection statute allows them to go back to have equable relief going back without a statute of limitations. They have also done referrals on some criminal matters they have found and forwarded them to county prosecutors to see if additional steps can be taken.

“That is separate from my office and up to the local prosecutors,” Morrisey said.

Morrisey said the suit was filed in Wood County because they believe there was problematic activity that occurred there in the 1980s.

“We identified some problems that occurred in Vienna,” he said. “(Out of the entire state) we drew it to a nexus of certain activity that occurred in this county.”

They are trying to do this in a way that is constructive.

“When it comes to enforcing the laws, the church is not any different than any other entity,” Morrisey said. “When you are not involving yourself in doctrinal matters of the church, you are not impairing the First Amendment.

“Certainly, we have been very sensitive to that and the First Amendment claims that could be made and it is clear we are not touching upon those. We have great respect for the separation of church and state. We also want to make sure our laws are being enforced. There is a rich history that everyone is subject to the laws of our state.”

People are being asked to reach out to the Attorney General’s Office’s Consumer Protection Line at 304-558-2021 and ask to talk to someone involved in this matter.

“These are very serious issues and we need to get to the bottom of them,” Morrisey said. “We need to insure the public that everything has been done to clean things up.”

Diocese spokesperson Tim Bishop issued a statement following Morrisey’s initial press conference regarding his office’s investigation on March 19.

“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 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.”