New evidence disclosed in lawsuit against diocese

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey Tuesday morning announced a lawsuit against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston is being amended. Morrisey made the announcement in Wheeling. (Photo by Joselyn King)

PARKERSBURG — Additional claims are being sought in a lawsuit against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, including a new count of unfair competition and new evidence of the church’s alleged failure to conduct background checks and report abuse, the West Virginia attorney general said on Tuesday.

The amended complaint details allegations the diocese chose not to publicly disclose a report of child sexual abuse by a teacher in 2006 and permitted several individuals to work or volunteer at Catholic schools without adequate background checks, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a release on Tuesday.

”Since we filed the initial complaint we have been receiving information from the public, information that was not available at the time of the initial complaint,” Morrisey said in an interview with The Parkersburg News and Sentinel Tuesday afternoon. ”What we’ve done is we have gone through that process and we tried to add items to the complaint which we think will further buttress our assertions that the Catholic Church has been deceptively advertising…that they were advertising a safe environment for children and practicing concealing sexual abusers in the (Catholic) schools and camps.”

Other priests credibly accused of sexual abuse also were allowed to work in the diocese without adequate background checks, according to the allegations. The diocese only released its list of credibly accused priests after the state of West Virginia issued its subpoena, the allegations state.

“How can anyone reasonably argue that these allegations are old when the church refused to release its list of credibly accused priests until after the issuance of our subpoena in the fall of 2018? The church needs to come clean and end the secrecy,” Morrisey said. “The new information contained within our amended complaint further illustrates how the actions of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its policies of cover-up have harmed children. Parents who pay and entrust the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its schools to educate and care for their children deserve full transparency.”

Morrisey said some of the incidents mentioned in the amended complaint have occurred since the formation of “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” by the Catholic church in 2002.

”Our job is to obtain more transparency and get to the bottom of these issues,” Morrisey said.

A statement was issued around 5 p.m. Tuesday from the diocese, which said it learned of the state’s filing from the press. The diocese earlier moved to dismiss the case.

“The new allegations filed today contain factual inaccuracies that are not included in the attorney general’s prior complaint but which are, however, based in large part on information that the diocese previously provided the Attorney General’s office. In the strongest terms, we deny the allegation that initial background checks were not conducted on school employees, as the amended complaint contends,” the statement said. “We can only surmise that the Attorney General’s office has not thoroughly reviewed the information which has been provided by diocesan officials to his office. As noted previously in the Diocese’s motion to dismiss the attorney general’s lawsuit, it is our view that the West Virginia Consumer Credit Protection Act does not pertain to issues outlined in the complaint, and that the action is outside the jurisdiction of the attorney general.

“As legal counsel for the diocese has made clear, we categorically reject the lawsuit’s assertion that the diocese is not wholly committed to the protection of children, as reflected in our rigorous Safe Environment Program. The diocese has a zero-tolerance policy for any cleric, employee or volunteer credibly accused of abuse and it is the policy of the diocese to report any accusation of this nature immediately to civil authorities,” the statement said. “Moreover, the Safe Environment Program of the diocese employs mandatory screening, extensive background checks and training for all employees and volunteers who work with children. Diocesan policy may be accessed at the following website: https://dwc.org/diocese/offices/office-of-safe-environment/ diocesan-policy/”

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests also issued a statement.

“We are grateful that West Virginia Attorney General Morrisey is keeping the pressure up on the Wheeling-Charleston diocese by bringing new counts and evidence to his lawsuit,” Judy Jones, Midwest regional leader of the network. “Informed communities are safer communities, and the more that is investigated, the more truth gets exposed.”

Jones further encouraged victims to report to the attorney general.

“These are reckless and dangerous choices that church officials actively made,” she said. “And until church officials are held accountable for their crimes of enabling and covering up child sex crimes, we fear that church officials will continue this pattern of irresponsible decision-making.”

Morrisey said the church can still take additional steps forward to live up to what it has promised.

The unfair competition count alleges the diocese omitted material facts when it advertised for prospective students to join its schools and camps. This omission prevented parents purchasing its services from realizing allegations that the diocese knowingly employed priests who had admitted to or had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children and failed to conduct background checks, he said.

The amended complaint alleges the diocese relied upon Bishop Michael J. Bransfield’s policy of nondisclosure when it failed to publicly report allegations of a Catholic school teacher abusing a teenage student in Kanawha County. An internal investigation in 2006 alleged the teacher gained the student’s trust with alcohol and prescription drugs, before multiple instances of sexual abuse on and off school property.

Morrisey said the Bransfield investigative report needs to be publicized, even if parts of it are redacted.

”We think the public would benefit from it,” he said.

The amended complaint also includes new allegations against Victor Frobas during an assignment at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Weirton from 1980 to 1982. There the now-deceased priest pulled elementary school children out of classes and is accused of using video games to gain the trust of those who were then abused in an on-site residence.

Prior to his Weirton assignment, Frobas had been accused of alleged incidents at Camp Tygart, now known as Camp Bosco, in Huttonsville, Wheeling Central Catholic High School and Philadelphia.

The amended complaint cites alleged incidents in Kanawha and Cabell County in adding to allegations that the diocese did not conduct adequate background checks.

As of May 2008, background checks had not been performed on as many as 22 employees and volunteers working at a single Catholic school in Kanawha County dating back to August 2007, according to the allegations. The amended complaint alleges Bishop Bransfield was made personally aware the background checks were not completed.

Additionally, an individual who had never completed training and never completed a background check was permitted to hold various positions at Catholic schools in Cabell County from 2004 to 2016, including stints as a chaperone on overnight trips and as a guest teacher, according to allegations.

The attorney general filed the original lawsuit in March alleging the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese knowingly employed pedophiles and failed to conduct adequate background checks for those working at the diocese’s schools and camps, all without disclosing the inherent danger to parents who purchased its services for their children.

The civil complaint alleges those actions lacked transparency and stood in sharp contrast to the diocese’s advertised mission of providing a safe learning environment.

Morrisey, who initiated the investigation in September, brought the action against the diocese and Bransfield for alleged violations of the state’s consumer protection laws, in addition to seeking a permanent court order blocking the diocese from the continuation of any such conduct.

”The longer this process will go forward, the more people we believe will come forward,” Morrisey said. “Just with the initiation of the first complaint we had people come forward with very specific and credible allegations that we weren’t aware of.”

If they are going to make an allegation it will be something he feels they can prove in a court of law, he said.

”We have made it clear we are not trying to get involved in any doctrinal questions with the church or decide who they can employ,” Morrisey said. ”Those are matters left to the church.

”However, if you are going to advertise that you have safe schools and you are going to state those things to the public and you are going to compete with other schools and camps then you actually have to do what you say. We have very strong evidence that the church did not in fact do what it said and had a pattern of concealing sexual abusers in the churches, schools and camps for a long period of time and did not follow through and make changes even up through a minimum of 2016,” he said.

The original lawsuit was filed in Wood County Circuit Court.