Judge refers questions to Supreme Court, grants diocese motion to dismiss claims in lawsuit
PARKERSBURG – A Wood County judge has granted a motion to dismiss claims in a lawsuit by the West Virginia Attorney General under the Consumer Credit and Protection Act against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
The case, assigned to Judge J.D. Beane, was filed in March by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, claiming the diocese violated the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act by failing to disclose sexual misconduct by school and camp employees with minors to parents, the diocese knowingly hired pedophiles and did not conduct background checks on employees.
“Indeed, 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,” Beanes’ decision said.
Beane stayed the action pending resolution of two questions of law to the Supreme Court: do the provisions of the Consumer Credit and Protection Act respecting unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices apply to religious institutions in connection with the sale or advertisement of educational or recreational services; and does the cumulative impact of the entire relationship between church and state arising from the attorney general’s application of the act constitute an excessive entanglement of church and state prohibited by the constitutions of the United States and West Virginia. Beane said the circuit court’s answer to the former was no and the latter was yes.
Tim Bishop, a spokesman for the diocese, said the diocese was “pleased and grateful that the Circuit Court of Wood County, West Virginia has concurred with the position of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston that the complaint brought by Attorney General Morrisey is not valid.”
“Looking ahead, we are confident that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals will affirm the circuit court’s decision. The diocese wishes to again assert its full commitment to the protection of those young people entrusted to its care in its primary and secondary schools across the State of West Virginia through its “Safe Environment” program. We have no more sacred trust than the nurturing of these young minds and souls and have instituted rigorous standards for all who bear responsibility for their care: priests, religious clergy and sisters, lay educators, employees and volunteers,” Bishop said. “As part of its rigorous sexual abuse policies which have been in place for many years, the diocese maintains “zero tolerance” of sexual abuse of a minor by any person in its employment, by those who volunteer and those responsible for ministry who have been credibly accused. 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 issued a statement.
“The court’s decision to stay our case recognizes the complexity and uncharted territory of this litigation, as well as the importance of guidance from our Supreme Court in this matter of statewide interest,” he said. “We remain confident in the strength of our arguments at the Supreme Court, although, regardless of the ultimate resolution, the need for serious transparency and reform within the diocese is clear and that begins with release of the Bransfield report.”
The Bransfield report is about the investigation into misconduct by former bishop Michael J. Bransfield. The report was sent to the Vatican, which has yet to release it.
Read the story in The News and Sentinel on Friday.