July 24, 2019
The sex-abuse scandal, which continues to engulf the Catholic Church, has brought down the ire of secular authorities throughout the United States. In an attempt to hold Catholic dioceses accountable, one State has turned to its consumer protection laws. Will this help alleviate the problem?
The West Virginia Example
Earlier this year, in March 2019, West Virginia, by and through its Attorney General, brought a two-count complaint against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and its former bishop, Michael J. Bransfield, alleging violations of the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act (WVCCPA). The Act, which is intentionally broad in scope, sanctions advertising services that are not delivered and failing to warn of dangerous services.
With respect to the local Catholic diocese, West Virginia claims that the diocese deceived Catholics (consumers) by advertising that its schools and other programs were safe despite having hired clergy who had credible accusations of sexual abuse in their past; failing to do background checks on lay hires; and knowingly employing priests and laity who had admitted to engaging in sexual abuse. This behavior, according to West Virginia, created an unsafe environment for minors which the diocese failed to warn people about.
The Complaint seeks a series of civil penalties against Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Bransfield, including disgorgement. That means, should West Virginia prevail in court, that the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston could be forced to surrender any revenue it generated through its schools and similar programs. The Diocese may also be forced to pay restitution to anyone who used these services.
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