Diocese files motion to dismiss lawsuit filed by state Attorney General's office

By Chris Dickerson
West Virginia Record
May 1, 2019

The Wheeling-Charleston Diocese has filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's office alleging it and a former bishop knowingly employed pedophiles.

The AG’s complaint, filed March 19 in Wood Circuit Court, also says the Diocese and former Bishop Michael J. Bransfield 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 lawsuit alleges those actions lacked transparency and stood in sharp contrast to the Diocese’s advertised mission of providing a safe learning environment.

In the dismissal motion filed last month, attorneys for the Diocese and Bransfield say the AG’s office failed to show a violation of the consumer credit and protection act.

A statement from the Diocese after the suit was filed dismissed the allegations, saying the suit does not “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.”

Morrisey said the Diocese’s motion to dismiss lacks merit, and he said his office will respond in court.

“Meanwhile, our lawsuit documents the Diocese’s long pattern of covering up and keeping secret the criminal behavior of priests as it relates to sexual abuse of children,” Morrisey told The West Virginia Record. “Not until our office subpoenaed information did the Diocese publish a list of priests that it deemed to have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children, and even then that list did not detail the Diocese's failure to conduct adequate background checks for those working at its schools and camps.

“Furthermore, even while the Diocese talks about turning over some materials, it continues to withhold other documents subject to our subpoenas, a lack of cooperation that inhibits the state's ability to complete its investigation. Those who pay tuitions to fund the Diocese's schools and camps deserve a safe learning environment just as the Diocese advertises -- not years of cover up and concealment as detailed in our lawsuit.

“Now is the time for meaningful change. The Diocese should come clean with what it knows and focus its efforts on restoring the public's trust, and that begins with transparency.”

Morrisey was talking about transparency in March when his office first filed the suit.

“Parents who pay and entrust the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its schools to educate and care for their children deserve full transparency,” Morrisey said when the suit was filed. “Our investigation reveals a serious need for the Diocese to enact policy changes that will better protect children, just as this lawsuit demonstrates our resolve to pursue every avenue to effectuate change as no one is above the law.”

The AG's office brought the action against the Diocese and Bransfield for 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. It initiated the investigation in September.

The lawsuit claims the Diocese and its bishops, including Bransfield, chose to cover up and conceal probable criminal behavior of child sexual abuse. It outlines examples of how the Diocese knowingly employed admitted sexual abusers, priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse and hired others without adequate background checks.

The complaint alleges that after Father Patrick Condron admitted that he sexually abused a student at St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary High School in Vienna, the Diocese allegedly sent Condron for treatment and later reassigned him to Wheeling Catholic Elementary School, from 1998 to 2001, without notifying parents it was employing a pedophile at the elementary school.

The complaint also claims the Diocese, despite its knowledge of a credible sex abuse accusation against Victor Forbas in Philadelphia, ordained Forbas as a priest in West Virginia and years later named him director at Camp Tygart, now known as Camp Bosco, in Huttonsville. Accusations there led to treatment, but later employment as chaplain at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, after which he received more treatment and eventually prison time for pleading guilty to sexually abusing children in Missouri. He died in 1993.

The lawsuit says another priest admitted on his employment application to having been accused of child sexual abuse decades earlier, yet it alleges the Diocese passed on the opportunity to thoroughly vet the priest and adequately check his background. Instead, the Diocese and two bishops employed the priest for about four years at a parish that operates an elementary school.

The complaint also accuses the Diocese of failing to conduct a background check in the hiring of Ronald Cooper, who it employed as a teacher at Madonna High School in Weirton for more than two years without detecting his convictions for first-degree robbery and third-degree statutory rape in Washington. The Diocese terminated Cooper’s employment in December 2013, yet allegedly failed to disclose to parents of children attending Madonna that it had employed a person convicted of child sexual abuse, according to the complaint.

On March 22, a former altar server and secretary to Bransfield filed a lawsuit claiming the bishop sexually molested him. The plaintiff, only identified as J.E., filed his complaint in Ohio Circuit Court against Bransfield, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and up to 20 unidentified defendants.

“The complaint is very specific and lays out the details,” attorney Bobby Warner of Warner Law Offices in Charleston told The West Virginia Record. “I find it troubling that while we continue to hear Bishop Bransfield’s name and alleged allegations, no one has stepped forward as an individual.

“I believe our client is the first individual who has had the strength and courage to step forward. It’s very troubling to me that while they’ve released names of individuals within the church in the press, Bishop Bransfield’s name wasn’t on the list. When, as you can see in our complaint, there have been prior allegations and investigations about him.”

Bransfield was bishop of the Diocese from 2005 to 2018. As is custom, he resigned when he turned 75. Pope Francis has asked for an investigation into Bransfield's alleged sexual harassment of adults. That report was released March 11. It stated that there was no evidence of criminal activity by Bransfield, and it has been sent to the Vatican for review. But, Bransfield has been told not to "exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston."

In March, the Diocese announced it had completed an investigative report into allegations related to Bransfield. Morrisey is urging the church to release that report and fully cooperate with his office to uncover any violations of law in West Virginia.


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