West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey Wednesday sued the Catholic diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and its former bishop, Michael Bransfield, charging that they “knowingly employed pedophiles and failed to conduct adequate background checks” for people working in Catholic schools and camps, a Morrisey press release says.

The lawsuit, the latest dramatic civil action against the American church in the past year, alleges violations of the state’s consumer protection laws. It accuses the diocese of advertising safe environments for children while at the same time, the complaint says, choosing “to cover up and conceal arguably criminal behavior of child sexual abuse.”

The lawsuit is seeking a permanent court order “blocking the diocese from continuation of any such conduct.”

Some experts on child abuse said the move was precedent-setting.

“This is the most that we’ve seen so far in terms of prosecution, in terms of someone in the higher levels of the hierarchy. This is the first time we’ve seen a comprehensive claim against a whole diocese and a bishop,” said Marci Hamilton, a law scholar and head of CHILD USA, a non-profit focused on child abuse.

Calls to the Wheeling-Charleston diocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were not immediately returned Wednesday.

While Catholic officials and leaders have conceded that the church failed in the past, some see the recent criticism as unfair for an institution that has invested many millions in child protection efforts. One church official Wednesday who declined to be named so as to not appear to be defending past behavior, called the new suit a “publicity stunt,” noting that the abuse alleged was decades ago and that policies have changed significantly.

Civil authorities in the United States in the past year have initiated several actions against the Catholic Church on sex abuse. The church is the largest single faith group in the country and for decades, survivors and their advocates say, was shielded by insufficiently critical law enforcement, prosecutors and the media.

Last summer Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released an extensive grand jury report describing abuse and cover-ups across the state in past decades. Last fall, the Justice Department opened an investigation into alleged sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy across the state of Pennsylvania.

Advocates for the abused have cheered what they see as a late entry of top civil officials, as other countries including Australia, Germany and Canada have run nationwide probes into clergy sex abuse and cover-ups. Many Catholic leaders have been apologetic and said they were cooperating with needed investigations; others have painted the push as anti-Catholic and unfairly targeting one community on the societal problem of child sexual abuse.

The news comes a week after Baltimore Archbishop William Lori barred Bransfield from any priestly duties. Lori was appointed by Pope Francis last fall to investigate allegations including that Bransfield sexually harassed adults.

Last week, Lori said his preliminary investigation, which involved five lay experts, was being forwarded to the Vatican for a final judgment. That probe was looking into allegations of sexual harassment of adults and financial improprieties.

The time span covered by the complaint was not immediately clear, but some behavior it references dates back decades ago and one instance as recently as 2013. It lists a series of diocesan employees it alleges had problems that were ignored by the church.

They include a priest, Victor Forbas, who the complaint alleges was known to have a credible sex abuse accusation against him. Despite knowing, Morrisey’s press release says, the diocese “ordained Forbas as a priest . . . and years later named him director at Camp Tygart, now known as Camp Bosco.” It alleges parents weren’t told about Forbas’ past and he was assigned to a high school. The priest eventually wound up in prison and died in 1993.

“Another priest admitted on his employment application to having been accused of child sexual abuse decades earlier, yet the civil complaint 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 approximately four years at a parish that operates an elementary school,” the news release says, but doesn’t specify when.

The suit accuses the diocese of failing to conduct a background check 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,” the press release says.

“Today is a sad day, but the Attorney General still believes there are so many priests and deacons in the Catholic church – who are good men – who will support this effort so we can really seek meaningful changes in how the church handles sexual abuse,” the release quotes Morrisey as saying.

Bransfield’s cousin, the Rev. J. Brian Bransfield, is general-secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


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