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West Virginians React to State Lawsuit Against Catholic Leaders

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Robert Hoatson visited Wheeling, protesting in from of the Cathedral of Saint John, in the wake of Patrick Morrisey's announcement that his office filed a law suit against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Photo: Glynis Board, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

West Virginia’s attorney general is suing the state’s Catholic Church. The lawsuit filed last week claims the church knowingly employed pedophiles in schools and camps without informing parents.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey says the state is stepping in because the church violated the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act when it failed to disclose important information to families paying for educational services.

“We allege that the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese persisted in covering up and keeping secret the criminal behavior of priests related to sexual abuse of children,” Morrisey said during a press conference.

Investigations into the Catholic Church exist in more than a dozen other states, many suits drawing criminal charges in specific abuse cases.

However, Morrisey’s is a civil case. His might be the first to use consumer protection laws to try to hold Catholic officials accountable. Morrisey hopes this approach will be more successfully prosecuted than criminal charges which can be hampered by statutes of limitations.

A Timeline of Investigations

In addition to the attorney general’s state investigation announced this week, two separate internal investigations into the Catholic Church were recently conducted.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston began its own internal investigation of all documented cases of credible abuse accusations earlier in 2018.

In September, 2018, the Diocese Bishop Michael Bransfield turned 75 years old, and as is customary, he resigned his position. Rome accepted his resignation unusually fast (within a matter of days) and simultaneously launched an investigation into allegations that Bransfield sexually harassed adults.

At that point the West Virginia’s attorney general signaled he wanted to investigate, but it wasn’t clear that he had until this week’s announcement.

In November, the diocese revealed what they found during their internal probe. In “an effort to build back trust,” a list was released of all of the “credibly accused” names the diocese has been made aware of in the last 70 years. 

Eighteen former clergy were named, including the allegations and complaints against them, when the diocese was made aware, and their assignments throughout their time with the diocese.

Last week the investigation into former bishop Bransfield concluded. Findings were not released but sent to Rome for final judgement. The investigation was conducted by five lay investigators who looked into “multiple allegations of sexual harassment and financial improprieties.”

Morrisey is calling on the Catholic Church to release the details of that investigation.

Diocesan Response  

In a statement released in response to the state’s lawsuit, the diocese challenged the attorney general’s assertions. The statement indicates there’s some question about timelines reported and whether accused priests were in fact knowingly placed in schools as the lawsuit contends.

The diocese also wrote that it has employed a “zero tolerance policy for any cleric, employee or volunteer credibly accused of abuse.” That policy was established more than a decade ago.

The statement also indicates that many details of the lawsuit come from the publicized findings from the internal review released late last year — but that the some allegations are not accurately described, and that some are more than 50 years old.

Abuse Victims’ Response

Following the attorney general’s announcement, protesters held small demonstrations in front of the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Wheeling. Members of organizations that support victims of abuse quietly held signs. Many were victims themselves.

Judy Jones, the midwest regional leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, stood with a handful of people applauding the attorney general Thursday.

“This is still happening,” she said of abusive behavior by priests and coverups. “This is still going on.”

Jones asserts the list of abusive clerics released by the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston late last year is incomplete and hopes the attorney general is able to reveal more abuse and inspire similar lawsuits throughout the country.

Former priest and brother Robert Hoatson came from New Jersey and stood in front of the cathedral Wednesday with signs in hand. He founded a nonprofit called Road to Recovery in 2003 and says he was himself abused as a brother and as a seminarian.

“That culture of aberrant sexuality runs through the entire church,” he said. “The church only cares about protecting its image and its money.”

Hoatson said he was encouraged by his experience protesting in Wheeling.

“Usually I’m harassed or told to get a life or a real job, but I can’t believe the number of people who have driven by and beeped with their thumbs up,” he said. “I think people are beginning to realize the corruption of the hierarchy that created this mess.”

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.