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W.Va. AG Sues Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, Alleging Knowing Employment of Abusers



This Feb. 21, 2005, file photo, shows incoming bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston diocese, W.Va, Michael Bransfield in his new office, in Wheeling, W.Va. Photo: Dale Sparks/AP Photo, File

When the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston hired Victor Frobas in 1965, it knew he had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a child three years prior.

The bishop of the diocese at the time, Joseph Hodges, decided to give Frobas, a priest, a second chance. Frobas became director of Camp Tygart, a summer youth camp now known as Camp Bosco, in 1972. While there, he was accused of sexually abusing children.

After spending a few months at the “House of Affirmation” in Massachusetts, a now-shuttered institution known for treating priests engaged in pedophilia, Hodges returned Frobas to work as a chaplain in Wheeling in 1976, and then, as the chaplain at Wheeling Central Catholic High School in 1977.

After a series of leaves of absence, the diocese suspended Frobas in 1987. That same year, he was indicted in St. Louis for inappropriate contact with two minors. He pleaded guilty.

Such are accusations contained in a lawsuit West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed Tuesday in Wood County Circuit Court against the diocese and its former bishop, Michael Bransfield, who resigned last year following accusations that he sexually harassed adults while serving as bishop.

The lawsuit, filed under the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act, alleges that the diocese and Bransfield knowingly employed admitted sexual abusers, hired priests without performing adequate background checks, hired priests credibly accused of sexually abusing children and hired lay employees without performing adequate background checks.

In a statement, the diocese refuted some of the allegations in the complaint and said it will address the litigation “in the appropriate forum.” However, spokesman Tim Bishop declined to comment further.

“Some of the allegations of misconduct contained in the Attorney General’s Complaint occurred more than 50 years ago and some are not accurately described,” the statement reads.

It goes on to reject any assertion that the Diocese “is not wholly committed to the protection of children.” It says the diocese uses a zero-tolerance policy for employees accused of abuse and that all its employees who work with children are subject to background checks and mandatory screening.

The complaint outlines five examples — with three alleged abusers identified by name — of the reported wrongdoing on the part of the alleged abusers and the diocese.

For instance, Father Patrick Condron was employed by the diocese at St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary High School, in Vienna, from 1980 to 1987. In 1995, an unidentified former student accused Condron of lavishing him with attention and eventually “long embraces, passing through kissing, and culmination in an attempt at genital sexual intercourse,” according to the complaint.

When confronted by diocese leadership, Condron admitted the allegations and was placed on administrative leave and sent for evaluation and treatment at two facilities “for substance abuse and psychotherapy.”

Former bishop Bernard Schmitt returned Condron to active ministry, first at a parish in Wheeling, and then, at Wheeling Catholic Elementary School from 1998 to 2001.

“Upon information and belief, the Diocese did not advise parents of children at Wheeling Catholic Elementary School that it was employing a pedophile during the time that Condron was employed there,” the suit states.

The diocese also employed nonreligious teachers at its schools without proper vetting, according to the lawsuit. For instance, Ronald Cooper was hired in April 2011 to teach at Madonna High School, in Weirton.

Cooper failed to disclose on his employment application that he had been convicted of third-degree statutory rape in Washington state in 1985 and had also pleaded guilty to first degree robbery.

The diocese allegedly failed to conduct a criminal background check and did not discover the criminal conduct until 2013.

Although his employment was terminated in December 2013, the diocese did not tell parents of students that it had employed a person convicted of sexual abuse of a child.

In another instance, the lawsuit accuses Schmitt, while serving as bishop, of hiring a priest from another diocese in 2002 who had been accused of sexual abuse of a child in 1979. The lawsuit alleges that the diocese checked on this priest’s background only by calling the Archdiocese of Baltimore to see if it had any complaints against him.

The lawsuit also accused the diocese of hiring an unidentified man to be a principal (who eventually became an ordained priest in the diocese) of an unnamed Catholic high school. An unnamed alleged victim claimed in the lawsuit that he was sexually abused by this principal when he was a student at the high school — an accusation the diocese reportedly found to be credible.

After the diocese was made aware of other “inappropriate behavior” of this priest during the 2004 and 2005 period involving middle school and high school boys, he was sent for psychiatric evaluation, but left the program and was suspended from ministry in August 2005.

Scandal renewed

The breadth of the scandal of sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic Church and the ensuing cover-ups were brought to light in a 2002 investigative series by The Boston Globe.

The scandal took on new life in August 2018 when a Pennsylvania grand jury released a 1,356-page report that said more than 300 priests had sexually abused children.

That report named one priest who had served in West Virginia, Father Raymond Lukac. He was assigned to the Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksburg in 1964. Before arriving, Lukac allegedly had sexually abused four females.

Also prior to his arrival, Lukac attended the “Foundation House” in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Both Condron and Frobas also underwent treatment in Jemez Springs, according to Morrisey’s lawsuit.

In September, Bransfield offered his resignation when he turned 75, as required by the Vatican. A week later, Pope Francis said he had authorized an investigation into Bransfield in connection with allegations of sexual harassment of adults.

Bransfield had been investigated for an alleged groping incident in 2007 and was implicated in court testimony in 2012 in a Philadelphia priest’s sexual abuse case. Specifically, a witness at the trial testified that another priest sexually assaulted him in a New Jersey beach house owned by Bransfield. Both Bransfield and the West Virginia diocese said they had disproved the claims.

In November, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston released the names of 18 priests who had been credibly accused of the sexual abuse of minors in West Virginia between the 1960s and the 2000s.

Condron and Frobas appear on this list.

The diocese also released the names of 13 other priests who served in West Virginia who were the subjects of credible complaints elsewhere, although not in West Virginia — including Lukac.

Last week, the five-month investigation into Bransfield ended. Its findings were sent to the Holy See.

“We believe an important first step for the Diocese is to come clean for what it knows,” Morrisey said at a news conference. “The church should open its files to the public and disclose what happened with every credible allegation of sexual abuse that was brought to the diocese’s attention, while protecting the identities of victims and their families.

“An excellent first step for the diocese would be to publicize the report prepared by the Archdiocese of Baltimore involving allegations of abuse against former bishop Michael Bransfield, who is one of the listed defendants of this complaint.”

He said his office also has been in communication with prosecutors, and is “in the process” of referring matters out.

In a statement, Judy Jones, a spokeswoman with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, issued a statement praising Morrisey’s action and condemning the Catholic Church.

“Failing to conduct background checks for those working or volunteering around children is bad enough. Employing known perpetrators is far worse,” Jones said. “These decisions put children at unnecessary risk and why? To save some time on paperwork or make a hiring process easier? Such actions are absolutely mind-boggling.”

This article was originally published by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.


West Virginians React to State Lawsuit Against Catholic Leaders



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.

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How Safe is Your Place of Worship?



A few bouquets of flowers rest under a tree at the edge of the block of the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pittsburgh. Eleven people were killed and six others injured in a shooting during services there Oct. 27, 2018. Photo: AP

Many Americans may be wondering what security measures are in place at their place of worship after 11 people were killed in Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

President Donald Trump also alluded to this question when he said “the results would have been far better” if the Tree of Life congregation had armed guards or members.

According to news reports, the Tree of Life synagogue did not have armed guards present at the time of the shooting. Many community leaders rebuked Trump’s statements and argued that increasing armed security was not the solution.

We are a sociologist and criminologist who in 2015 conducted a national study of religious congregations’ experiences with, fears of and preparations for crime.

Our study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, featured a survey of over 1,300 places of worship and in-depth interviews with more than 50 congregational leaders.

We asked each leader – individuals with significant knowledge of the congregation’s operations – about the congregation’s history of crime, its security measures, the individual’s assessment of future crime risk and fears, and a variety of questions about the congregation’s operations and neighborhood.

While the Tree of Life synagogue was not part of our study, the results of this work may hold useful insights for conversations about crime and security in places of worship. Here’s what we found.

Threats and fear

Crimes, most commonly vandalism and theft, were committed at about 40 percent of congregations in the year prior to the survey. This overall percentage was not significantly different across religious traditions.

When we dug deeper, though, we found that synagogues and mosques deal with crime-related problems that are much different than the average church.

Our survey found, for instance, that synagogues and mosques were three times more likely than congregations overall to have received an explicit threat in the prior year.

Respondents also reported significantly greater fear that congregants would be assaulted or murdered on the congregation’s property. This helps explain another pattern we found: Jewish and Muslim congregations are in many ways far ahead of congregations representing other religious traditions when it comes to thinking about and implementing security measures.

Security measures

The survey showed that 40 percent of congregations have in place at least four of the 18 security measures asked about in our survey. About 43 percent of congregations have an alarm system, 28 percent use security cameras, and 25 percent have taken steps to restrict the number of entries into their buildings.

Our interviews found that most places of worship have a hard time implementing security. Some of this is simply not enough money. Larger and wealthier congregations tend to have more security in place.

Beyond resources, our interviews consistently found that places of worship view security measures as a potential threat to their mission of creating a sacred space that is open to their communities.

However, our survey also found that synagogues and mosques were much more likely than the average congregation to have security cameras, restricted entry points, security guards and other security measures. For example, only 17 percent of all the congregations in our survey reported any use of security guards, whether full-time, part-time or for special events. This compares to just over 54 percent of synagogues and 28 percent of mosques. Synagogues are also more likely to have communicated with their local police.

Beyond the statistics, our in-depth interviews with leaders of congregations found that synagogues and mosques tend to put a great deal of thought into security. For synagogues in particular, our interviews found that local organizations are effective at sharing information and resources about security threats and strategies – for example, the Jewish Community Relations Councils.

Future steps

The U.S. must find ways to address the threats and violence against synagogues, mosques and other places of worship. In the meantime, congregations can evaluate their security risks and precautions.

The sparse resources of most congregations present some limitations, but there are steps they can take at little or no cost. For instance, congregations can assess whether entry points should be restricted to increase the ability of staff and members to observe who enters the building.

Congregations are not alone in these efforts. Many local police departments will conduct a security assessment for specific congregations or offer a workshop for multiple congregations. Furthermore, many congregations have members who have relevant skills, from installing new locks to setting up security cameras. Simply starting a conversation within your community can help your congregation identify these resources.The Conversation

Christopher P. Scheitle, Assistant Professor of Sociology, West Virginia University and Jeffery T. Ulmer, Professor of Sociology and Criminology, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Prosecutors Unearthed This Catholic Abuse Case — How Many Other Scandals Stay Buried?



It’s been a tough month for American Catholics.

Court documents released in mid-August revealed more than 1,000 allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania over the last seven decades. Given the length of time that has passed, new criminal charges are unlikely for most of the allegations, and the alleged behavior ranges from inappropriately communicating with a minor to rape and sexual assault.

Additionally, Pope Francis has ordered an investigation into allegations of misconduct in West Virginia’s Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, upon Bishop Michael Bransfield’s resignation. Victims are also now sharing stories about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a previous archbishop of Washington, D.C., who resigned in July due to allegations against him.

Victims and their advocates say the Pennsylvania report is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are likely thousands more victims of abuse who have never come forward or whose records are lost. Sadly, my own experience tells me that they are most likely right.

I was raised Catholic in Appalachian Ohio, in a small town of 10,000 called Ironton. Church is a centerpiece of life in my small hometown, an essential aspect of one’s identity. I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten until graduation. I saw the celebrity-like status that priests often enjoy among their parishioners. If the rest of Catholic America is anything like my hometown, it’s an atmosphere ripe for abuse.

I was lucky, though. I was active in the church growing up and got to know my pastor through my childhood and teenage years fairly well. There were never any rumors or accusations against him or any evidence of inappropriate behavior, as far as I know. As an altar server from ages 10 to 18 and Eucharistic minister from ages 17 to 20, I spent a lot of time alone with him and in the presence of other young boys and girls—and he never so much as looked at us inappropriately.

But he still commanded an unhealthy position, socially. It was a very conservative town, county and region of the country. It’s what is now condescendingly referred to as “Trump country.”

Religion—almost exclusively Christianity—is the tie that binds the community together. I didn’t meet any non-Christians until I attended a college in southern West Virginia, and even then it was only a handful. Very few dared to criticize their church or its dogma. To ask questions was to risk scorn and ridicule.

Because of this, people clamored for the attention and company of our pastor. He got invited to far more parties than he had time to attend. If he did show up, his presence was almost like a status symbol, even if you didn’t know him that well. It was a really big deal for both teachers and students when he would visit a class in the schools. Everyone wanted to sit next to him at sporting events.

There were several families of which he was considered a de facto member. Parishioners would feel slighted that he seemed to prefer their company more than others. When he broke the news that he was being transferred to another parish after 30 years, many acted as if he had announced he only had a month to live.

You can see how someone with less integrity or malicious intent could exploit this kind of atmosphere. Combine this with a destructive culture of machismo where even the slightest intimate contact (wanted or unwanted) with someone of the same sex would be a source of shame for young boys, and you’re left with a set of perverse incentives that discourages speaking up about abuse or inappropriate behavior. Throughout my adolescence, calling someone gay was one of the worst insults you could throw at them. Questions about sexuality could be a source of severe shame.

My father, who attended the same high school that I did only three decades prior, tells a story of showering after gym class, when one of the parish priests, now long-dead, unexpectedly jumped in the shower with him. Though they were alone, the priest (who was also the gym teacher) did not touch him, but he made my father feel leery and uncomfortable. Dad quickly got out of the shower.

I think it’s reasonable to assume the priest was there to do more than simply wash himself off. Yet my father never raised this issue with the school’s administration, the parish, or even his parents. Given the circumstances, the likelihood of them believing him was probably low. It’s impossible to know how many other stories there are like this that no one ever talked about, or ever will.

There most certainly are other communities in the U.S. and around the world with similar dynamics to my hometown. As a result, there are likely thousands of other stories of abuse that were buried, intentionally and not. The revelations in Pennsylvania will not be the last skeletons found in the Church’s closet.

Jerrod A. Laber is a DC-based writer and journalist, and a contributor for Young Voices. He grew up in southeastern Ohio and is an alumnus of Marshall University. His work has appeared in The National Interest, the Columbus Dispatch, and the Washington Examiner, among others. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.

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