Schools and camps operated by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston aren’t subject to the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The ruling is a significant blow to a lawsuit launched by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in March 2019, when he sued the diocese, alleging the diocese didn’t conduct background checks, despite advertising that it did so, and knowingly employed priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse at Catholic schools and a camp owned and managed by the diocese.
In the broader ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that no part of the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act could apply to religious schools or camps. The court ruled 4-1, with Justice Margaret Workman being the dissenting vote.
In its ruling, the court said the Consumer Credit and Protection Act is in conflict with a 1983 law that establishes operational parameters for religious schools. That law includes language that says, as long as religious schools meet those standards, then they aren’t subject to any other laws, with the exception of laws pertaining to fire, safety, sanitation and immunization.
In the majority’s opinion, Justice Beth Walker noted that the attorney general’s allegations against the diocese were “deeply troubling” and noted that teachers, youth camp administrators and counselors, and members of the clergy are required by law to report incidents of sexual abuse to police.
Still, Walker said, the court’s “sympathy cannot rewrite the law,” and they couldn’t ignore state law that sets educational and other guidelines for religious schools.
“Children trust adults not to hurt them,” Walker said. “The faithful trust their leaders to embody the tenets of the faith. If the Diocese acted, or failed to act, as the Attorney General alleges, then the Diocese has violated that trust and harmed those tendered to its care.”
In her dissent, Workman called the majority opinion “transparently result-oriented, which explains its logical incoherence and sins of omission.”
The case has nothing to do with the free exercise of religion, Workman said. The case involved only matters of unfair or deceptive acts or practices in advertising or selling and in advertising based on false promises, she wrote.
The Consumer Credit and Protection Act and the laws governing religious schools aren’t in conflict with each other, Workman said.
“... because it obviously did not want to engage in the heavy lifting of a meaningful, [thorough], complex and challenging examination of any religious rights implications, the majority chose to manufacture a nonexistent statutory conflict with a wholly unrelated statute,” Workman said. “The conflict was manufactured in order to exempt religious institutions from compliance with the CCPA protections of consumers from unfair or deceptive acts and practices or false promises and concealment of material facts in advertising to the general public.”
Morrisey filed the original lawsuit four months after the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston released a list naming 18 priests who were credibly accused of sexual abusing minors in West Virginia between the 1960s and 2000s.
That list was part of a series of reports of sexual abuse of children by leaders of the Catholic Church and subsequent coverups that were first reported by The Boston Globe in 2002.
In September 2018, Pope Francis removed disgraced Bishop Michael Bransfield, who was bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston for 13 years, from his post in the diocese. In 2019, Francis ordered Bransfield to complete restitution, including paying $800,000 to the diocese, apologize to abuse victims and lose his bishop-level retirement package and receive a lower retirement stipend, according to The Washington Post.
West Virginia MetroNews, in August, reported that Bishop Mark Brennan, the current bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, said he had not heard from Bransfield since the pope ordered the restitution in July 2019.
Ohio County Circuit Judge John Beane dismissed the lawsuit in November 2019, but the actual dismissal of the case wasn’t at issue before the court in this matter. When he dismissed the original lawsuit, Beane determined that the consumer law couldn’t be applied to religious institutions, saying it would be an excessive entanglement of church and state.
In his dismissal order, Beane asked the Supreme Court to evaluate his points and answer whether the state’s Consumer Protection Act could be applied to religious institutions and whether the affect of applying the law in this case was an excessive entanglement of church and state.
The justices heard arguments to those questions on Sept. 22.
In short, the Supreme Court answered, “No” to the first point and “Yes” to the second, agreeing with Beane’s original opinion to dismiss the case.
In a footnote in the opinion the court handed down Monday, Walker noted that Morrisey’s office pre-emptively filed an appeal in the case in the event that the court upheld Beane’s dismissal. That means a new appeal of Beane’s dismissal from November 2019 is still pending before the Supreme Court and Morrisey’s case against the diocese isn’t over yet.
The diocese has 19 elementary schools and six high schools serving more than 5,000 children in West Virginia, according to Workman’s opinion. Yearly tuition at the schools is between $6,000 and $8,000 per student, with scholarships available in certain circumstances.