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Morrisey adds new allegations to sexual abuse lawsuit against diocese

Michael Bransfield

Michael J. Bransfield, former bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, a group that tracks the church’s handling of child sex abuse cases, said he was discouraged that the proposals on the table this week leave the power in the hands of the bishops. He noted the case of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, bishop emeritus of West Virginia, who was at the center of an internal church report made public by The Post last week. The report alleges sexual and financial misconduct by Bransfield, including excessive personal spending into the millions. McKiernan noted that Bransfield was a former treasurer of the bishops’ conference and wrote a recent version of the U.S. Church’s financial best-practices guidelines. “He’s obviously not acting in compliance with the guidelines he himself drew up,” he said.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has amended his lawsuit against the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese of the Catholic Church, submitting new allegations of sexual abuse and subsequent concealment.

Tuesday’s additions to his original lawsuit, filed in Wood County Circuit Court in March, came after calling on alleged victims or former employees of the diocese to come forward.

Among the new allegations:

  • Former bishop Michael Bransfield had a policy of concealing all information about incidents of sexual abuse of children by diocesan personnel unless the victim or victim’s family agreed to the disclosure, according to notes dated 2006 by Ellen O’Hara, former chancellor for the diocese;
  • The diocese did not inform parents after learning that “a female teacher at a Catholic school in Kanawha County” provided a teenage student with alcohol and drugs, and engaged in multiple instances of sexual abuse of the student in 2006, sometimes on school property;
  • As of May 2008, background checks had not been performed on as many as 22 employees and volunteers at a Catholic school in Kanawha County dating back to August 2007. Bransfield was made personally aware that the background checks had not been completed;
  • The diocese hired a music teacher in 2012 at a Catholic high school and a local parish in Northern West Virginia after performing an “inadequate” background check and not performing a criminal background check. The teacher sexually abused a student at the high school. The teacher’s contract was not renewed and he or she resigned. The incident was reported to local law enforcement.

“Their experiences confirm what we’ve alleged, that the Catholic Church has been covering up, concealing and denying information that it’s harbored child-molesting priests for some time,” Morrisey said at a news conference about the filing.

Along with new allegations, the amended complaint brings new causes of action against the diocese.

Under state consumer protection laws, the original complaint alleges that the church's advertised services of a safe learning environment were not delivered and it failed to warn consumers of the dangers of its schools and camps.

On Tuesday, Morrisey expanded the scope to argue that the diocese gained an unfair advantage over other schools and camps by concealing the reality of the alleged abuse.

“We believe, through the diocese’s concealment and covering up of wrongdoing by its priests at its schools, the schools and the camps received an unfair advantage over the competing schools in the area,” he said.

In mid-April, the diocese responded to Morrisey’s lawsuit, asking a judge to dismiss the matter. Its lawyers argued that the attorney general “inappropriately uses Catholic Schools as the doorway by which to enter the realm of separation of church and state.”

They argued that diocesan schools are not covered by consumer protection laws and are outside Morrisey’s jurisdiction. They accuse him of using “decades old allegations” to make a “factual leap” that depicts the schools as unsafe environments. The lawyers also dispute several of the factual allegations Morrisey lodged, and argue that the historical allegations that are true are not evidence of a current unsafe environment.

Tim Bishop, a diocese spokesman, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon claiming the amended complain contains factual inaccuracies based on information the diocese provided.

"In the strongest terms, we deny the allegation that initial background checks were not conducted on school employees, as the amended complaint contends," he said. "We can only surmise that the Attorney General’s office has not thoroughly reviewed the information which has been provided by Diocesan officials to his office."

At the news conference Tuesday, Morrisey repeated his call for the Catholic Church to release its report on Bransfield, who resigned in September. Following Bransfield’s resignation, Pope Francis authorized an investigation into Bransfield in connection with allegations of sexual harassment of adults.

That investigation has since concluded and been sent to the Holy See.

“I call on the Catholic Church today to release the Bishop Bransfield report," Morrisey said Tuesday. "The public deserves to know what is in that information.”

The amended complaint also corrects a claim in the original filing regarding Ronald Cooper, a custodian at Madonna High School, in Weirton. Cooper failed to disclose on his 2011 job application that he had been convicted of third-degree statutory rape in Washington in 1985, and that he also had pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery.

The original complaint stated that he was a teacher.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at jake.zuckerman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.​

FUNERALS FOR THURSDAY, JULY 18, 2019

Anderson, Robert - 1 p.m. Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.

Atkins Jr., Archie - 11 a.m., Fidler & Frame Funeral Home, Belle.

Burdette, Davy - 8 p.m., Allen Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Edwards, Dianna - 2 p.m., Montgomery Memorial Park, London.

Loving, Nancy - 1 p.m., Groves Creek Community Church, Harrison.

Meadows, James - 2 p.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.

Miller, Ruth - 11 a.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Smith, Carl - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Thornton, Sammie - 1 p.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Vance, Zenda - 11 a.m., Montgomery Memorial Park, London.

Whitson, Grady - 7 p.m., Deal Funeral Home, Point Pleasant.

Williams, Mary - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.